Libraries Advance Digital Inclusion Role With Hotspots

Larra Clark
Larra Clark

Libraries are a lynchpin for national, state, and local digital inclusion efforts—particularly our 16,500+ public library locations across the country. Mobile Beacon’s report “Creating Opportunity Through Connectivity”, as well as research on rural library hotspot lending in “At the Edges of the National Digital Platform”, provide evidence of this critical library role and the need for affordable, mobile, and uncapped internet service to empower all people to fully participate in our digital world.

The Mobile Beacon research offers insight into:

  • How libraries (and other community anchor institutions) are leveraging mobile internet services to meet community needs;
  • The importance of robust data to fully engage with online content;
  • Current benefits and limitations of mobile internet services offered through libraries and other institutions; and
  • Issues to watch and address through policymaking and library practices.

“Libraries are the clear leaders when it comes to providing broadband access to a community,” write Mobile Beacon report authors Samantha Schartman-Cycyk and Katherine Messier.  The report finds that public libraries use Mobile Beacon’s service to provide connectivity for their communities at the highest rate of all client organizations with 88 percent of devices being used for this purpose through hotspot lending and community outreach services. Of those libraries not currently offering hotspot lending, half report they plan to add one in the next year. Providing no-fee access to information for all people is the raison d’etre for our public libraries. But there are many dimensions to how libraries continue to transform their programs and services to create meaningful access that enables digital opportunity for all.

Meaningful access includes convenient physical locations with expert library staff to connect people with 1) relevant physical and digital resources, 2) support and training to use and create digital content, and 3) other people and community resources. Beyond their physical spaces, public libraries are extending their reach through wi-fi, hotspot lending, broadband-powered community outreach, and 24/7 access to specialized online employment and educational tools. “Checking out the internet” from the library is a logical extension of “The E’s of Libraries®”

Eighty-four percent of all respondents to Mobile Beacon’s survey rate the importance of having uncapped data as “very important” to “essential” to their programs. Mobile Beacon’s service is unique in that it provides $10 per month mobile, uncapped and unthrottled service exclusively to community anchor institutions. With this uncapped access, the average data used by libraries and their patrons over a five-month period was 266 GB.

“If you’re loaning the device out to patrons, they may not be able to use it if it is capped or limited data.” -- Skokie (IL) Public Library staff member

Rural library hotspot lending research led by Sharon Strover at the University of Texas-Austin also touches on this issue. Researchers found that the State Library of Kansas intervened to negotiate unlimited data with their hotspot provider after complaints about the 6 GB per device data limit. A related “How to Hotspot” guide prominently discusses data caps, throttling, and roaming costs among different providers.

The practical impact of data limits for mobile internet users is huge, particularly in terms of online education and learning. One homeschool family interviewed as part of Strover’s research explained that one of their daughter’s online courses included video that would consume all of the 2.5 GB monthly allowance for the library’s hotspot device. As more content moves online and becomes more video-heavy, this demand for data will continue to explode.

In a presentation at the 2017 Telecom Policy Research Conference, Strover, Colin Rhinesmith, Alexis Schrubbe and Brian Whitacre concluded that library hotspot lending was making a real difference in people’s lives by extending broadband access to rural residents. Hotspots address diverse needs, including bridging the homework gap, lending privacy for an individual to file adoption paperwork, helping small businesses process payments at community events, and simply staying connected during winter months when heating costs force families to choose between warmth and broadband at home.

Mobile Beacon's service benefits those who cannot afford home broadband. -- Anderson (IN) Public Library staff member

But, as with other library programs and services, the opportunities for hotspot lending can be constrained by library budgets and staffing to support the most effective management and outreach to leverage hotspots, and even thousands of devices cannot sustainably fill the broadband gaps we continue to see across the United States. In addition to waiting lists to check out the devices, sometimes spotty cellphone coverage and lack of digital skills can hamper online success.

Recent research efforts like those referenced here are essential to better understanding the impacts of community anchor institutions and the benefits and limitations of hotspot use and lending as one aspect of advancing digital inclusion. There is no single answer to the challenges we face, and libraries and the communities we serve need more options and viable solutions to accelerate digital inclusion and economic opportunity.

Two key federal Universal Service Fund program -- E-rate and Lifeline -- are among the solutions that already have made and are making a difference for broadband access for libraries, schools and for consumers.  But both face policy challenges and threats at the Federal Communications Commission and Congress and demand attention and advocacy to maintain progress created in recent years. The need for more robust and affordable fixed and mobile broadband options in communities of all sizes -- and community infrastructure to support lifelong learning to leverage connectivity and digital content -- is growing and demands action at the local, state and federal levels.

Larra Clark serves as Deputy Director for both the Public Library Association (PLA) and the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Information Technology Policy. Her portfolio includes broadband access and adoption, public library data and research, strategic communications and national initiatives and partnerships.  Previously, she served as the project manager in the ALA Office for Research & Statistics and as manager of media relations in the ALA Public Information Office following more than a decade of experience in non-profit public affairs, government relations, media relations and print journalism. Larra received her M.S. from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.