Regional research and education (R&E) networks can be a source of affordable Internet access and value-added services for community anchor institutions, according to a report released earlier this year by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The report, “Connections, Capacity, Community: Exploring Potential Benefits of Research and Education Networks for Public Libraries,” focused in particular on the needs of public libraries to expand Internet and technology services to meet the growing needs of their communities.
“R&E networks have an important role in helping to achieve the goal in the National Broadband Plan that ‘Every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings,’ ” according to the report. The report goes on to say that the expansion plans of many regional networks made possible by federal stimulus funding under the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) means that “thousands of additional community anchor institutions, including public libraries, will have new opportunities to benefit from increased bandwidth and additional services through R&E networks.”
Even after the announced BTOP projects have been completed, however, the Gates Foundation estimates that more than two-thirds of the approximately 17,000 public libraries in the country will still lack access to advanced fiber networks.
The report urges libraries to consider the benefits of working with a regional R&E network both on account of the “basic value” provided by regionals (network speed, quality and cost) and “added value,” such as new services and being part of a non-profit community connecting people and institutions with similar interests.
The value to libraries of working with regional R&E networks will grow and broaden as libraries’ capabilities, needs, and practices evolve, the report states, and as libraries seek to transform how they interact with and serve their patrons. For instance, by providing videoconferencing, library generated content, digitized content and by serving as enhanced channels in support of e-government and primary and continuing education.
When evaluating a potential partnership with a regional network, the Gates Foundation outlines seven dimensions to consider: the scope of the network‘s membership base, range of services, geographic reach, history and origin, governance, business model, and network typology.