Tech Lending and Truly Mobile Hotspots Extend Library’s Internet Access

As the coronavirus makes internet access even more crucial for schooling, many jobs, and applying for unemployment, library staff have been working on creative solutions to bring access to thousands who would otherwise be without, moving beyond Wi-Fi in parking lots and cultivating external partnerships.

Men in suits and protective masks with iPad (names in caption)
Then Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian, center left, hands an iPad to USC-VHH chief executive Keith Hobbs, center right. Library Director Gary Shaffer far-left, USC Spokesperson (unidentified at far-right).
Photo courtesy of USC

As the coronavirus makes internet access even more crucial for schooling, many jobs, and applying for unemployment, library staff have been working on creative solutions to bring access to thousands who would otherwise be without, moving beyond Wi-Fi in parking lots and cultivating external partnerships.

BROADENING THE REACH

The Washington State Library, in a public-private partnership, is bolstering its existing 300 public Wi-Fi hotspots with an additional 300 parking lot hotspots, Everyone using the sites must practice social distancing, staying in their vehicle or at least six feet from other users and wearing a mask if necessary. “Broadband equity is not just a rural challenge,” library leadership said in a statement, “the drive-in hotspot project addresses underserved and economically disadvantaged communities in urban and suburban areas as well.” Partners in the project include: Washington State University; members of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association and affiliated nonprofit Northwest Open Access Network; the Washington State Broadband Office; Washington Independent Telecommunications Association; Washington Technology Solutions; and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction Microsoft and the Avista Foundation are providing funding and a national nonprofit contributed equipment and installation.

In Maryland, the Harford County Public Library recently received a nearly $24,000 emergency grant from the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband to expand Wi-Fi access beyond its 11 branches. “We were thrilled to learn that it was approved,” said library CEO Mary Hastler, “The equipment is on order and we anticipate completion of the installation and going live by early June.” Wi-Fi will be expanded by approximately 300 feet at each of the libraries in Hartford County.

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

Virginia’s Williamsburg Regional Library is using their Mobile Library Services vehicles as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to make the internet more accessible to residents who do not have a connection at home. The library purchased additional Wi-Fi hotspots, which were installed on three vehicles, allowing for 15 simultaneous connections from each vehicle, serving up to 30 devices up to 30 feet away. They are positioned at various locations around the Williamsburg area on a regular schedule so that users can drive up, park, and take advantage of free internet access from the comfort and safety of their own cars. The library has also set up several long-term Wi-Fi hotspot locations where users can park and access Wi-Fi from their cars 24/7.

“Since we launched the project, we have added free Wi-Fi printing on the vehicles,” said library director Betsy Fowler, ”There is one staff person driving and sitting in each vehicle with the window rolled up and a cell phone number posted so that people can call them with questions, which they do. If a user has an iPhone they can print job directly from their iPhone. If they are using an Android they have to download the HP Printer App. The print job comes out of the printer automatically. The user usually approaches the vehicle and waits. The staff puts the print job into a 9” x 12” clasp envelope, and then asks the patron to stand back from the vehicle while they place the print job on a folding table that is set outside of the van. If it is raining they put the envelope into a zip lock bag. We are providing the service for free at this time”. Fowler added,"We're working every day to find creative answers to how we can continue to provide the library's many valuable services to our community during this challenging time," Fowler said. "This Wi-Fi hotspot initiative is a great example of those efforts, and we're proud to be pioneering new and exciting ways to keep our users connected with the resources they need.”

Ten Sacramento Regional Transit (SacRT) buses have been turned into free super Wi-Fi hotpots through a partnership between the Sacramento Public Library, the California State Transportation Agency, and the City of Sacramento. “What it represents for me,” library director Rivkah Sass told LJ, “is the willingness to think about how to solve problems and figure out solutions that might be on the edge of reason.” Each parked bus provides 3.5 hours of wireless broadband service at two locations each day, for a total of 140 locations each week, primarily in communities with limited high-speed internet access. Users will have access for up to 1,800 feet from each bus to allow for appropriate physical distancing.

Repurposing two bookmobiles as W-Fi hotpots has allowed Kansas’ Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library to help fill gaps in internet access. The buses are parked according to a schedule in areas identified as lacking internet access. Users are asked to park near a bus to connect. In a recent statement library CEO Gina Millsap said, “These days having internet access is as important as electricity and other utilities and with so many students and parents working from home, the library is making this need a priority.”

LENDING A HAND

Not surprisingly, lending technological devices has emerged as a key contributor in bridging the digital divide from small public libraries to large university library systems.

At the Elyria Public Library, 25 miles east of Cleveland, OH, it was an existing bond with a nearby senior living community that prompted library director Lyn Crouse to offer ten of the library’s iPads on loan to the residents. Crouse reported that Wesleyan Village Senior Care staff “downloaded Facetime, iMessage, and Skype for their seniors to connect with loved ones, and of course, they are reading ebooks, listening to audiobooks, and watching movies through the Overdrive and Hoopla services available from our web site.”

Similarly, California’s Glendale Library, Arts & Culture director, Gary Shaffer learned that one of the local hospitals had patients in isolation who had no way to communicate with loved ones, as well as doctors who needed to conduct telemedicine with no way to provide it. “We rounded up 25 library-owned iPads that were not circulating from our branches and configured them with every communication software we could think of from Go-To Meeting to Zoom and everything in between” said Shaffer. “We also loaded them with all the library apps and provided a library card for each device.”

Partnerships were key at both Kansas City Public Library and Ohio’s Columbus Metropolitan Libraries. Working with non-profits who offer refurbished computers, laptops, and hotspots the two were able to provide critical access to families and students.

With the support of the St. Louis County Library Foundation, St. Louis County Library, MO, director Kristen Sorth purchased PBS Playtime Pads for Early Childhood Centers in Ritenour and Hancock Place school districts. Sorth worked with her local PBS affiliate, the Nine Network, to provide the accessible devices pre-loaded with educational content and no need for an internet connection. Sorth told LJ, “We are very optimistic about these devices for several reasons… parents and school districts want options for their Pre-K - 4th grade students to keep them on track for their reading level… parents want options for independent learning by their children - remote learning is putting added pressures on families who are trying to balance working from home and helping their kids. The devices are inexpensive at $52 each. They do not require the internet. They are very intuitive. They are available. All positives!”

In New York, the Irondequoit Public Library has partnered with East and West Irondequoit Central School District to provide Wi-Fi hotspots during the COVID-19 outbreak so students can continue to learn from home. Through the foresight of library director, Greg Benoit, 200 hotspots were purchased using the library materials budget to provide a hotspot to each student without internet access at home. The purchase was supported by the town government and library board and according to Benoit, “proved to be the only proposed plan to provide students with internet access that materialized.”

Hilary Seo, interim dean of the Iowa State University Library, shared that the University Library has had a tech lending program in place for approximately five years. When the university announced that classes would go online after spring break the concept of “Tech lending Delivery” was developed, providing students with off-campus access to laptops, iPads, hotspots, and additional equipment delivered to their front door. Seo said, “Tech Lending reached out to the colleges, and with the help of the deans and student advisers, they lent laptops to some of our most at-risk students.”

Both Cornell University Library in Ithaca, NY and Penn State University Libraries have laptop loan programs to support online learning and minimize learning disruptions.

The closure of libraries due to COVID-19 has emphasized the lack of broadband infrastructure needed for equitable access across the country. Says Millsap, “Stop gap measures like hot spots, whether that is from book mobile or a loaned device, are just that. They’re a short-term solution to a larger and long-term problem.” In the long run, she suggests, libraries should partner in community planning toward providing equitable access to broadband resources.

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