FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler

Comments at IMLS Public Hearing

April 17, 2014

Thank you to Susan and members of the Board.  Congratulations to the Institute for Museum and Library Services for convening and help get this message out.

I’m privileged to share this podium today with my friend Tom Power from the White House, who has been a leading pusher, advocate for the kinds of changes that we have to be making to be sure we are bringing the E-rate program into the 21st century.  I’m also joined by a couple of my colleagues who are intimately involved in this, Jonathan Chambers and Daniel Alvarez.  When you look for finger prints on what the FCC is doing in terms of E-rate reform, you will find John and Dan’s fingerprints all over it.  But there are also two other very important people in this audience and I think their presence today creates a construct for how we can discuss things.

Chairman Reed Hundt.  I have the august responsibility of following in Reed’s footsteps as Chairman of the FCC.  While there are many names that inevitably get attached to the E-rate program, the present at the creation seminal name associated with that is Reed Hundt.  There would be no E-rate program without Reed Hundt, and that is just a factual statement.  

The Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, is also here and as Susan said, he has got more goodies down at his house on Pennsylvania Avenue than any place else, and over the years I’ve been privileged to hang around all of those goodies and David.  He is a library guy to begin with and was stolen from the New York Public Library where he was running that great institution.  What he has done with the National Archives is to open up the National Archives, and so much of that concept of opening up means digitization.  

I want to give you a personal example of why what David and Reed have enabled can be transformative.  I wrote a couple of books on the Civil War and the most recent was about Abraham Lincoln’s use of the telegraph.  Thank goodness at the National Archives there sit Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten telegrams.  The Spielberg movie was a fabulous movie, but they got the telegraph office scene wrong.  Lincoln did not dictate his telegrams.  He wrote them out in longhand, and thank God he did and thank God they are saved at the National Archives, because it becomes a one-degree of separation.  When you hold in your white gloved hand the piece of paper that Abraham Lincoln wrote on, there is one degree of separation that you feel from Abraham Lincoln, and that is a privilege that a few researchers, like I was able to have, get.  But what David has done is to digitize all of those documents, not only the telegrams, but the other great holdings of the National Archives, so that there is one click between someone who wants to explore and Abraham Lincoln.  

It used to be, when I started my research on Lincoln’s telegrams, I was using the microfilm copies of his telegrams.  You get this canister and you sit at this clunky machine and you go through each microfilm picture one by one.  Now, thanks to David you can click and it is there.  So because people like David Ferriero digitize the product and the information and because people like Reed Hundt made that digitized information available, that is why the work that we are talking about here today, in terms of the importance of libraries, is so incredibly key to what gets done.  Because as we are seeing in this room here, we are moving from stacks of books to online centers.  The library has always been the on ramp to the world of information and ideas, and now that on ramp is at gigabit speeds.  

But as you all know, and as I am seeing as I travel across the country, libraries are playing more and more of an important role in our communities, as was pointed out earlier.  It is where Americans without computers go to get online.  It is where students after school go to get online.  It is where Americans go to apply for their VA benefits, or apply for their healthcare, or apply for their job.  And it is where librarians end up being the guide at the side, as people make these kinds of digital explorations.

As a history buff, I’ve always been interested in the role that Andrew Carnegie played in the library history of America.  And one of the things that everyone thinks is Andrew Carnegie – Steel.  Andrew Carnegie was first a network guy.  Andrew Carnegie started as a telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania Railroad.  As a matter of fact, he was brought here during the Civil War and was responsible for stringing the telegraph line that went out towards Manassas.  He didn’t make it to Manassas before the battle, but what Abraham Lincoln knew about what was going on at the first battle of Manassas was a result of Andrew Carnegie’s work.  So it is appropriate that we are talking about libraries, about Carnegie’s contribution in making libraries what they were in the 19th century, and we come back to networks.  And that is why E-rate modernization is so important.

The program we have is called the Schools and Libraries Program.  We’d also start calling it the Libraries and Schools Program to make sure that we recognize and emphasize the important contribution of each of those institutions.  So what are we doing?  We’re moving from supporting 20th century technology to 21st century high speed broadband technology.  It is a reallocation of resources.  Reallocations of resources are never easy and never pleasant, but they are essential if we are to keep pushing forward.  We are moving to broadband to the person at the library.  It is not just the external connection, but it is how to get using wi-fi to the individual in the library.  We are bringing the application and administrative process into the 21st century as well by using the same kind of broadband tools, and we are focusing on fiscal responsibility.  The key is not just more money, although if more money is warranted we will deal with that.  The key is money well spent by encouraging consortia, by creating longer support periods so you can have longer contracts with lower rates, and by establishing a system of reference pricing, so that people know what is a fair price.  We don’t expect librarians to be telecom experts and to be able to go out there and haggle with telecom companies, so how do we help in that regard. And also to have limited pilot programs that test new approaches that could benefit all.  

So, Susan we are really grateful to you and to IMLS for launching this dialog today.  The timing is perfect.  Our Public Notice is out now and we will shortly be releasing our plan for 2015 and forward.  There is an incredible distinguished list of participants that you have lined up today.  But before we begin, I want to return to our roots for a moment.

Andrew Carnegie built 2500 libraries in a public-private partnership in the 19th century.  He defined information access for millions and millions of people for over a century.  We stand on the precipice of being able to have the same kind of seminal impact on the flow of information and ideas in the 21st century.  That is why the work that you all are doing is so important.  That is why the reform and modernization of the E-rate program is so essential.  And that is why today’s hearing and the kinds of topics that you are going to explore are so helpful to those of us who are trying to work on just how do we seize on this incredible moment of historic significance.

Thank you for all that you are doing.