BETHEL — A state subsidy that supports fast Internet in rural Alaska public libraries has been zeroed out by both the Alaska House and Senate as legislators struggle to address a budget gap approaching $4 billion.
Librarians are organizing to save the Online With Libraries, or OWL, program, which they say has dramatically changed who comes to libraries and how libraries are used.
The cut isn't final until the Legislature passes its budget. The money could be added back in, according to Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla. Or maybe, she said, the local match can be generated by fundraisers or donations.
In Anchorage and Fairbanks, anyone with a laptop can stop at a coffee shop for free Wi-Fi and a spendy latte. But in the Bush, there are no Starbucks and public libraries are often the only place in town with free Internet.
Rural Alaskans without home Internet often rely on computers in public libraries for essentials, said Katie Baxter, director of the Kodiak Public Library and chair of the advocacy committee of the Alaska Library Association.
They do their taxes, find health insurance and pay bills, the same as people with home Internet. They look for jobs, apply for Permanent Fund dividends and buy hunting and fishing licenses. They check Facebook and email. But generally, they aren't streaming videos — the subsidized broadband is fast but not fast enough for that, librarians said.
The program costs the state about $760,000 and draws down four times that from the federal government. As of Wednesday afternoon, 880 people had signed an online petition in support of OWL.
Cutting a cord
Twenty-four libraries have reported they will "go dark" without the state and federal support, according to a state survey. There's tiny Lake Minchumina, population 11, which is counting on $5,600 next year through the state subsidy to support the only public broadband in a large remote area near Denali. Kodiak, with thousands of residents, expects $6,700 from OWL. Sitka in Southeast is counting on $5,000, and Dillingham in the Bristol Bay region, more than $18,000. Each library would get much bigger federal matches.
"Basically we're cutting the cord between urban Alaska and rural Alaska," said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, who tried to reinsert the funds in the House Finance Committee and on the House floor but didn't succeed.
Other communities with libraries that report they can't afford broadband on their own are Aniak, Chiniak, Coffman Cove, Cold Bay, Cooper Landing, Craig, Eagle, Haines, Hyder, Kasilof, Koyuk, McGrath, Moose Pass, Nome, Ouzinkie, Port Lions, Thorne Bay, Togiak, Tok and Whale Pass.
In all, 40 communities currently receive funding for the Internet through the program. Some say they would pick up the difference of what the state would have spent. Another 45 libraries use the OWL program's videoconferencing network for trainings, meetings and classes.
"Without public Wi-Fi, in a lot of places people live on subsistence and can't afford to have their own devices," said Linda Thibodeau, a retiring official who oversees the state library.
The state looked into whether public libraries could revert to dial-up Internet but were told no one offers that anymore.
"If local communities cannot afford the local share without OWL help, then they don't have broadband. They don't have Internet," Thibodeau said.
The OWL program covers on average 19 percent of the broadband cost at the small, rural Alaska libraries that participate in the program, and the federal government picks up 79 percent through its e-rate subsidy, which is funded through surcharges on telecommunications bills, according to the library association. Just 2 percent of the costs are paid by local communities.
Libraries are banding together to save a program that even the Legislature's chief budget-cutters say is valued.
Budget not done deal
"It matters to Anchorage if Kodiak or Togiak or Moose Pass or Nome or Sitka — if they don't have Internet connectivity," Baxter said. "That diminishes the quality of life for Alaskans."
Librarians, she said, are trying to show legislators that "public libraries serve the underserved of Alaska."
That's understood, said Gattis, who chairs the House budget subcommittee on education.
"I'm a big believer in technology and how it connects the Bush to the rest of Alaska and the rest of the world," she said. "Cutting that particular piece of broadband was difficult for me."
Yet the funding was eliminated by both the full House and Senate. The Legislature is still working on a final version of the budget.
"I don't necessarily believe that cutting broadband in the Bush is the right thing to do, but at the same time when we are cutting the budget we are looking at everything," Gattis said.
Gov. Bill Walker had proposed $761,800 in the coming budget year for OWL and broadband library support, which generates a federal match of more than $3 million. Without money from Alaska, the federal match goes away.
About $275,000 of the state portion is for bringing Internet to rural libraries, and that's the essential piece, said Patience Frederiksen, the state's incoming director of the Division of Libraries, Archives & Museums. The program also covers the costs of equipping, running and maintaining a videoconference network, a consultant who helps libraries and schools get the federal match, and a state coordinator.
The program started in 2010 with support from the Rasmuson Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and became state-subsidized in 2013.
Before that, the small libraries typically had dial-up access to the Internet.
One of GCI's lobbyists has jokingly hooted in Gattis' office to urge support for OWL, though GCI says it is not officially lobbying to save it. Several Internet service providers participate and must compete for library customers, said Pam Lloyd, GCI vice president for education.
"It doesn't take much to figure out who gains, but I also think the public gains," Gattis said.