Gates Foundation Awards Library Internet Grants

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded nearly US$7 million to fund a pilot program aimed at helping public libraries in seven states get faster Internet connections, the foundation announced Thursday.

The foundation awarded the money to Connected Nation, a national nonprofit program focused on bringing broadband to underserved areas, and to the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP). The grants will support improved Internet connections for public libraries in Arkansas, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Virginia.

The pilot program will help libraries "improve their Internet speeds, ensuring that all people have the chance to connect to information, education, and economic opportunity," Jill Nishi, deputy director of U.S. Libraries at the Gates Foundation, said in a statement. "Public libraries across the country have played an integral role in closing the digital divide for millions of Americans, but local governments, communities, and library supporters must do more to ensure libraries can continue to provide fast, reliable Internet service for communities."

Connected Nation, OITP, and the Gates Foundation will work with state library agencies to improve and sustain Internet connections in all public libraries within the pilot states to at least 1.5M bps (bits per second), or faster wherever feasible.

Connected Nation will receive about $6.1 million, which will help each state in the pilot program host a broadband summit for public library leaders, state and local officials and other influential people who can support broadband Internet in libraries throughout each state.

OITP will receive $851,889 to provide research and expertise that will help state library agencies create strategies to ensure library broadband connections are sustainable. OITP also will develop case studies demonstrating how public libraries can successfully sustain broadband for patrons, the Gates Foundation said.

Visits to public libraries are up in the U.S. as the economic crisis deepens, the foundation said in a news release. Many libraries report that online services are in high demand, especially for job seekers, students, and people who do not have Internet access elsewhere.

A recent report by the American Library Association found that 73 percent of public libraries are the only source of free, public Internet access in their communities. Up to a third of all public libraries have Internet connections that are too slow to meet the needs of their patrons, the report said.

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