Libraries' Increasing Role in Broadband Adoption

This article was written by: Angela Siefer, National Digital Inclusion Alliance; Katherine Bates, Urban Libraries Council; and Colin Rhinesmith, School of Library and Information Studies, University of Oklahoma, and Benton Foundation Faculty Research Fellow. This is an effort by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, with guidance from the Benton Foundation and the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Oklahoma. We would like to thank the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) and their member libraries for their insights and participation in making this paper possible.

With library systems increasingly prioritizing equitable access to the Internet and digital literacy training, the role 21st-century libraries serve in promoting digital inclusion has become more prominent. The focus on increasing broadband access and use is happening locally and nationally with libraries increasing digital equity through partnerships with community-based organizations and engagement strategies with local neighborhoods. The New York Public Library and the Kansas City Public Library, for example, are experimenting with and searching for innovative solutions to the digital divide, which includes increasing home broadband access. While solutions must be locally-customized to meet the needs of specific populations, national support is necessary to aid local efforts, raise the visibility of the issue, garner resources, and create peer networks. To that end, this paper provides descriptions of local and national initiatives supportive of broadband adoption.


59% of American households with annual incomes below $20,000 do NOT have Internet access at home. Source: John Horrigan and Maeve Duggan, Home Broadband 2015, Pew Research Center, (Dec 21, 2015).

As society moves online, libraries, government, community-based organizations, and for-profit corporations are digitizing resources, services and products. Doing so reduces costs and improves convenience, but also has the potential to reduce the digital divide. While libraries provide in-facility Internet access, usage barriers include computer time limits, wait times for computer use, and lack of 24-hour access. These challenges have led forward-thinking libraries to recognize the importance of home broadband access as an extension of a library’s mission of providing public access to information and social support. As trusted community institutions, libraries are strategically positioned to take a leadership role working with municipalities, schools, and other nonprofit organizations to increase access to and use of digital services.

What is Broadband Adoption?

Defining broadband adoption is not easy. The Pew Research Center measures broadband adoption as home access to the Internet that is faster than dial-up and not via a mobile phone. The affiliates of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NTIA) define broadband adoption as daily access to the Internet:

  • at speeds, quality and capacity necessary to accomplish common tasks,
  • with the digital skills necessary to fully participate online, and
  • on a personal device and secure convenient network.

Home broadband service is the most convenient type of access, but it is not a reality for everyone. As libraries work to increase home broadband adoption, continuing to offer public broadband access fills the connectivity gap for the most vulnerable populations.

It is important to note having access to the Internet, and knowing how to effectively use it, has become increasingly essential to education, health, work, and civic participation. Examples of tasks now conducted online include homework assignments, prescription renewals, job searches, banking, and reading the news. To fully participate in today’s economy, adequate Internet access is essential.

Barriers: Digital Literacy, Relevancy & Cost

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Broadband Adoption Toolkit focuses on the primary barriers to broadband adoption:

  • Access and Availability: While not the most prevalent factor, lack of access and availability still remain a key barrier to adoption. Access is a barrier for households in areas where high-speed Internet is not available, especially in rural areas of the country. According to NTIA’s 2011 Digital Nation report, 40 percent of rural Americans did not subscribe to broadband at home, with 9.4 percent (compared to 1 percent in urban areas) noting a lack of broadband availability as the primary barrier to adoption.
  • Cost: Rural and urban populations alike cite the high cost of broadband subscriptions as a reason for non-adoption. Nonadopters also may have concerns about the confusing and unpredictable nature of broadband subscription costs or find that the cost of purchasing and maintaining a computer is a barrier to connecting to broadband service.
  • Perception: Many non-adopters have not experienced the benefits of being online and are apprehensive about the Internet. They perceive the Internet as unknown and dangerous, potentially compromising privacy, the safety of their children, and their financial security. They may not be aware of opportunities to learn how to protect themselves on the Internet or to be part of a social network that includes people with the expertise to help them.
  • Relevance: Non-adopters often do not believe that broadband Internet is relevant to their lives. These Americans are used to performing tasks and accessing services without using the Internet, and they do not think that there is anything on the Internet that would improve or enhance their lives.
  • Skills: Many non-adopters -- especially older, less-educated, and lower-income Americans -- do not have the digital literacy skills needed to use online tools and services effectively. They may own computers and/or have broadband available to them, but they are not comfortable, confident users.

