Libraries can't use stimulus-funded fiber network
CLAY, W.Va. -- Librarian Sheila Thorne wishes the 10 computers at the Clay County Public Library wouldn't bog down during busy afternoons, but it's not like the slow Internet speeds can be blamed on a shortage of new technology.
There's a new $7,800 high-speed fiber connection in the library's basement -- enough capacity to serve dozens of libraries. And there's a $22,600 Internet router capable of serving hundreds of computers.
But the Clay County library isn't using the technology -- paid for by the federal stimulus. It costs too much.
Technicians installed the lightning-fast fiber cable and high-powered router a year ago, but the library continues to use a slow and antiquated T1 Internet connection instead. The fiber is hundreds of times faster than the T1 line.
"Everything's connected, ready to go, but the fiber isn't turned on," Thorne said. "They're trying to figure out who's paying for what, and we're just waiting for whatever they decide to do."
Across West Virginia, more than 160 libraries have new routers and fiber connections, but the fiber sits coiled up, unused, shut off.
Nobody has stepped up to shoulder the blame for the snafu -- an apparent combination of project mismanagement, poor planning and bureaucratic bungling.
The West Virginia Library Commission, which oversees telecommunications for most libraries in the state, can't afford to pay for fiber Internet service under an existing statewide contract.
"We're frustrated," said Karen Goff, secretary of the Library Commission. "We can't pay for fiber without a new state contract."
The Library Commission requires a contract change to comply with the federal government's "e-rate" program. The Federal Communication Commission program helps libraries and schools pay for technology at discounted rates.
States must pay costs up front, and they get reimbursed 75 cents for every dollar spent. In West Virginia, the Library Commission pays $960,000 a year for Internet service at libraries.
Because of the new fiber connections, the libraries must negotiate a new e-rate reimbursement agreement with the feds, a process that can take up to 18 months.
The commission started its application, but can't finish it without a new statewide contract. (The Kanawha County Public Library system handles its own technology on a separate contract, and is using the routers and fiber).
"Without e-rate, we couldn't pay for telecommunications in our libraries," Goff said.
Gale Given, chief technology officer for West Virginia, acknowledged the fiber price problem.
"The libraries could connect to the fiber, but they can't increase capacity right now because they can't afford it," Given said. "The circuits cost more than the libraries have in their budget."
Given, who inherited the problem when she was hired as CTO in June, said the complexity of the federal e-rate program and contract issues likely led to the year-plus delay in wiring libraries to fiber.
"They did recognize libraries wanted discounted rates, but I'm not sure there was an understanding of all these moving parts until recently," she said. "I wish it was easy, but it's not."
Given has a possible fix. She has contacted Frontier Communications, which is building the fiber network, and the company has agreed to provide discounted rates. The state hopes to issue a change order to its existing statewide Internet services contract to reflect lower rates.
"We have to ensure the change is done in such a way as to comply with e-rate requirements," Given said. "Otherwise, the circuits would not qualify for the federal reimbursement. We hope to have this completed in early 2013."
Meantime, the 160 libraries are using the high-capacity routers with the slow T1 Internet connections. It's sort of like owning a Ferrari sports car and never driving it faster than 15 miles per hour.
"The potential of these routers and fiber has yet to be realized," Goff said. "The routers are sort of worthless without the fiber."
'We're all waiting'
When contractors finished installing a fiber line and connection at the Mary H. Weir Public Library in Weirton, Rik Rekowski asked them to slice open a piece of cable.
"I just couldn't believe it," Rekowski recalled. "So this is the mystique? All the glass strands? They told me I could run 23 more Mary H. Weir libraries on Main Street with this fiber."
Rekowski was so excited that he coiled up the fiber cable, packed it in a pizza box and hauled it to a Weirton City Council budget hearing to show off the library's future technological capabilities.
"They had never seen fiber optic strands before," Rekowski said. "Everyone was impressed. The fiber is way, way superior."
That was more than a year ago.
Today, the Mary A. Weir Public Library is still using an old T1 Internet connection for its 31 computer terminals.
"Right now, we're having these glitches. The transmissions start and stop," Rekowski said. "It's just not fast enough."
He trusts state officials to work out a solution. Soon. He hopes.
"I'm really happy someone is thinking futuristically about all this. To get this equipment into the libraries is just phenomenal, but the cost and contracts need to be addressed," Rekowski said. "If costs increase and funding is not available, how are we going to pay for it? The technology has costs."
But Rekowski also sees the fiber's enormous potential. Libraries could share data and other resources. Staff training seminars could be beamed to libraries across the state. Library patrons could take part in webinars and video conferences.
"It's just mind-boggling to think of the possibilities," Rekowski said. "The next step is to bring this technology out to the community. We're all waiting."
$22K router given away
The Bridgeport Public Library gave away its new Internet router.
The state used $7,400 in federal stimulus funds to bring high-speed fiber to the Bridgeport library -- part of a $126.3 million statewide broadband expansion project.
But the Bridgeport library couldn't afford to pay for the new fiber line -- built by Frontier Communications -- and didn't want to wait years for the state to fix its e-rate contract. So the router was passed onto the city of Bridgeport, and installed at a data center owned by Citynet, an Internet services provider.
"It made more sense to house the router off site because of safety and security concerns," said Jimmy Smith, Bridgeport's assistant city manager. "We're very satisfied with Citynet's service."
The router now serves all city departments, including the public library, on a separate fiber network built by Citynet. The router also will run the city's phone system.
"The city has connected all facilities, and is running the entire city of Bridgeport on the [stimulus-funded] Internet router," said Jim Martin, Citynet's president. "The router the library received was overkill for the library, but because the library is part of the city, it's serving the library and the entire city of Bridgeport."
Because Frontier owns the stimulus-funded fiber network, Citynet had to install its own fiber cable to the library and charged $800 -- nearly 10 times less than what Frontier billed the state under the federal grant.
Given said she was unaware that that the router wasn't at the Bridgeport library.
"They're not permitted to give it away," she said. "They can't give it to another entity. I'll have to look into this."
And what happened to the 1,000-foot high-speed fiber line -- paid for by the federal stimulus -- Frontier extended to the Bridgeport Public Library? The $7,400 fiber cable isn't being used.
'I just wish it was up and running'
At the Clay County library, students crowd into the brick building after school, sitting down at computer Internet terminals to finish their homework or play video games.
"As you can tell, the number of people that come through here is constant," said Thorne one day last week. "We cater to anybody and everybody."
Library patrons also use the computers to pay utility bills, shop online for Christmas presents, and fill out job applications -- a practice that has increased significantly since CONSOL Energy shut down its Fola Operations mine in Clay County last August.
Other job seekers and students use the public library's computers to take online exams. On many afternoons, all 10 of the library's terminals are in use, which puts a strain on the Internet network.
"If they're taking a test and the computer bogs down, you have to stop and take the test all over again," Thorne said. "It's tough. It can bog down to the point it's not really usable."
The fiber in the basement of the Clay County Public library would fix that -- overnight.
Thorne has worked tirelessly to make the library a community hub, a place where people can stop in to borrow a paperback Western novel, peruse National Geographic magazines that date back to 1959, and where the elderly can go online to chat via a live video stream with their grandchildren in states far away.
But to keep up with the latest technology and Internet capabilities, the Clay County library -- the only library that serves the county's 10,300 residents -- must connect to the fiber line that's looped up and disconnected in a basement utility closet.
"I just wish it was up and running," Thorne said. "It would make a world of difference."
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.