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An Information Community Case Study: Washington, D.C. - Broadband and Library Access

August 5, 2010 |
The Smithsonian Castle
The Smithsonian Castle (ca 1900) via Flickr Commons


Several major Internet service providers (ISPs) offer wireline and wireless access in the District of Columbia, including Verizon, Comcast and RCN (which operates over Comcast’s infrastructure). Clearwire and its parent company Sprint were the first to bring 4G wireless connectivity to D.C. through the CLEAR WiMax network in June 2010; their service extends to some of the metro Washington area’s outer suburbs, as well.1 T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T all operate 3G networks, and Comcast’s coverage map shows some 3G service appearing in Southeast Washington.2 Commercially provided Internet access offers download speeds ranging from 1.5 to 50 mbps and upload speeds between 384 kbps and 10 mbps, at monthly rates ranging from $19.99 to $99.95; however, speeds vary greatly and quoted prices are often offered only in conjunction with other services or for short-term promotions.3

What sets Washington apart from most other cities, however, is its municipal broadband network. The District of Columbia has one of the country’s first municipal fiber networks.4 Known as DC-NET, it connects over 300 public buildings, including schools, libraries, government buildings, and recreation centers, and unlike most cities, the D.C. government, not a commercial service provider, owns the infrastructure of this network. The municipal government owns and operates 338 miles of fiber with 118 miles aerial fiber. As part of the municipal network, wireless access extend service within limited proximity from public buildings with at least one wireless hub in every ward. In terms of capacity, the DC fiber network is using about 30 percent of its 10 GB potential capacity.5

D.C.'s fiber network has been tapped for other uses, as in one instance in which it was used to provide Internet access to a conference of nonprofits.6 (The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative is currently working with the DC Office of the Chief Technology Officer to expand on their extensive fiber infrastructure to build a hybrid, open source-based, wireless mesh network. This effort will expand on other DC community run wireless projects in Columbia Heights and Greenbelt neighborhoods to a community and municipal collaboration in the neighborhood of Bloomingdale, in Northwest Washington, DC.)

The District has received several recent grants to continue to improve broadband access. In October 2009 the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded DC OCTO $993,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to be spent over two years on broadband mapping and data collection projects, as well as another $500,000 for broadband planning activities over a five-year period.7 In July 2010, the NTIA awarded nearly $17.5 million to the DC Community Access Network project (DC-CAN), which “plans to deploy a high-speed middle mile broadband infrastructure to provide direct Internet connections for community anchor institutions located predominantly in the city's economically distressed areas” and would allow local ISPs to provide service at lower rates to as many as 248,000 households and 30,500 businesses that cannot afford market rates. The project will serve Wards 5, 7, and 8, which have higher levels of unemployment than the national average.8

Distribution of broadband access is unequal. Higher income areas north and west of the Anacostia River have 95-99% adoption of high-speed broadband, while that rate drops to 34 percent south and east of the river in the less privileged neighborhoods.9  The District recently built four community computing labs in Wards 7 and 8 in Southeast Washington in spring 2010.10 In June 2010, local computer training nonprofit Byte Back, which is located in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast D.C., sponsored the fourth annual Community Computer Day during Digital Capital Week (a week-long series of events around digital access and media production in Washington). The day included free computer and job training workshops and a collection of used computers to donate to the low-income families Byte Back serves.11

A recent initiative towards building digital literacy in the District is the Public Media Corps.


The District of Columbia is unique in its access to and volume of public, academic and government maintained libraries. From the Georgetown Library to the Library of Congresss to the War Library inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the high concentration of these public institutions better positions D.C. as a center for informed civic engagement. The District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) system has approximately 25 neighborhood branches: 13 in Northwest D.C., 3 in Northeast, 6 in Southeast, and 3 in Southwest (due to construction at time of publication, that number is in fluctuation).12 In addition to print books, periodicals and audio and video materials held at branch locations, the library also offers audio books, music, videos and e-books for download through Overdrive, and the library’s online catalog uses View Find, an open source platform. (DCPL was the first public library to use this software, which is mostly used by academic libraries.)13 In terms of programming, the library hosts book clubs around multiple themes at various branches of the library.14 The flagship Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library houses an Adult Literacy Resource Center, which offers GED classes, reading classes and tutors, and English language classes, as well as online instruction in reading, math and workforce skills through Skills Tutor.15 This branch is also home to the Enhanced Business Information Center (e-BIC), which provides training, one-on-one counseling, and business workshops to local business owners.16 The library website provides further information about income tax filing services that are offered to low-income residents of D.C. at the beginning of each year.

