Libraries and Rural Broadband
As my team visited rural libraries in Kansas and Maine, we routinely saw parking lots and streets filled with patrons using Wi-Fi connections after hours.
By some estimates, there are 4,078 rural libraries in the U.S. and they’re important in more ways than you might expect. Going well beyond book lending, rural libraries support all sorts of educational programs, maker spaces, and social service meetings. They also have public access computers and most provide Wi-Fi access both inside and outside their buildings.
Library hotspot lending programs can begin to address some of the problems people face in both urban areas (where affordability is the biggest problem) as well as rural regions (where both access and affordability may be issues). While New York Public Library’s program is the biggest, it generously partnered with the Maine and Kansas library systems to make a few hundred hotspots available to rural libraries in those states. We asked librarians in those two states what people are doing with them.
First off, in some locations the hotspots are so popular there are waiting lists. Educators check them out to use on school field trips so a busload of students can get mobile access. Home-schooling families use hotspots in Maine and Kansas to retrieve lesson plans and to network with other home schoolers. In addition, some community organizations use them. For example, 4-H volunteers in Goodland County checked out hotspots to process credit cards at the County Fair. The high school used the hotspots to register reunion attendees. A hunting organization used the hotspot connection to register members during its convention. One family used a device to ensure their son could finish his schoolwork while visiting a sick relative. One librarian told us that many patrons used the devices at home to seek jobs.
Rural libraries serve as trusted public institutions in small towns all over the country. While many people seem to think libraries only loan books, in fact, rural libraries are critical local information institutions in their communities, providing spaces and resources for many community functions – from social services to citizenship to early childhood education, to children’s reading skills. Lending hotspots extends the library into people’s homes (and other places), and even makes libraries’ electronic resources more available to patrons.
Are hotspot programs a sustainable solution for rural Internet? Right now, these programs depend on special funding, often from foundations or benefactors, and arrangements with mobile phone companies providing connectivity. That connection might have a data limit, or maybe the speed will throttle at a certain point. Even if the library is a public institution and provides free services, the hotspot itself is still privately provided and the connectivity is not free.
Library hotspot lending programs may provide a highly useful function for rural populations but several things have to fall into place to insure they can make a meaningful contribution to the community. One critical question concerns whether these systems can keep up with the bandwidth demands of the types of applications people need the most, and what libraries’ roles might be – or should be – in rural community information environments.
- Brian Whitacre, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, Colin Rhinesmith, a professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Simmons, and I are working on an Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded research project examining rural hotspot lending programs.
Sharon Strover is a Professor in Communication and former Chair of the Radio-TV-Film Department at the University of Texas where she now directs the Technology and Information Policy Institute. Her current work examines policy responses to the digital divide internationally and domestically; the economic benefits of broadband, particularly in rural areas; and the role of libraries in local information environments. Dr. Strover has worked with several international, national and regional government agencies and nonprofits including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Center for Rural Strategies, and the European Union.