Rural Libraries and Broadband Adoption

A new study suggests there is a link between libraries and rates of household broadband adoption – but only in the most remote rural counties.  Libraries were the only type of “community anchor institution” to demonstrate this relationship.


Our study found that, even after controlling for other things that likely influence broadband adoption (such as levels of income, education, and age), an additional library in a rural county was associated with higher residential broadband adoption rates.  The size of the relationship was not large – each additional library would increase the local adoption rate by roughly 1% –  however, libraries were the only type of “community anchor institution” to show any kind of relationship.  Perhaps most importantly, this link was only found for libraries in the most rural counties.

The History of Public Libraries and Computers 

Public libraries have played a key role in providing public access to computers and the Internet since the early 1990s.  Internet connectivity jumped from around 20% to nearly 100% in the decade between 1994 and 2004.  Public libraries continue to be one of the only providers of free Internet access in the community, which is particularly important for lower-income adults and children.  A 2013 study found that 56% of Internet users without home access classified public libraries’ computers, Internet, and printers as ‘very important’ to them, compared with 33% of all respondents.

[imgcontainer] [img:Screen+Shot+2015-04-06+at+2.16.43+PM.jpg] [source]Map via the National Broadband Map

Interested in seeing the community anchor institutions (CAI) in your area? Check out the National Broadband Map’s CAI database. The map shows a variety of local institutions (blue dots) along with information about broadband access. But only some of the institutions offer public Internet access or assistance with getting online.

Public libraries also play an important role in promoting “digital inclusion,” which entails trying to address issues of digital access, knowledge, and skill.  In particular, the library may be one of the first places that many individuals experience what the Internet is.  Librarians across the nation are constantly being asked for help as patrons attempt to find the information they need.  Many public libraries have developed formal digital literacy training programs to help individuals without the appropriate background knowledge.

The Research Question

This research sought to answer the question of whether the use of public computers at these libraries might actually lead to increased household broadband adoption as patrons became aware of what they could accomplish when using the Internet.

To accomplish this, the we meshed county-level Federal Communications Commission data on residential broadband adoption with information on the number of community anchor institutions as classified by the National Broadband Map (all from 2013).

Other types of anchor institutions, as defined by the FCC, included schools, medical buildings such as hospitals, public safety institutions such as fire departments, universities, and governmental buildings – nearly all of which have their own broadband connection.  Table 1 lists the numbers of anchor institutions across three types of counties in the U.S. – metropolitan counties (which contain cities of 50,000 and up or are economically linked to such a county), micropolitan (nonmetropolitan counties that contain a city of 10,000 but less than 50,000), and noncore (nonmetropolitan counties that have no city larger than 9,999 residents).  The amount of infrastructure in the most rural counties is, expectedly, below that in the other categories.