With an internet hotspot device, users are free to move about, untethered to the library or stationery internet provider. They may, for example, take time to sight-seeing the world's largest easel in Goodland, Kansas.

Public libraries have been offering an innovative solution to the digital divide by “loaning out the Internet” to their patrons – circulating cellular-based hotspot devices, similar to a cell phone, that provide Internet access to those without a broadband connection. These devices provide an Internet connection anywhere cellular service is available, at home or elsewhere.

These hotspot lending programs started as urban projects but now are gaining traction in rural locations. In 2015, the New York Public Library (NYPL), the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), and the Queens Public Library system piloted a hotspot lending program for New York residents without broadband at home. Their program was unique in its scope and is the largest in the nation, lending 10,000 devices and receiving over $1 million in funding from Google and other sources. Portland, Chicago, Seattle, Tulsa, and Kansas City public libraries are just a few of the locations that have similar lending programs. Running this type of program in rural areas, however, comes with unique challenges – such as smaller library staff, lower budgets, and limited cellular access.

The New York Public Library partnered with 24 rural libraries in Kansas and Maine to see how the program might be different in more remote areas. Some libraries in Kansas chose to continue their programs by coming up with their own funding source. The scale of these programs is obviously smaller, with each rural library typically lending four or five devices as opposed to the hundreds loaned out in branches throughout New York City.

Researchers from the University of Texas, Oklahoma State University, and Simmons College are currently working to gather information from these libraries about what worked and what didn’t. Through individual interviews, observations, and focus groups, the research team hopes to accurately gauge the needs of rural Americans who lack their own household connection. In visiting with library directors and staff, the logistical and implementation issues these libraries face in adopting this new program became apparent. These libraries’ experiences will be used as benchmarks to craft best-practices so that other rural libraries can benefit.

We have heard success stories, but also have heard of struggles and frustration with the device and program. These research trips uncovered some ways that the local communities have benefitted from the program. Two examples below highlight the success of these hotspot lending programs in rural areas.

Goodland Public Library in Goodland, Kansas.
Goodland Public Library in Goodland, Kansas.

Goodland Public Library

The Goodland Public Library serves a population of over 4,500 and offered one of the most heavily used programs in the Kansas State Library hotspot effort. Library staff posted information about the program on Facebook, their website, and ran advertisements on local media while also displaying fliers and cards in the library.

The library director was surprised that the hotspot devices filled a gap in Internet service for her patrons lacking home broadband access, which underscored that there was a serious digital divide in Goodland. The program still has a waiting list, and continues to be a success due to good service and patrons’ support for the program.

After the expiration of the initial Kansas State Library grant, the Goodland Library continued the hotspot lending program on its own, funding the $40-a-month cost for each device with help from the library board. Goodland Library negotiated with Verizon and obtained unlimited, unthrottled data services; regular cellular wireless plans often have a monthly cap on data usage. Currently, Goodland has one device it loans out for short term uses, and the remaining devices have a loan period of seven days.

Peabody Memorial Library

In Jonesport, Maine, the Peabody Memorial Library serves a population of over 3,000 residents. With almost 10,000 library visits annually, the library is a popular destination. The library director jumped on the opportunity to implement hotspot lending. With 13 devices total and occasional wait lists, the director estimates that 40 to 50 families have taken advantage of the hotspot devices, with at least 20 families consistently relying on one.

During the school year, students with school-issued laptops and their families were the first in line for the hotspot devices. During the summer months, the eligibility for checking out the devices was relaxed to include any patron in need (the Maine program was initially aimed at providing students with home internet access). The director estimates that 20-25% of students do not have home-based internet access. More than 20% of the population is in poverty, and 60% of students are on free and reduced lunch, so this community experiences financial barriers that make paying for home-based broadband difficult. For example, harsh winters in Maine can mean high heating bills, and some families sacrifice paying for internet access as their heating costs grow.

Clearwater City Hall lets citizens know they can check out the internet at the library.
Clearwater City Hall lets citizens know they can check out the internet at the library.

Rural communities across the United States are no strangers to the digital divide, continually lagging behind their urban counterparts in access and adoption of broadband. Broadband adoption has been shown to affect community engagement and economic growth, and this program offers one solution to reduce gaps in rural America. We developed a “best-practices guide” to provide information to rural libraries interested in offering this service. The guide includes information on the specifics of the device, funding options, challenges with data and service, and circulation best practices. As we continue to study the impact of the hotspot lending program, we will look into this mobile access program’s impact on how people seek information, on their quality of life, and how this type of access complements other programs already in place.

To read more on the ongoing project (including more in-depth case studies of three libraries using the program) and planned future research, check out http://sites.utexas.edu/imlsedgesgrant/.

Note: This work is based on Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS) Award 31-16-0014-16 to Sharon Strover, Colin Rhinesmith, and Brian Whitacre.

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