For patrons with disabilities, the flagship Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library branch offers a descriptive video collection and the Braille Audio Reading Download service for books and magazines. DCPL services deliver books, recorded materials, and the players necessary to listen to them by mail to visually and physically handicapped patrons.17 The MLK branch also offers assistive listening devices for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, publishes a newsletter for those patrons, and presents regular deaf story hours (using American Sign Language) and other programming to raise public awareness about deaf history and culture.18

For non-English-speaking patrons, DCPL uses Language Line Services, which provides librarians with a card informing patrons in 20 languages that librarians can assist them in other languages by utilizing over-the-phone translation services.19 Additionally, the DCPL website has links to Google Translate under the “Accessibility” page,20 to translate site content into other languages. However, this seems less useful than linking to Google Translate directly from the DCPL homepage. The library system also offers print materials in at least 24 languages.

The DC Public Library system offers a number of online resources and digital literacy training. Computer classes are available on a walk-in basis to provide instruction in typing, Web and e-mail skills, and Microsoft Office software.21 A staff member is employed to develop this curriculum, which is intended to be uniform across the District so that patrons can receive the same instruction at different branches. DCPL CIO Chris Tonjes estimates that about 70 percent of the library’s technology efforts go into projects that serve the public, while the remainder focuses on internal use of technology. DCPL has approximately 625 public computers in branches across the District, and computer training and instruction are distributed with approximately half at the MLK library and half at neighborhood branches.22 The library recently completed a pilot computer training program in which 500 senior citizens were given computers and two years of access through a broadband card, accompanied by computer instruction. The District is currently engaged in a smaller-scale senior citizen training project in Ward 5 at the Woodridge Library. New construction in the library system includes multipurpose rooms well-suited to offering computer training and converting into alternate uses, as well; there may also be library services offered at new recreation centers that are under construction around the District. With two new libraries under construction in Ward 8, the library’s focus is on expanding services to residents east of the Anacostia River, where digital access and adoption rates are lower than in other parts of the city. The current focus is on expanding technological training for library customers in Wards 5, 7, and 8, where long wait times for computer use are problematic, by the city government’s own admission.24

DC Library Labs leads a number of projects related to increasing digital literacy: The Library 2.0 Interest Group and DCPL Learns are forums for DCPL employees who want to learn more about integrating tech into the library. Librarians already use Twitter to answer patrons’questions.25 For internal communication, the DCPL Intranet uses the open-source WikiMedia platform and Yammer, a Twitter-like tool. Internal classes and the recent hiring of younger and tech-savvy librarians to replace those who have retired have promoted greater technological participation among the staff; where one or two people originally were responsible for editing the website, now 40 to 50 do. Content Creation Stations aim to decrease the digital "participation gap" by encouraging people to use new media production tools to tell stories about themselves. Additionally, DC Library Labs manages the Library's Flickr Commons with photos of the city drawn from two of the libary’s collections (one of which includes the entire archives of the now defunct Washington Star newspaper); none of these photos are subject to copyright. Flickr Commons is part of a broader effort to digitze the library’s entire collection of historical photographs; these rare photos will be subject to copyright, but the software used to create the repository, Al Fresco, is open-source. The library is working on a website redesign and has created an “internet of things”-based game ("Infobunny") to teach information literacy.26 The library developed a Facebook application last year that may go into production this year. Its recently updated iPhone app has been downloaded by approximately 5-6,000 patrons, and the library also released a Blackberry app this summer; these apps allow customers to search the library catalog and place holds on books. Development of the iPhone app cost about $30,000, a minuscule portion of the city government’s $8.8 billion fiscal year 2010 budget , but Tonjes emphasized that such innovations come relatively easily only because the library has a talented staff of technologists.27 Furthermore, Tonjes aims not to engage in what he called “one-off” projects; the back-end code written for the iPhone app will be put to additional uses, for example. Future mobile app developments will include an updated iPhone app that also works with Montgomery County, MD, and Fairfax County, VA, libraries, as well as geolocation capabilities to tell patrons the closest library at which a book for which they’ve searched is available. Tonjes suggested that these mobile technology efforts have expanded the library’s customer base to a younger, “more tech-savvy” population.

Technology is currently one of a handful of focus areas emphasized by DCPL’s board of directors, and Tonjes credits this with allowing the library system to put considerable effort into technological innovation despite the city government’s uncertain fiscal environment. “We think the future of interaction with the library is probably going to be electronic, in many cases,” especially through mobile technologies, Tonjes told us.. During Tonjes’ more than three-year tenure, the library website has been redesigned three times. Tonjes credits much of DCPL’s technological innovation to its talented staff and the availability of free and low-cost software. Although the DC government’s fiscal stability is uncertain, DCPL recently received a BTOP grant on Community Computing Resources for $1.5 million.

