What's it going to be, national broadband or libraries?

Jim BartholdWhen no less an authority than the artist formerly known as Prince--now known as the artist Prince--announces that the Internet is dead, the world's celebrity-crazed media takes notice. The Internet is dead? We didn't even know it was hurtin'. Was it an accident? Did it fall and hit its head? What happened?

Those questions are about as silly as lending any credence to the pronouncement of a recording artist. The reality is the Internet is not dead; it's just becoming a bit too walled up for the freedom-loving cord cutters who would like all their content to be as free as over-the-air television. These are the next generation--the children and grandchildren--of the crowd who cried foul when cable television started charging for better pictures and more programming.

Since 1998, when I got my first cable modem, the Internet has been an essential part of my everyday life. It was important before then, but it was tougher to access with dial-up. What I need--information, and lots of it--is as free as the dexterity of my fingers. The Internet has become my own library, filled with information that otherwise would be difficult, if not impossible, to find.

That brings me to the second bit of news that juxtaposed (and Google that term if you like) with the "Internet is dead" coverage last week. The lousy economy is causing towns and schools to shut down libraries.

I'm part of the privileged class in the United States; as I said, I've had a cable modem since 1998. I had broadband speeds when many thought broadband was Prince's backup group. Those on the other side of the narrowing-but-still-there digital divide are less fortunate. Broadband gives me access to a wealth of information from my home office at the touch of fingers on a keyboard. For many others, that access is available only at the local library--and only if that library is equipped with the right equipment, has a broadband connection and the user knows how to work it.

In Finland (another story from last week), they've determined that broadband is a given right. In the United States, the FCC is working on something like that idea and is meeting with the inevitable resistance of a capitalist-fueled society. Elsewhere in the world, there's an understanding that broadband is more than a way to look at dirty pictures (as the comedians like to say), download the latest musical excursions of artists like Prince or even watch television or movies; it's a conduit to higher education and better communications.

Is the Internet dead? Depends on the type of Internet you're talking about. If you want free content, the way you wanted free over-the-air television, the Internet is either dead or lying in the gutter bleeding from multiple content provider-inflicted wounds. The important Internet, though, is alive, kicking and providing a vital link to quick information. For those on the other side of the digital divide--and again, there are still too many--libraries are the way to get on the Internet.

Perhaps, then, the feds, rather than building out broadband networks to everyone, should first concentrate on keeping the libraries open. Perhaps they can even spend part of their effort pulling funds from broadband providers to supplement those library budgets. Libraries aren't a four-lane suspension bridge over the digital divide, but they'll do the job as a temporary pontoon crossing until the real thing is built.

Related articles:
Internet proclaimed 'over' before cable even gets into the game
In Finland, Internet is a 'basic right'
FCC advances broadband reclassification vision