A study last year rated Montana 50th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in broadband Internet penetration, with just 34 percent of connections having broadband speeds above 2 megabits per second.
Getting the bytes to far-flung place remains a challenge, but the state library system is taking some big steps to make the technology available in more and more places, launching a $2.7 million, three-year program to make more computers and higher Internet speeds available at 42 Montana libraries spanning 29 counties that are home to 86 percent of the state’s population.
What library gets what from the program has yet to be determined.
The top priority for Lewis and Clark Library, with branches in Lincoln, Augusta and East Helena in addition to the main facility in Helena, is obtaining 10 laptop computers to serve as a mobile lab for training both staff and the public around the county.
Past training has included lessons on genealogy research, training on basic software like word processors and spreadsheets, and a very popular class for seniors on basic computer skills, said Lewis and Clark Library Director Judy Hart.
The library also hopes to establish its own wireless network for patrons to use with their own computers. Now, the library buys wireless access from a private provider.
“It’s expensive,” Hart said of broadband connectivity. “That’s the challenging part, the sustainability of all this.”
Among Montanans who do not have Internet access in their own homes, 67 percent rely totally on their local libraries for Web access, according to the Montana State Library, which oversees the state library network. A nationwide study found that in 82 percent of rural communities, libraries provide the only free Internet access.
State Librarian Darlene Staffeldt said libraries could start seeing some of the changes, such as new computers, early next year.
The total number of workstations in the participating libraries will grow from 439 to 634 and their hours will increase by 5 percent, cutting computing center wait times in half.
It promises the average data rate in libraries up to 21 megabits per second, allowing almost any online application to operate. Typical cable modem speeds in homes reach about 8 mbps or less.
The program also will provide minor construction to improve access, including for disabled people. It also will offer online and face-to-face training opportunities for librarians and patrons.
According to the state’s grant application, the number of patrons using computer centers in an average week will rise from 17,487 to 25,693, or more than 426,000 additional visits a year. The state estimates the project will create 43 job-years.
And the Missoula Public Library will lead an effort to build a mobile computer lab — think of the old bookmobiles from the analog era — to bring the Web to more rural communities.
“Instead of having shelves and shelves of books, it will have computer labs,” Staffeldt said.
The initiative is funded mostly by federal dollars, with 32 percent from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Missoula Public Library and other libraries.
Libraries in the state not directly involved in the program will still benefit from the training and other elements, according to Staffeldt.
Every library in the state now has Web access, but some only have dial-up, she said.
Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086 or firstname.lastname@example.org