Wi-Fi Hot Spots for Rent: How Public Libraries Are Changing with the Times

Public libraries in cities small and large are helping to close the digital divide by making portable Internet hot spots available to patrons.

by / January 14, 2016

It’s a scene all too common in the libraries of today – a patron hunched over a glowing computer screen at one of the communal tables, locked into the digital information source without a book in reach. Perhaps access to a strong Internet signal is not available in their area, or they are looking to hone new skills – either way, at the library it’s free.

Libraries around the country are embracing technology, meeting a very real demand and once again making themselves a leading resource for information.

According to the American Library Association’s 2015 State of American Libraries report, the modern library has evolved from its traditional role as a research-centric establishment to a central location for digital access, learning and literacy.

Around 97 percent of public libraries now offer Internet access in the form of free onsite Wi-Fi and 98 percent offer some form of technology training, according to the report. Around 80 percent of institutions in the U.S. provide assistance with online job hunting services.

In Spring Hill, Tenn., pop 35,000, a fast-growing suburb of Nashville, officials noticed patrons flocking to the library after hours for access to public Wi-Fi. In 2014, they launched a program to make portable Internet hot spots available to anyone interested in taking them home.

With growth in Spring Hill outpacing service providers’ ability to equip homes with networks, the portable technology has become a popular item to borrow, according to library and city officials. It's just one of the ways public libraries are adapting to the technological needs of their constituents.

Jennifer Urban, the library’s circulation supervisor, said the focus on meeting the patrons' connectivity needs has been a worthwhile investment for a community with a growing number of young families.

“I think they’re popular for a number of reasons. First, we do have a lot of people that travel, so there is a big interest from people when they have a trip coming up,” she said. “We also have a lot of people that don’t have Internet in their homes for one reason or another. [Spring Hill] is an area that is experiencing rapid, rapid growth and development, so a lot of times you talk to people who are new to the area and maybe they don’t have Internet set up in their home yet and sometimes there can be a long wait for that." 

Some residents simply cannot afford the costs associated with their own Internet service plans, according to Urban. For a regular group of library patrons, the take-home devices supply the majority of their online access.

“One of the things [the former library director] was really hoping to do was to decrease the digital gap a bit. He mentioned how he would get to the library before we opened, and it still happens, people were parked in the parking lot and using the wireless Internet,” she said. “He just wanted to take library services into the next dimension really, to take it a step further so that people were able to have their informational needs met.”

Through a partnership with T-Mobile, the telecom service provider, the city library is able to provide roughly 20 devices to the public free of charge. Urban said the operational costs are around $8,500 a month.

Since the launch, Urban said there's been a regular waiting list of 20-30 residents and the library hopes to expand the program in the future.

Chicago’s library system offers digital literacy courses, available by appointment, and has expanded its own fleet of mobile hot spots, according to Director of Library Technology Michelle Frisque.

Since May 2015, the city has had its own hot spot program for underserved neighborhoods with limited connectivity options. Though anyone can check out the devices, Frisque said they are only available in strategic locations.

“We’ve selected neighborhoods in the city that are under-connected, meaning that they usually have a broadband adoption rate of under 50 percent,” she said. “So, that means 50 percent of the people in that neighborhood do not actually have access to the Internet in the home.”

Roughly 730 devices are available at to any adult cardholder in good standing for checkout in three-week intervals. The library plans to add 230 in February. Frisque said the program was made possible through funding from the Knight Foundation and Google. 

“I think what public libraries do and have always done has always been the same; we're about lifelong learning," said Frisque. For many years that was through books, we still do that through books and reading, but there are other ways that we help people in their curiosity and the way that they explore whatever it is they are interested in.” 

Frisque said patrons can also learn manufacturing skills through the library’s Maker Lab, which features introductions to 3-D printing, or by checking out a Finch robot, which helps to teach programming skills.

In Seattle, the public library has seen an enormous demand for Wi-Fi hot spots and is moving to boost the number of devices available to constituents. 

Library spokesperson Caroline Ullmans said the city’s Wi-Fi checkout program, which started in May 2015, is popular for a number of reasons including the lack of home service and income limitations.

“We started with a grant from Google and most recently, through the support of the mayor and city council, they have added money to our budget to extend the life of the initial Google grant to add more hot spots and serve more people,” She said. “Over the course of the next year, we’ll be adding 450 more [devices].”

The waiting list for the 325 available mobile hot spots has surpassed more than 1,000 library cardholders since the program’s start. Ullmann said unprecedented demand was behind the city’s push to add almost 500 more devices in 2016. 

“We really feel a commitment to help close the digital divide for Seattle residents, particularly those who live on low incomes,” she said. “A city of Seattle survey from 2014 found that a significant number of people lack Internet access at home … more than 50 percent of people whose income was under $20,000 [a year] had no access to the Internet.”

According to surveys conducted by the Seattle Public Library, 33 percent of its members reported a lack of Internet service at home and 44 percent reported an annual household income of less than $30,000. The hotspot devices have been checked out 2,200 times since the program started.

Despite funding challenges, Ullmann said Seattle has been fortunate when it comes to providing services for a city that is very fond of its libraries.

“During the recession we certainly had budget cuts that resulted in a decrease of our open hours and a decrease in our service overall,” Ullmann said. “In 2012 we were super fortunate in that the Seattle voters approved a library levy, and that’s a seven-year, $123 million levy devoted to restoring the core services that were cut during the recession.”

“The people of Seattle really love their libraries. The majority of residents have library cards and use them regularly," she said. "I think also an important thing we do is provide digital literacy, so not only do we provide the devices, but we teach people how to use them and how to be a smart online."

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.