Opinion | Susan Knopf: Public libraries bridging digital divide | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Susan Knopf: Public libraries bridging digital divide

Susan Knopf

Up here we’re accustomed to sharing our Continental Divide, but there is a looming, greater barrier separating the haves and have-nots: the digital divide. It isn’t just whether you have a computer or web access; often it’s about the speed and the accessibility.

I live in rural Summit County, my guests are forever heading up the road to camp out at the local coffee shop where the internet speed is faster. In a previous column, I wrote about the timeline for broadband to reach our doors, but I’m not even on that calendar.

At least I have a car and can carry my laptop into a local hangout, when my internet speed needs some juicing. Others head to the library to use a free computer. Summit County Library Director Stephanie Ralph says today’s library is becoming more of a “community hub. It’s a social center.” It’s a nexus of diverse activities, including the public technology portal.

“The library provides internet access for anybody who walks through the door,” Ralph says. “You don’t need a library card. Mostly there isn’t too much of a wait.” The library asks people to make a reservation. Ralph says that’s mostly to “keep track of the number of sessions. It’s to gather statistics.”

The library doesn’t keep statistics on the unsheltered, the homeless, that use the computers to write resumes, fill out online applications or complete the myriad ordinary daily tasks many of us take for granted.

Perhaps the most interesting role the library plays in mitigating the digital divide is that the internet was thought to be the death knell of the public library. To the contrary, the digital age swept children, teenagers, travelers, homeless and the marginalized into the libraries to use a computer, access the web and connect to the world. Just as the library of the past century was the gateway to adventure in faraway lands, so too today’s library provides access to those left behind by economics, location or lack of education.

The importance of the web and access to the marketplace cannot be emphasized too strongly. “The internet has transformed the way small businesses operate, communicate with employees, and interact with customers. … Internet service is an important tool for achieving strategic goals, improving competitiveness and efficiency, reaching customers, and interacting with vendors. … High-speed (broadband) internet access is as essential to … business as other utilities such as water, sewer, or electricity.” That’s according to a 2010 study conducted by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“Although there is not a significant difference between metro and rural markets in terms of businesses’ need for broadband, there are significant differences between metro and rural areas with respect to the availability, performance and price of high-speed broadband options,” according to the study.

For the record, in 2018 the Colorado Legislature authorized diverting tax revenue to support and accelerate rural broadband installation. The taxes came from a 2.6 cent tax intended to support rural telephone service. A year later, a Paonia man credits much of his business success to the recent installation of broadband.

KUNC reports Charlie Rutledge recently launched True West Hats, an online store, after installing a faster internet connection. He said without the new high-speed internet connection he gets from Elevate, it would be much more difficult for his business to survive in a place like Paonia.

For $50 a month, Delta-Montrose Electric Association provides Rutledge download speeds of 100 megabits per second. That’s four times faster than my internet speed, the state’s minimum for high-speed internet. My kids would probably laugh at the suggestion that I have high-speed internet.

Mark Kurtz of Delta-Montrose Electric Association told KUNC project Elevate is “the most meaningful thing the electric co-op has done since it first started bringing electricity to homes 80 years ago.” Elevate also offers one gig, what the co-op calls “supersonic” fast for $80 per month.

Kurtz said, “It’s impactful. … It’s not about just being able to stream Netflix. … It’s … about allowing people to live a modern lifestyle and more importantly the economic development aspect of helping to pick up an area that has traditionally had some challenges on the Western Slope and putting them on par with folks in a city like Denver.”

We’d like some of that prosperity right here in rural Summit County. We need to tell our local officials to speed up the time frame to bridge our digital divide.

Susan Knopf’s column “For the Record” publishes biweekly on Fridays in the Summit Daily News. Knopf lives in Silverthorne. She is a certified ski instructor and an award-winning journalist. Contact her at sdnknopf@gmail.com.

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