Charlotte Mecklenburg Addresses Digital Divide with 20,000 Computers and Free Neighborhood Wi-Fi

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML), NC, in March 2022 will begin distributing 20,000 free, refurbished laptops to Mecklenburg County adults who do not have their own home computers through its MeckTech Computer Kit Program. Separately, this month CML began rolling out MeckTech Connect, a pilot program that will provide free broadband internet service to about 800 households in Charlotte’s West Boulevard Corridor.

MeckTech logoCharlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML), NC, in March 2022 will begin distributing 20,000 free, refurbished laptops to Mecklenburg County adults who do not have their own home computers. It will mark the second phase of the library’s MeckTech Computer Kit Program, which began in 2020 when CML—in partnership with Mecklenburg County, eCycleSecure, E2D, bloom., and City Startup Labs with funding provided through an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) CARES Act grant—gave 2,700 laptops as permanent loans to local households.

The program, which won a 2020 Top Innovator Award from the Urban Libraries Council (ULC), was so successful that CML received $8 million from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Connectivity Fund to expand it. CML officials estimate that as many as 50,000 households in Mecklenburg County do not have a computer at home, and as ULC states, “the effects of the [COVID-19] pandemic have shifted nearly all traditional venues of employment, education, health, and library services over into the digital realm,” making home computers a necessity.

Converting $8 million in funding into 20,000 computers and then getting those computers to the right people is a major undertaking, “but it’s based off of the learnings” from the smaller program in 2020, CML Chief Innovation Officer Seth Ervin told LJ. “We requested a big amount…and we’re excited for the challenge.”

For example, during the 2020 project, CML tried offering applicants a choice between laptops and desktop computers. “We quickly learned, ‘do not do that,’” Ervin said, noting the challenges posed by offering such a variety of refurbished hardware. The new project has been streamlined to offer laptops exclusively.

In order to eliminate the costs inherent in licensing fees, the computers are preloaded with an open source operating system and a variety of free and open source software.

“The image that we’re building is a Linux image—MX Linux—and it has been loaded with everything anyone would need including LibreOffice, Zoom, Chrome, and Firefox—it’s really just the basics of what you need to participate and engage people on the internet,” he said. “But it’s a really robust system, and what’s good is that it works really well with slightly older hardware, which allows us to keep that price point right.”

On the choice of Linux over a commercial OS, such as Microsoft Windows, Ervin added that “we would rather spend that money on better hardware and deliver a solution that meets the true needs” of community members. “Granted, what we have tried to do is make the image…so that it’s not dissimilar to what you’d see on a Windows PC.”

The program is limited to Mecklenburg County residents 18 or older. They must attest that they do not have a household desktop or laptop, and that they need a computer for either education, reskilling for their career, accessing telehealth services, or accessing essential government services online. The laptops are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, and the original program generated an extensive waitlist. With 20,000 additional devices now becoming available, CML will reopen the waitlist for applicants in mid-January 2022 with plans to begin distribution in March.

Regarding the simple criteria for qualifying for the program, Ervin explained that “in Charlotte we have a whole economic mobility conversation that’s been going on for several years. Due to the historic segregation in our community, we know the areas that really need this support…. And we are trying to make a special effort to target those communities…. However, due to the scale [of the program] we’re also trying to remove as many barriers as possible. So, really, if you’re an adult in Mecklenburg County, and you attest that you need a device, we are going to give you one.”



Separately, this month CML began rolling out MeckTech Connect, a pilot program that will provide free broadband internet service to about 800 households in Charlotte’s West Boulevard Corridor for at least the next year. Ervin said that broadband adoption is currently below 50 percent in this area’s census tract.

“In a world where our libraries could close down at any moment,” as they did during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, “how do people navigate without [internet access] in today’s society?” Ervin said. “How can the library continue to bridge the digital divide even when our branches are closed?”

In partnership with Open Broadband, a regional ISP focused on underserved communities, MeckTech Connect installed outdoor fixed wireless antennas in strategic locations within these neighborhoods. Like the original MeckTech Computer Kit project, MeckTech Connect was made possible by a $492,000 IMLS CARES Act grant awarded in 2020, along with the support of partners including Open Broadband, bloom., City Startup Labs, the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition, Hack & Hustle Academy, and

Much of the time between receiving the grant and this month’s rollout was used to discuss the project with residents of the impacted community and then research and plan its design. “The first thing we did before engaging in technical buildout was we really needed to understand ‘what is the problem?’” Ervin said. “Broadband access is technically available [in these neighborhoods via paid subscriptions through a commercial ISP], so why are people choosing not to adopt it? So, we spent three months…really just doing community engagement to understand why…. What we found out was that the broadband service in that area was very spotty, not well maintained, and very expensive.”

As part of these outreach efforts, CML also recruited three “West Boulevard Community Champions” who were each paid a $300 stipend to attend meetings with the MeckTech Connect team, explain challenges that local residents faced with commercial ISPs and their customer service, and offer suggestions to CML and Open Broadband about creating a service that would appeal to their neighborhood and respond to its needs.

After receiving feedback from the community, “we designed a mesh network with a CBRS methodology that uses power poles” for attaching fixed wireless antennas in three West Boulevard Corridor neighborhoods. Power poles ended up being a convenient solution in these neighborhoods, because they enabled the MeckTech Connect team to place the antennas on elevated, pre-existing structures with a power source in areas targeted for best coverage. “It’s kind of like an open Wi-Fi network—with some security, of course—that’s just there,” Ervin said. “It allows us to have the flexibility to say ‘I’m not coming in your home during whatever [stage] of this pandemic we’re in.' It makes the whole transaction very seamless—if you move, if your rent situation changes, it’s still there.”

The library’s free home broadband Wi-Fi for these neighborhoods will remain in operation until the project’s grant funding is spent. But like the MeckTech Computer Kit program, Ervin is hoping that this pilot project proves that CML is responding to a significant community need with a viable, well researched solution that can be replicated. “In order for the nation to really get back on its feet, it’s going to take a lot of federal funding to move us forward,” he said. “It was with that mindset that [CML] pushed for these grants. It might not get us everything we need, but it’s going to give us a prototype or a pilot to showcase, so that when more stimulus comes or more project money is opened up, we’ve got something to actually point to versus an idea.”

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Matt Enis


Matt Enis ( is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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