While politicians squabble over the particulars of a federal program to hook schools and libraries up to the Net, Microsoft's Bill Gates and others are sidestepping bureaucrats and cutting fat checks to support public online access.
The Gates Library Foundation today announced that yet another hefty donation of cash and software--$7.25 million worth--would go to the Louisiana library system.
"My wife Melinda and I established the foundation because we believe that everyone--regardless of age, income, or education--should have access to knowledge and information," Gates said in a statement.
For Microsoft, its forays into the education market and the foundation's $200 million in donations to libraries since 1997 will no doubt help the company spread its brand to consumers beginning at a very young age. But for Louisiana, that is not the issue. The money will help provide more than 1,000 computers, Net access, technical assistance, and librarian training for every public library in the state.
"This is the largest gift of private funds ever received by Louisiana's libraries," Louisiana state librarian Tom Jaques said in a statement. "Adding computers and Internet access as a basic public service will fundamentally improve everyone's access to information."
The government is collecting money from long distance companies, which have fought the plan, to support its program to get most schools and libraries online--dubbed the "e-rate."
The e-rate program may take greater steps than corporate America to equally spread the wealth, but the private sector seems to be faster at deploying free computers and Net connections to the nation's public libraries, advocates say.
For one thing, high-tech companies aren't bogged down by political infighting that is threatening to derail the e-rate program, which still plans to dole out $1.275 billion in assistance this year.
"Microsoft is not the only one doing it," said Lynee Bradely of the American Library Association.
"Most corporate executives appreciate that to have skilled workers for future jobs, students and lifelong learners need the computer skills to function in these jobs," she added. "[Policy makers in Washington] have larger regulatory and political battles they have decided are more important than getting the technology out to as many people as possible."
Moreover, libraries and schools that get private donations may not have to deal with legislation passed by the Senate last week to require e-rate participants to install software on computers to filter out online material that is "inappropriate for minors."
The House still has to vote on the measure, but many librarians and civil liberties groups say the proposed law could inhibit young people from finding constitutionally protected material about topics such as safe sex, and a handful of lawsuits are under way to overturn similar locally enacted policies.