text version

Remarks of

Commissioner Susan Ness

before the

American Library Association

Washington, D.C.

February 16, 1997

"Libraries: A Critical Lane on the Information Superhighway"

I am delighted to be here with you today. And I am especially delighted that you are honoring my friend and mentor, Education Secretary Richard Riley. He has been at the forefront of the effort to improve the quality of education for all. As you will see, he is passionate on the subject. We are so fortunate to have Secretary Riley leading this charge.

The Information Divide

Technology will have a profound impact on children. Your association president, Mary Somerville, has it right -- "Kids Can't Wait!" Kids adapt to new technology as easily as a fish swims in water. An example:

Shortly after I joined the Commission in May 1994, my then-six year old son, David, visited me in my office while I was deleting e-mail. He announced, "Mom, there's a faster way to do that," and with two keystrokes, it was all gone.

The other day, I walked into our guest room where David -- now eight -- was on the computer. He was using a scanning program to check for viruses. He builds cities, understands concepts of land use planning, cash flow and municipal bonds, and the cost of public transportation and road construction -- all from playing SimCity 2000.

He invents extraordinary machines, based on principles of science, by playing The Incredible Machine. And he knows the name of every major league player from HardBall 5. With his dad, he has even attached the computer to an electric keyboard, and writes his own musical scores using Music Time Deluxe.

All effortlessly. I'm in awe.

He e-mails me at work. He arranges chats with his classmates on the Internet. And his second grade teacher sends parents a weekly newsletter by the Internet, as well as by student backpack.

My twelve year old daughter, Elisabeth, is also at ease on the computer. She researches on the Internet, corresponds with friends who have moved overseas, and does creative writing assignments with word-processing programs.

All of this is great; but I'm profoundly troubled.

As I wax poetic about my children's accomplishments on the computer -- I shudder to think about the widening gap between children, like David and Elisabeth, who have regular access to computers, the Internet, and creative, educational programs -- and those who do not. Every day that goes by enlarges this divide.

That's where YOU come in.

Libraries on the Information Superhighway

Connecting our libraries and schools to the information superhighway is absolutely critical to give these young minds -- especially those from low income families -- a chance to compete in today's information revolution.

According to the Department of Commerce, by the next century, 60% of the new jobs will require the kind of information and computing skills that only 22% of the workers have today.

Libraries have traditionally been the source of job resource information, recreational reading, as well as research on topics large and small. They are not just centers for young children, but for all citizens, to expand their knowledge, gain new skills, learn more about the world, and become more aware of the challenges and opportunities around them.

Libraries are gathering places for many communities -- the fiber with which the fabric of our society is woven.

Libraries have responded in a significant way to the information revolution. I'm told that almost 50% of libraries currently provide Internet access service to their patrons, and more are initiating that service every day.

Libraries are investing in local area networks -- LANs -- to connect their main facility with branches -- and even schools -- to make available every data base and on-line service to all library patrons.

Students can flip through the electronic library card catalogues even when the library is closed. Rural patrons -- or urban patrons who might otherwise have to spend an hour on public transportation to get to the main library -- can use a satellite facility or nearby school to find the information they want. This is especially helpful to patrons with physical disabilities.

But library resources are woefully limited.

That's where the FCC comes in.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996

It was just one year ago that President Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This landmark legislation was the first major overhaul of our telecommunications laws in over sixty years.

It promotes competition among telecommunications providers. It streamlines regulation where there is competition, so that the American consumer can reap the benefit of lower prices, more choice, and innovative services. Competition is also the driver that will make advanced telecommunications services more widely available.

And it has a wonderful provision in it -- known as the Snowe, Rockefeller Amendment -- that requires the FCC to make available to schools and libraries across the country telecommunications services at discounted prices.

This offers a golden opportunity to ensure that every library and classroom is connected to the information superhighway and that our future leaders have the skills they need to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Last November, a Federal-State Joint Board on which I served -- comprised of representatives of state public utility commissions, a consumer advocate, and FCC Commissioners -- recommended a new template for providing advanced telecommunications services to schools and libraries.

