"One of the busiest areas in the library on any given day is the computer area," said Kristi Kelly, advocacy chair for the Huntsville Library Foundation. "To restrict net neutrality means that patrons' usage would be negatively affected."
In 2017, more than 36,000 unique users logged nearly 119,000 hours on computers at the 13 branches in the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library system. Its libraries provided nearly half a million wifi sessions that year.
Computer and technology services have become a cornerstone of modern public libraries. Free computer and wifi sessions are standard in most.
Systems across Alabama provide their patrons free access to dozens of online databases, as well as digital book and music services. Some even offer wifi hotspots and laptop computers that can be checked out.
Free and fast internet use "gets to the core of librarianship, freedom of information and literacy," said Dr. Nancy Pack, director and state librarian at the Alabama Public Library Service. "We've been on the forefront of this issue."
A recent rollback of net neutrality regulations has librarians like Pack worried about the future of public libraries.
Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers should allow equal access to all internet content regardless of the source.
In December the Federal Communications Commission voted to remove internet protections that have prevented Internet Service Providers like AT&T, Charter and Verizon from blocking or slowing access to websites and services based on how much a user can pay, or from charging online companies more money for faster delivery of movies, music and other content.
Proponents of the move argue that regulations can stifle competition and slow the introduction of new technologies.
Net neutrality advocates worry that without federal protection, users could be forced to pay more to avoid being shuttled into an internet "slow lane." Or smaller websites might not be able to afford the cost of distributing their content that larger companies like Netflix or Amazon could pay.
The full repeal of net neutrality protections isn't final yet. But it's looming on the horizon.
"I think it could turn into (a situation) like the cable stations; if you want this package to get this information, you have to subscribe. If you pay more money, you'll get a higher internet speed," said Pack.
For public libraries already strapped for cash, additional costs of providing high-speed internet to their patrons may be too high.
"When you go into a public library, you'll see everyone using computers," said Pack. "They might be using it for downloading and printing out information, and often they're using the computers because they don't have them at home."
Public library systems in Alabama, particularly in rural areas, provide computer and internet access to segments of the population who otherwise are shut out of the primary way most Americans now send and receive information.
In Alabama, about 60 percent of the public libraries already have low broadband internet speeds. A few in the poorest areas are still using dialup, said Pack.
Library computers allow people to apply online for jobs, have tests proctored for online classes, print out information and do research, said Laurel Best, executive director of the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library.
"And a lot of the research we do online, such as genealogy research, is on certain websites that may become unavailable because they can't afford to pay the fees," she said. "It could change the whole face of the internet which is such an amazing resource now."
Pack recently invited Tim Lewis, state law librarian at the Alabama Supreme Court and State Law Library, to speak to a group of Alabama public library administrators about the issue of net neutrality.
"When I spoke to the administrators, they were all interested in it," said Lewis. "It's an issue that (until now) really hasn't come up. It's not something most people think about. Makes their eyes glaze over."
Nationally, organizations like the American Library Association have been vocal in support of net neutrality protections. In Montana and California, governors have signed executive orders to require internet service providers with state contracts to abide by net neutrality rules.
Lewis and Pack have identified stakeholders in Alabama who are interested in protecting net neutrality, and hope to assemble a group that could petition the governor or legislators to take a closer look at the issue.
Pack plans to address Alabama legislators in Washington, D.C. later this spring.
"It can sneak up on people," she said of potential changes in how the public uses the internet. "If you don't get out there and talk about it, nothing's going to get done."
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