To successfully increase broadband adoption, all barriers must be addressed through a diverse set of local partners with established roots in the community. Each local solution should be tailored to the individual community. Equally important, trust – between the individual and organization providing instruction – is essential. This point is reiterated in John Horrigan’s evaluation of Comcast’s Internet Essentialsan independent review of CenturyLink’s Internet Basics Program, the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Wireline Competition Bureau Low-Income Broadband Pilot Program Staff Report, and a myriad of documentation from the National Telecommunication Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

Successful broadband adoption programs often address digital literacy and relevancy simultaneously. Libraries and nonprofit organizations teach relevant digital literacy skills through one-on-one instruction as well as group training classes. Often, teaching the skills shows the relevance of the Internet to users’ personal lives. For example, a senior citizen might master how to use a mouse and a browser by finding and listening to jazz music, a child might learn online safety while conducting research for a homework assignment, and an adult might experience digital relevance by applying online for a job or benefits.

Low-cost broadband service in any geographic region is likely to be offered by one or more of the following providers:

  • Commercial Internet service providers (ISPs) offering wired or wireless service.
    • Voluntarily-offered service, e.g., as promotional offers with time limits and often with limitations on who is eligible (such as households with children receiving free or reduced lunches).
    • Service mandated by the Federal Communications Commission or state public utility commissions and always with income-eligibility limitations.
  • Publicly-owned ISPs offering wired or wireless service (such as municipal networks).
  • Anchor institutions and nonprofit organizations partnering with commercial or publicly-owned ISPs to offer reduced-rate or free Internet service.

For low-income households, “affordable” is often in the range of $10 per month, a dollar amount that perhaps can fit into an already-squeezed budget.

The list of low-cost service offerings in any geographic region may change periodically due to time-limited offers and the continually evolving nature of technology. Local organizations, including libraries and community organizations, often keep an updated list of area offerings. Nationally, EveryoneOn maintains a database of low-cost service offers provided by its partners, but this is not an exhaustive list.

When the modernization of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (USF) Lifeline Program is implemented, eligible consumers may have many more low-cost broadband service options. This is expected to occur in 2016.

Libraries & Broadband Adoption Leadership

Kansas City Public Library

The Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) in Missouri has made technology access and use – inside and outside of the library – a top priority. KCPL is looking at how to address multiple aspects of broadband adoption (including home access), by providing the public with crucial access, technology, and training resources.

“The library is in process of reinventing ourselves. The community will determine what role the library should have,” said KCPL Executive Director Crosby Kemper.

KCPL Deputy Director, Cheptoo Kositany-Bucker added:

Libraries need to make digital inclusion a priority. There are a lot of digital divide issues, including access, devices, and content. Can people access the content? As we increase the e-content, are we doing so for all our community members? Demand for public access shows there is a need for home access. What are our priorities? We talk of libraries moving to [the] digital age but are we bringing our communities along?

According to Kositany-Buckner, the Institute of Museum and Library Services initiative Building Digital Communities made it clear that digital inclusion cannot be accomplished by a library alone. So, KCPL is also leading citywide digital inclusion efforts. Dozens of local entities – including Kansas City government, social service agencies, libraries, nonprofits, public safety organizations, school districts, community colleges, and Internet service providers – have a vested interest in increasing broadband adoption and developing the community’s digital skills. KCPL collaborates with local organizations and schools to extend library services into the community while working cooperatively to ensure the greatest impact.

Examples include:

  • KCPL is piloting a hotspot program with Kansas City Public Schools. The program has a holistic purpose that brings bring connectivity and digital skills to entire families. A family can borrow a tablet and a hotspot device and receive digital literacy training. Students are required to perform 40 hours of community service, which may include training parents to use the Internet.
  • KCPL is leading the creation of Community Learning Centers, places where the public can access the Internet, devices, and programming close to home. These computer labs offer access to targeted resources from the library and other partner institutions. Available resources and programming focus on workforce development, personal finance, early literacy, and digital life skills. The first location is awaiting grant approval.
  • KCPL also coordinates the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion. The coalition’s mission is to maximize collaboration and impact among organizations and initiatives working to bridge the digital divide. The coalition’s regular communications increases project partnerships, e.g.: KCPL hosted a regional digital inclusion summit, regularly gathers local partners, created the Coalition’s website, and leads cooperative fundraising efforts.

New York Public Library

The leadership at the New York Public Library (NYPL) has determined broadband adoption is a priority. NYPL President and CEO Tony Marx challenged his staff to show how the library could have a greater impact on broadband adoption rates.

When NYPL decided to tackle broadband adoption, especially among low-income populations, it performed comprehensive research about how to best provide broadband access. The findings revealed the most successful community-based programs combine a computing device, broadband service, and digital literacy training, together, into one program. Recognizing the difficulties involved in scaling a program to include these three layers, NYPL focused on one piece: the broadband service.