Additionally, the District’s Community Computing Resources project (DC-CCR), an effort led by the DC Public Library, received $1.5 million in government funding from the NTIA as part of the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grants in July 2010.28 The project proposes to mitigate the overcrowding and long wait times currently experienced at District libraries and recreation centers. It will serve the entire District but will focus on economically vulnerable populations largely in Ward 5, 7 and 8, where broadband adoption is low. In part, the program will provide computer skills training to current library staff, outside volunteers and instructors. It also aims to increase access speeds of participating libraries to 1 Gbps.


[1]Jeff Clabaugh, “Washington Gets WiMax,” Washington Business Journal, 2 June 2010, http://washington.bizjournals.com/washington/stories/2010/05/31/daily2.html, Accessed 14 July 2010.

[2]See Comcast 4G coverage map, http://comcast.cellmaps.com/viewer.html, Accessed 14 July 2010.

[3] See service and pricing information at http://www.att.com/gen/general?pid=11023, https://www.comcast.com/shop/buyflow2/products.cspx?SourcePage=Internet&..., https://shop.rcn.com/rcn/en/US/direct/rcn?cmd=ServiceCatalog, and http://www.clear.com/shop/services. Accessed 13 July 2010.

https://shop.rcn.com/rcn/en/US/direct/rcn?cmd=ServiceCatalog, and http://www.clear.com/shop/services. Accessed 13 July 2010.

[4] Peter R. Roy, “DC-NET Takes Charge of Telecommunications,” GovPro.com, 13 Feb. 2004, http://govpro.com/technology/telecommunications/gov_imp_27713/, Accessed 25 July 2010.

[5] Bryan Sivak, CTO of the District of Columbia, Digital Capital Week lecture, "DC Office of the CTO: Past, Present, and Future Gov 2.0 Leadership," 16 June 2010, UMC Conference Facility, Washington, DC.

[6] Steven Overly, "Post-9/11 telecom network proves useful beyond public safety communication," Washington Post, 12 July 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/09/AR201007..., Accessed 13 July 2010.

[7] Press Release, "NTIA Awards Grants for Broadband Mapping and Planning in the District", DC Office of the CTO, Oct. 28, 2009, http://newsroom.dc.gov/show.aspx/agency/octo/section/2/release/18440, Accessed 13 July 2010.

[8] See http://www2.ntia.doc.gov/files/grantees/DC_DCCAN.pdf , Accessed 14 July 2010.

[9] Bryan Sivak, CTO of the District of Columbia, Digital Capital Week lecture, "DC Office of the CTO: Past, Present, and Future Gov 2.0 Leadership," 16 June 2010, UMC Conference Facility, Washington, DC.

[10] Press Release, "Build It and They Will Come," DC OCTO, 29 April 2010,

http://octo.dc.gov/DC/OCTO/About+OCTO/News+Room/Press+Releases/Build+It+..., Accessed 13 July 2010.

[11] See http://labs.digitalcapitalweek.org/DCW029+-+Fourth+Annual+Community+Comp..., Accessed 21 July 2010.

[12] Chris Tonjes, Interview, 15 July 2010.

[13] Chris Tonjes, Interview, 15 July 2010.

[14] See http://www.dclibrary.org/books-movies-music/bookclubs, Accessed 15 July 2010.

[15] See http://www.dclibrary.org/services/adult, Accessed 15 July 2010.

[16] See http://www.dclibrary.org/services/ebic, Accessed 15 July 2010.

[17] See http://dclibrary.org/node/2483, Accessed 15 July 2010.

[18] See http://dclibrary.org/node/2407, Accessed 15 July 2010.

[29] See http://languageline.com/, Accessed 3 Aug. 2010.

[20] See http://dclibrary.org/node/2095, Accessed 3 Aug. 2010.

[21] See http://www.dclibrary.org/services/computer, Accessed 15 July 2010.

[22] Chris Tonjes, Interview, 15 July 2010.

[23] See http://www2.ntia.doc.gov/files/grantees/DC_DCCCR.pdf, Accessed 23 July 2010.

[24] Aaron Schmidt, “Great Twitter Conversation,” DCPL Labs Amino Blog, 18 Feb. 2010, http://dclibrarylabs.org/great-twitter-conversation/, Accessed 15 July 2010.

[25] See http://dclibrarylabs.org, Accessed 15 July 2010.

[26] The Government of the District of Columbia, FY 2010 Proposed Budget and Financial Plan Executive Summary, 28 Sept. 2009,

http://cfo.dc.gov/cfo/frames.asp?doc=/cfo/lib/cfo/budget/2010_9_29/volum..., Accessed 21 July 2010.

[27]See http://www2.ntia.doc.gov/files/grantees/DC_DCCCR.pdf, Accessed 23 July 2010

[28]Angelica Das, “Informing D.C.: A Guide to the Washington, D.C. News Media Landscape,” M.A. Capstone Project, American University School of Communication, April 2010. Available online at http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&vps=1&jsv=259e&oe=UTF8&msa=..., Accessed 26 July 2010.

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