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Montana Library Offering Hot Spots to Help Close Digital Divide

The Billings Library has started to offer Wi-Fi hot spots to its patrons in an effort to close connectivity gaps throughout the city and bolster online learning and work while the library facilities are closed to visitors.

Wifi Hotspot
(TNS) — The Billings Public Library began offering free mobile hotspots for checkout to help bridge a "digital divide" in Montana earlier in the year, as schools, health care and services move online.

With demand for the devices growing, the library's foundation is fundraising to purchase more.

With the rise in COVID-19 cases in the county, the library has been closed for in-person use, leaving those who have relied on its computers without a ready way to go online.

"I don't know if people realize how much has to be done on the Internet. Applying for jobs or unemployment, or if you want to file your income taxes," said Leslie Modrow, the Billings Public Library Foundation director. "Even for people to be able to stay in contact with a family member by Zoom or Skype. A lot of it is being done online"

Last month the library began to offer mobile hotspot devices for checkout. The devices can be taken home to connect their own phones, tablets or computers to Wi-Fi.

Already, the demand that the library has seen for the devices convinced Modrow that there was a need for more.

The Billings Public Library Foundation is fundraising to buy 20 more mobile hotspot devices to add to the library's existing collection of 24.

The foundation needs to raise $7,000 to buy and provide service to the devices for a year.

Modrow is hoping that Giving Tuesday, an international day for giving back that happens the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, will motivate Billings residents to pitch in a few dollars.

"People are frustrated that we are missing these valuable things, like the library that anchor us to a community and that's why we're trying really hard to keep everyone connected," Modrow said. "It's not until you lose access that you realize how important the Internet is."

The library received the first 24 devices from the Montana State Library, which began a hotspot lending program for public and tribal libraries, funded with CARES Act money.

Overall, Montana has consistently ranked among the lowest among states for both access to the Internet and for its speed.

About 30% of Montana households are without broadband Internet, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In July, the Billings Public Schools began to pay for some student's home Internet amid the remote shift. Still, some kids may get missed and lack a reliable Internet connection to learn remotely.

About 15% of students in the U.S. don't have high-speed Internet access at home, according to a 2020 update from the Pew Research Center.

"I really hope that students from SD2 use this service," said library director Gavin Woltjer. "Hopefully we can supplement and ease that lack so they can continue with their schooling."

Cody Allen, the system administrator at the library, said the devices are extremely easy to use and provide reliable service.

"It was a good opportunity to focus on digital services and figure out ways to help people," he said.

The library is offering curbside pick up Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the end of the year. The devices are available for checkout for two weeks at a time.

You can donate to the Billings Public Library Foundation online at

(c)2020 the Billings Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.