Services are to be provided at discounts ranging between 20% and 90%, depending upon the economic level of the population served by the school or library and whether it is in a rural, high cost area. The Joint Board recommended a cap of $2.25 billion on the total amount of discounts to be paid out each year.

These deep discounts would be applied to all telecommunications services -- from the regular phone lines, to the broadband lines for access to the Internet, for video and data, to the LANs -- wired or wireless -- to connect school classrooms with each other and with the world outside. It includes dedicated lines to connect branches to the main library and the provision of basic Internet service and long distance service.

But it does NOT include computers, most software, and teacher/librarian training -- training that is such a vital component of a telecommunications plan. Others will have to fill that need.

The recommended decision of the Joint Board assumes that schools and library systems will have a telecommunications plan, that they will decide what services are needed, and they will put their services out for competitive bid. The Joint Board further assumes that multiple players will bid to provide these services -- and the discount will be deducted from the final, competitively bid price.

Now, it's not free -- even the poorest of schools and libraries must contribute 10% to the cost. They must plan carefully. It is my hope that many such schools and libraries will partner with corporations to make up the difference so that no child will be left behind.

The proposal is in our hands now. The FCC must approve a final structure and rules that will turn this dream into a reality. There are many difficult pieces to this puzzle. We are working hard to complete our universal service structure and rules before the May 8th statutory deadline.

This has been a long and sometimes arduous process. Over 900 individuals, organizations and companies have filed comments, including libraries and library organizations such as the ALA. Your participation has been extraordinarily helpful. But understand, there are many out there who oppose our efforts.

The Commission would like to make funds available in time for the start of the 1997 school year. It may be difficult. Much needs to be done before then -- by schools and libraries, as well as by the FCC.

But as President Somerville says, "kids can't wait."


The Telecom Act encourages competition. We would expect that incumbent telephone companies, new competitors, cable companies, and wireless companies will all compete to provide services. Some will submit combined bids.

The Commission also has approved large chunks of spectrum for unlicensed devices to provide internal LANs, and to communicate short distances within a community. This broadband, unlicensed use may provide alternative, low cost ways of linking to the Information Superhighway.

For libraries, this means many more choices to make access to advanced information services a reality for the patrons you serve.

How You Can Help

How can you help? I know that many of you already know the value of working with government on all levels. I know that you have already established links to local, state and national legislators to make your views known and to carry the message about getting all of our Nation's libraries connected.

Private industry has a key role to play in achieving the goal of connecting our schools and libraries to the Information Superhighway. If you haven't already done so, I encourage you to form strategic partnerships with others in your community to help bring technology into your library. Also, please continue to play a lead role in the NetDays that are taking place around the country.

You know best what your libraries need. You are making your voices heard about discounted rates and universal service. And -- once you enjoy the benefit of the discounts -- it will be vital for you to tell us, your legislators, and the public, what a difference these discounts have made in the services you provide. We will need to know, and to evaluate, how this new universal service program is working.

The Future

I believe that the next five years will see a monumental change in this country's information infrastructure. And the unprecedented World Trade Organization agreement on telecom services struck last evening will inspire a cornucopia of innovative global services at lower prices. It is a time of excitement, of growth, of new technology, of new possibilities.

But it will take time. Competition takes time to take root. New services take time to enter the marketplace. Market forces push as much toward consolidation as they do competition.

And it will take vigilance and resources to insure that those in low income areas with the fewest tools available do not fall further behind. We must insure that the have-nots do not find the Information Superhighway a dead-end road.

You hold the future of this country in your hands. You have the opportunity to help children of all ages -- rich and poor -- harness the power of technology to expand their horizons and to give them the tools to advance in a competitive world.

Libraries do change lives. They have in the past, and they will in the future. They are needed, now more than ever.

Go for it. Kids can't wait.

Thank you.