As part of my activities in the Digital Inclusion Corps, I am supporting tribal libraries in setting up hotspot lending programs to increase home internet access. Public libraries throughout the country have already implemented device lending programs to bridge the digital divide, and while I have not come across any examples of tribal libraries doing this yet, there is no reason why hotspots cannot be just as effective in promoting digital inclusion in tribal communities.

“Checking out the Internet” from a public library—just as one would borrow any other item like a book or a DVD—is a somewhat new concept, and getting libraries on board means that you must address some the valid concerns about circulating non-traditional library resources. A survey conducted by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission about librarians’ perceptions of hotspot lending programs found that the biggest challenges perceived are funding, cost of setup, patron demand, reliable service providers, and the ability to train staff in using the devices. These topics and other important questions have been addressed in a comprehensive guide to Starting a Mobile Hotspot Lending Program, webinars by the Nebraska Library Commission and Texas State Library and Archives Commission about how local libraries have implemented these programs, as well as in the detailed project documentation of a hotspot lending pilot by the Kansas State Library.  These are also good resources to check out if you’re brand new to hotspot lending programs and how they can be used to fulfill libraries’ missions.

This is not a FAQ. The following questions are ones I’ve been asked directly in talking with tribal librarians, administrators, and IT departments during the initial planning phases. I’m also expanding on some of the topics addressed in the above resources to accurately report on our own local context and pilot lending project. I hope that this gives other interested parties a way to prepare for questions that they might encounter in trying to start hotspot lending programs.

How much will it cost our library?

The cost of the devices and one year of data service will be provided free of charge for the participating library for this first year. After the one-year pilot ends, the library will need to find funding through program budgets or grants if they wish to continue the lending program. It is our hope that during this pilot year we can demonstrate the effectiveness of the lending program for funders.

Won’t people just take advantage of it and watch Netflix/cat videos?

Everyone should have the right to access and use the internet for information, education, and entertainment, but don’t just take my word for it: the Human Rights Council of the United Nations codified this position in a resolution to affirm the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet.

Ask any librarian who monitors a computer station and they’ll tell you that while computers are used to do important things like submit government forms and complete online job applications, patrons also regularly use the internet at libraries to play online games, read the news, and yes, watch movies. In this sense, hotspot lending programs are simply an extension of a library’s digital services. Let’s not be too quick to dismiss Netflix and YouTube either. A component of digital inclusion is digital literacy, or the necessary skills to be able effectively use technology and the internet. Borrowers might not start off with the basic computer skills needed to effectively use technology, which includes the ability to type and use a mouse as well as the skills and competencies needed to read, write, and participate on the web. Even if they do watch the occasional movie on Netflix, they are practicing and gaining confidence in those skills in the process, simply by navigating the websites.

Importantly, the data from organizations like Mobile Beacon, which provides individuals and organizations with affordable, uncapped internet access, demonstrates that people use the internet to enrich their lives once they have access. The results of Mobile Beacon’s Bridging the Gap participant survey found that after gaining access to the internet:  

  • 95% of parents/guardians say that they have been able to better support their children academically (including communicating with their child’s teachers more often, checking grades)
  • 54% of parents reported their children spend more than 4 hours per week doing homework online
  • 24% of people started taking daily or weekly online classes
  • Additionally, user surveys from Kansas State Library’s pilot report demonstrates that:
  • 78% used the Internet to connect with family and friends (via Skype, Facebook)
  • 66% used it to keep informed of current events
  • 33% used it for finding or applying for a job

If you take a look at the hotspot resources above, you’ll notice that hotspot lending programs can take a variety of forms. In this pilot project, we are hoping to use the hotspots to support existing library and community programs. Providing free internet access can directly address a need in the community, such as allowing people to take an online GED program, closing the homework gap for school-aged children, or helping homebound elders access critical telehealth services.

How will you stop people from using the hotspots to view adult content?

Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) compliant content filtering will be applied to the devices, which prevents users from accessing adult content (pornography) and malware while browsing the web. Read more about CIPA here. With this content filter, all web pages that the user visits through a web browser will be screened.

What about data throttling?

For the libraries within Sprint’s network service area we are acquiring the devices through Mobile Beacon’s donation program, which offers unlimited data usage per month. For libraries outside of Sprint’s network, we are acquiring devices through Verizon, which does have a cap imposed after a certain amount of data has been used within monthly billing cycle. We are trying to determine if it’s feasible to partner with Verizon to offer unlimited data for this program, but if that is not possible the library staff will need to monitor data usage depending on how they decide to lend out the devices. For instance, there are different considerations if they are to be lent to a single individual or family for 6 months at a time than if they will be checked out like a typical library resource in one or two-week intervals. Regardless of the lending period, it will be important to make sure borrowers understand data cap restrictions and how to effectively use the devices.

 

Hey, are you trying to spy on me?

No! The library will not collect data on what sites you visit or where you are physically located when you use the device. Libraries will only monitor monthly data usage rates.

That said, we are working to develop anonymous user questionnaires about the types of activities performed when using the Internet at home (i.e. “Did you connect with friends and family online?” “Did you search for or apply for a job?” “Did you use an electronic resource such as an e-book?”) and overall usability (i.e. “How easy was it to use the device? “Did you encounter any issues using the device?”). This sort of information is critical when applying for funding to continue the program as well as for understanding how the program can be improved.

What if the hotspot gets stolen or lost?

The first line of defense is to establish a check out system for borrowers, which requires a signed user agreement (some libraries require someone over 18 years of age to sign). Libraries can also choose to impose a replacement fee for lost devices. In cases where a device is lost, stolen, or overdue, it is simple to remotely disable the device. For libraries using Sprint devices acquired through Mobile Beacon’s donation program, all that is required is for the library staff to email a designated product support person at Mobile Beacon. For libraries using Verizon devices, a library staff member will need to access and use a device management portal.  

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