Expanding at-Home Access: Adding a Mobile Hotspot Lending Program to the Public Library

Introduction

Where do you go when you need to find a job?  Where do you turn when you want more information about a product or service?  What is your go-to source for current news and information?  If you’re like many Americans, the answer is probably online.  The Internet has transformed the way that we seek information, and the number of devices that allow us to go online has expanded Internet access to more people than ever before.  Yet in a time when mobile technologies have expanded access to unprecedented levels, a significant percentage of Americans do not have adequate at-home access to the Internet.

For those without access to a reliable home Internet connection, public libraries are reliable places to use Wi-Fi.  The availability of services may be even more significant in disadvantaged or rural communities, which experience lower home access levels than their more advantaged urban or suburban counterparts.  Wi-Fi access through public libraries is, however, inevitably limited to the library’s operating hours.  In communities where a significant percentage of the population face barriers to home Internet access, public libraries can play an important role to expanding access through the adoption of mobile Wi-Fi hotspot lending programs.

Literature Review

Rapid technological developments and the expansion of wireless connection options have brought the Internet home for a majority of the US population; however, as many as 30% of Americans lack home broadband Internet access (Bertot, Real, Lee, McDermott, & Jaeger, 2015, p. ix).  This not-insubstantial percentage increases in some communities; there are significant technological divisions between segments of society.  The divisions between Internet haves- and have-nots tends to settle along lines of income, education level, race, age, and geography (Jaeger, Bertot, Thompson, Katz, & Decoster, 2012; Bertot, Real, Lee, McDermott, & Jaeger, 2015).  According to some estimates, the percentage of individuals without home internet access more than doubles in low-income communities (Inklebarger, 2015, para. 1).

For those who lack home broadband connections, public libraries play a vital role in Internet access.  According to a 2010 study by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, libraries, trailing only school and work, are the third most popular out-of-home site for accessing the Internet (Weiss, 2012, p. 35).  By providing access to broadband, Wi-Fi, and Internet-enabled technology and assisting the public in learning how to access and use technology, public libraries are actively helping close the digital divide (Bertot, Real, Lee, McDermott, & Jaeger, 2015, p. ix).

While it’s definitely a valuable service, on-site Wi-Fi access is generally restricted to the operating hours of the library; it doesn’t allow patrons the flexibility of 24-hour access.  To overcome this limitation and provide their patrons with more flexible Internet access, some libraries have begun looking at mobile options.  One innovative solution to providing flexible access is a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot lending program.

Application in Libraries

A mobile hotspot is essentially a small, battery-powered Wi-Fi station that goes where you go.  Mobile hotspots use 3G or 4G cellular networks and wirelessly share the data connection with other Wi-Fi enabled devices, like cell phones, eReaders, tablets, and laptops.  Usually, connections extend to around 30 feet; the number of devices that are able to use the connection simultaneously varies, depending on the hotspot and the devices, but typically ranges from three to ten (Patterson, 2012).

In 2014, the New York Public Library (NYPL) started a small Wi-Fi lending program with the purchase of 100 mobile hotspots (Inklebarger, 2015).  The program was so successful that they purchased an additional 10,000 mobile hotspots, with grant assistance, to use in a highly successful program that brings Internet access to NYC residents without home Internet.  The hotspots are loaned to patrons across three library systems.  Borrowing a hotspot is free; the library charges no fees for the device or service.  Devices can be borrowed for one year, and patrons have free Wi-Fi access 24-hours per day, every day of the week.  The only fee associated with the program is a $100 replacement cost for devices that are not returned to the library within a year (New York Public Library, 2015).

In June 2014, the Chicago Public Library (CPL) joined the NYPL as another example of a large public library system with a Wi-Fi lending program.  Similar to the NYPL, the CPL loans mobile hotspots to patrons at no cost.  However, the lending program is somewhat different.  The CPL’s lending period is three weeks, as opposed to the NYPL’s year, but hotspots can be renewed up to 15 times as long as they are not placed on hold by another patron.  The CPL charges overdue fines of $1 per day, with a maximum of $10, and turns of hotspots that are not returned by the due date.  Replacement costs represent the market value of replacement; as of May 2015, the cost was approximately $40 (Chicago Public Library, 2015).  With this program, the Chicago Public Library has become the largest service provider in the city, providing one third of the free computer and Internet access (McKenzie, 2014).

Since 2014, libraries across the United States have slowly begun adding mobile Wi-Fi hotspot lending programs to the services they provide.  Nonprofit companies like Mobile Beacon, which partners with schools, colleges, libraries, and other nonprofits, have helped to expand affordable access options.  Together, libraries are using the innovative idea of lending mobile hotspots to allow patrons to take the Internet home and experience technology in ways that they may not be able without assistance.  By lending mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, libraries have found a unique way to help bridge the digital divide.

