On Saturday, Michelle Frisque, chief of technology, content, and innovation at Chicago Public Library (CPL), and Luke Swarthout, director of adult education services at New York Public Library (NYPL), led a session titled “A Tale of Two Cities: NYPL and CPL Wi-Fi Lending Projects.”
The session, sponsored by the Library Information and Technology Association, offered two examples of public libraries that are experimenting with lending Wi-Fi hotspots to users in high-need communities in an effort to close the broadband adoption gap.
Swarthout began the session by explaining how NYPL came to be a lender of Wi-Fi hotspots. He cited the following statistics: 27% of New Yorkers do not have home internet access; low-income families are disproportionately affected; 15% of adults in New York do not use the internet at all. In an effort to close those gaps and increase home broadband adoption, NYPL began lending Netgear Zing Mobile Hotspots. The pilot program hopes to:
- Close the homework gap—If kids cannot get online, they will be unable to complete their homework, “further leaving students who most need help behind.”
- Increase employment opportunities—Most jobs now include some online component, either for the application or in the position description.
- Offer internet access 24 hours a day—Libraries and schools are often closed when internet access is most crucial.
- Increase civic engagement.
- Provide access to social services—“Accessing social services increasingly has an online component.”
When NYPL began the pilot program, there were 100 hotspots distributed through four branches. Families with students in Out of School Time or ESOL programs in those branches were eligible to check out the devices. Through the pilot program, Swarthout found that users encountered several barriers to internet use: cost, relevance, and a lack of skills. Lending Wi-Fi hotspots offers a solution to each of those barriers. “Libraries expose patrons to online resources that show the value of internet access,” he said, and “provide training and support so that patrons can access and utilize internet resources.”
NYPL examined several other options to increase home internet access, but the Wi-Fi hotspots offered the best option because they are easy to lend. They also work inside the users’ homes, ensuring their safety when using the internet. Hotspots allow the library to target priority families, and the capital costs are low. After the devices were distributed, Swarthout reported that they were being used during the hours that the library was closed, often for four hours a night or more. The program is “as popular or more popular than anything we offer in the library,” he said.
Next, Frisque described a similar program recently implemented at the Chicago Public Library. One-third of Chicagoans do not have access to the internet at home. Limited library hours create problems for patrons who need to have access to the internet on a regular basis, so, like NYPL, CPL implemented a pilot program for Wi-Fi hotspot lending. The goals of the CPL program included: increasing comfort with digital technology and increasing users’ perception that the internet is relevant to them.
The CPL pilot program was launched in three branches, Greater Grand Crossing, Douglass, and Brighton Park, and it will last for eight weeks. There are 100 hotspots at each location and 10 kits, which include a hotspot and a Chromebook or a Surface tablet. The kits will be available in July 2015. Branches also have cyber navigators on staff available for one-on-one digital coaching to ensure that users are able to set up their devices and that they feel comfortable using them. “We made sure that the three libraries we did select for this program had a cyber navigator,” Frisque said. This ensured that people who got the devices would have the support they needed to get up and running.
The scale of the CPL pilot is not as great as the NYPL program, and there are differences in the lending process for each library system; but the ultimate goal is the same—give users access to the internet at home. Across the United States, 2.2 million people do not have home internet access. For those individuals, “broadband connectivity . . . will be a game changer,” Swarthout said.
NYPL, CPL, and other libraries across the country are leading the way by offering diverse models that will give users the internet access they need to be successful in the digital age.