First, let’s just take a moment to appreciate how incredible public libraries are. Library services are driven by the needs of the community, and this extends well beyond lending books. They can lend all sorts of non-traditional items, from power tools and telescopes to canning supplies and seeds. With wi-fi hotspot lending, libraries can meaningfully address the digital divide in their community.
While broadband is critical for participation in our increasingly digital world, not everyone has access to Internet service that they can afford or that meets the speed and robustness standards. A theme that keeps coming up in all of the site visits I’ve taken to libraries in rural Arizona is the need for more free public wi-fi options and Internet at home for all. The Pew Research Center recently found that 7% of library users age 16 and older say they have connected to a library’s Wi-Fi system when the library building itself was closed. Cities offer many options for free public wi-fi, but in rural towns this is usually not the case. Public libraries are the ones to pick up the slack.
For the past six months now, I’ve been contacting libraries to try to get participants in a pilot hotspot lending project. It’s been a slow process, but in general, the rural, tribal, and urban public library communities I’m working with recognize the need for this community service. Hotspots offer portable, on-demand access to the Internet that meets an endless amount of needs. Additionally, there is no technical expertise needed to start and management of the hotspot lending program is made easy through online portals, so it can be easily implemented by most libraries that are in cell service areas.
Importantly, the hotspots have also been a tangible starting point for general discussions about digital inclusion. While there seems to be general consensus that offering free wi-fi access during public hours benefits the community, I’ve noticed there’s a larger ideological discussion that needs to happen regarding the critical need for increased public Internet access and home Internet access beyond the library’s hours of service. Because rural libraries tend to have limited staff resources, open hours may be limited to weekdays from 8-5pm. Frequently, I had librarians tell me that the library stopped offering wi-fi service 24/7 because there were apprehensions about the number of people who sit outside after hours to get online. One librarian told me about a man who parked his truck along the wall of the building on a weekend with a big screen TV and Xbox in the bed. 24/7 wi-fi was cut shortly after. I’ve also heard concerns about vandalism and theft. These safety concerns are understandable, but what seems to be missed is that people are doing whatever it takes to get online even if it means standing outside the building.
The trucker with the Xbox is not your typical after-hours library wi-fi user; more often, it’s students and individuals with no other options. Roughly 70% of teachers assign homework that requires broadband access, and students without access to after hours public wi-fi or affordable home Internet service fall further behind in the homework gap. For individuals, Internet access means that they can fully take advantage of information and communication technology to improve quality of life, not to mention access to critical services which are increasingly being offered online-only, such as banking, government forms, job searching, and telehealth. The heavy use of visitors in the parking lot indicates that we need more freely available Internet access, not less.
Of course, hotspot lending is a temporary solution to larger infrastructure and availability issues, but it is a way to continue supporting library users who need the access and to reduce the strain on the library’s network. There are certainly reasons why a library may not want to–or may not be able to–offer hotspot lending, such as cost or lack of cell towers in the area, but I have yet to find a negative consequence of hotspot lending programs. The more I hear from libraries about the lengths people go to in order to access the Internet, the more I am convinced that lending hotspots is an actionable step toward meeting these community needs.