Challenges

Lending mobile hotspots is, of course, not without challenges.  One challenge is training; both staff and patrons must be trained to use both the Wi-Fi hotspots and the devices that patrons commonly use to connect to them.  Hand-in-hand with this challenge is allocating resources to answer questions.  Libraries lending mobile hotspots may need to reallocate staff members to respond to questions that come in after a patron leaves with a device.  For example, libraries must be able to talk to patrons who call after checking out a device if they forget how to turn it on or to help troubleshoot if a device is not allowing the patron to connect.  Patrons may also call with technologically-specific questions if, for example, they check out a mobile hotspot and don’t know how to detect it with a device (American Libraries Live, 2014).

A second challenge of lending Wi-Fi hotspots may be in figuring how to maximize their impact with the user community.  Libraries with mobile hotspot lending programs tend to have wildly diverse use policies, with loan periods ranging from weeks to a year.  It may take the library some time to determine loan policies that maximize the impact of device lending with their specific community’s needs.  Developing useful policies for loan and return may be an evolving process and even simple procedures, like deciding how devices are returned (physically at a counter or in a specific drop location),  may take time and patience for both staff and users (National Public Radio, 2015).

Finally, there are the associated—and not insubstantial—costs of purchasing devices and data.  According to an NPR interview with librarian Jennifer Urban of Spring Hill, Tennessee, the cost for data for 20 mobile hotspots is about $10,000 per year (National Public Library, 2015).  Device and data cost does vary significantly by device and service provider; through Mobile Beacon, one of most well-known and most affordable non-profit providers, 4G LTE plans average about $10/month/device (Mobile Beacon).

Conclusions

While lending mobile Wi-Fi hotspots involves challenges in training and reallocating staff, developing new policies and procedures, and allocating funding to new materials and services, the potential benefits to libraries and their patrons far outweighs the potential costs.  While Internet access is seemingly ubiquitous, to assume that everyone has access is to see overlook the silent minority of 30% of Americans who do not have broadband access at home.  By implementing the use of mobile Wi-Fi hotspot lending programs, public libraries have the potential to reach out to these internet have-nots, providing them with a reliable means of access, allowing them to experience the wealth of knowledge that is available online, and effectively helping to close the digital divide

References

American Libraries Live.  (2014).  Left to our devices: What librarians need to know about tablets and mobile apps.  Retrieved from https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2014/07/22/left-to-our-devices/

Bertot, J.C., Real, B., McDermott, A.J., & Jaeger, P.T. (2015).  2014 Digital inclusion survey: Survey findings and results. College Park, MD: Information Policy and Access Center.  Retrieved from http://digitalinclusion.umd.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/2014DigitalInclusionSurveyFinalRelease.pdf

Chicago Public Library.  (2015).  Borrow a wifi hotspot from the Chicago Public Library.  Retrieved from http://www.chipublib.org/news/borrow-a-wifi-hotspot-from-chicago-public-library/

Inklebarger, T.  (2015).  Bridging the tech gap: Libraries across the country lend mobile wi-fi hotspots.  American Libraries.  Retrieved from http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2015/09/11/bridging-tech-gap-wi-fi-lending/

Jaeger, P. P., Bertot, J. C., Thompson, K. M., Katz, S. M., & DeCoster, E. J. (2012). The intersection of public policy and public access: Digital divides, digital literacy, digital inclusion, and public libraries. Public Library Quarterly, 31(1), 1-20.

McKenzie, J.  (2014).  Libraries hope to help close the digital divide by lending WiFi hotspots.  TechPresident Beta.  Retrieved from http://techpresident.com/news/25155/chicago-and-new-york-public-libraries-hope-help-close-digital-divide-lending-wifi

Mobile Beacon.  (n.d.).  Who we help: Libraries.  Retrieved from http://www.mobilebeacon.org/who-we-help/who-we-help-libraries/

National Public Radio.  (2015).  Libraries lend mobile wi-fi hotspots to those who need internet service.  Morning Edition.  Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2015/12/24/460906891/libraries-lend-mobile-wi-fi-hot-spots-to-those-who-need-internet-service

New York Public Library.  (2015).  Library hotspot.  Retrieved from http://hotspot.nypl.org/

Patterson, B.  (2012).  Mobile wi-fi hotspots: Your questions, answered.  Here’s the Thing.  Retrieved from http://heresthethingblog.com/2012/01/26/mobile-wi-fi-hotspots-questions/

Weiss, R. R. (2012). Libraries and the digital divide. Journal of the Library Administration & Management Section, 8(2), 25-47.