This focus resulted in the New York City Library HotSpot program. Luke Swarthout, the Director of Adult Education Services at NYPL, said:

Our Library Hotspot program is focused on the 2 million New Yorkers without home Internet access ... We looked at the needs of our patrons, our resources and saw this opportunity to have an impact and experiment with a new model. HotSpot lending is just one tactic and can be more useful in some communities. The main question for us is how can libraries and civic institutions influence broadband adoption? How do we end this persistent gap that has such serious consequences for so many Americans?

The city’s three library systems each rolled out the program slightly differently:

  • At the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), patrons are eligible to borrow devices for one year if they do not have broadband at home and are enrolled in one of BPL's adult education or inclusion programs. BPL also made devices available at their NYC Connected Communities branches, which serve communities most impacted by the digital divide. At those branches, adult library cardholders without broadband at home may register for and attend a program orientation session.
  • In the New York Public Library system (which covers the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island), people are eligible to borrow devices for six months if they do not have broadband at home. These HotSpot borrowers must be currently enrolled in one of several library initiatives, including after-school or adult learning programs, such as English for Speakers of Other Languages or literacy classes.
  • At Queens Library, the mobile HotSpots are lent to its Adult Learning Program students and to anyone with a library card from the five libraries also lending Google tablets.

Earlier this year, the Library HotSpot program expanded eligibility to include any NYPL patron without Internet access at home. He/she may borrow a device for up to a year at one of 23 branches in high-needs areas. The user must also be 18 or older and have a fine-free library card.

To fund the HotSpot lending program, NYPL raised $2 million from Google, the Knight News Challenge, an initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and Robin Hood Foundation. However, the program is not sustainable without a dedicated, long-term funding source. NYPL is paying $15 per month for unlimited data (throttled after 6 GB/month) on each HotSpot device.

While the HotSpot project is being implemented and evaluated, NYPL lead staff Luke Swarthout and Charity Kittler are researching and analyzing additional actions that may positively impact broadband access and use in New York City, including working with external partners. NYPL’s past partnerships to develop technology training programs have been highly successful.

Broadband Adoption: National Landscape

Local solutions need national support. Despite no clearly identified sources of federal funding to increase broadband adoption, federal agencies and national nonprofit organizations are working to define resources, elevate visibility of the issue and increase collaborations.

Lifeline Modernization

The FCC is currently modernizing the Lifeline program, which was created in 1985 to ensure low-income consumers have access to landline telephone service; it was expanded in 2006 to include wireless telephone services. Within the next few months, the FCC is expected to once again expand Lifeline to include discounted broadband service. If successful, a modernized Lifeline program could make low-cost broadband service available to low-income consumers across the nation.

To help guide the Lifeline modernization process, the Urban Libraries Council submitted comments to the FCC regarding the role of libraries in broadband adoption:

As the [FCC] is well aware, libraries have been at the forefront of broadband adoption and digital inclusion efforts for many years and provide not only free and open Internet access, but also the training and guidance needed to support meaningful broadband use in the broader community and at home. Urban libraries, in particular, are acutely aware of the transformative role that the widespread availability of broadband services and technologies play in the lives of community members – especially lower-income individuals. Urban libraries work with partners across their communities on a daily basis to ensure that the services offered in the libraries, including broadband access, are continued at home.

In addition to ULC, individual urban libraries joined together to support expansion of the program. These libraries outlined their concerns to the FCC:

Unfortunately as the Internet becomes more critical as a tool for learning, communication and creating and accessing information and services, the gaps in access across our communities are growing. Libraries help close these gaps, but more must be done to increase the access for the 30% of Americans who lack home broadband. Furthermore, as libraries make more of their resources available online, lack of home broadband access threatens to leave some Americans in the digital dark.

Additionally, the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition submitted comments supporting the modernization of Lifeline and the role of community anchor institutions (CAIs):

Because CAIs are in every community, they can often serve as a gateway to reaching low-income people. CAIs can promote broadband adoption in many ways – by providing digital literacy training, by educating consumers about the availability of the Lifeline program, and at times by extending their broadband services directly to surrounding homes.

In its filing to the FCC, the American Library Association (ALA) also outlined how Lifeline could help support libraries’ broadband adoption efforts:

  • Libraries could help reach potential Lifeline consumers and make them aware of the program;
  • Libraries could serve as Lifeline enrollment sites;
  • Libraries could provide targeted digital literacy classes for Lifeline eligible families; and
  • Eligible Lifeline consumers could check out personal Wi-Fi hotspot devices from local libraries supported by Lifeline.

Broadband Opportunity Council

In April-June 2015, the Broadband Opportunity Council (BOC) – initiated by President Barack Obama and co-chaired by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture – asked for public comment about how federal agencies can promote broadband deployment, adoption and competition. The full list of submitted comments is publicly available and the BOC’s recommendations were announced on September 21, 2015. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) posted the report with potential broadband adoption resources underlined and ALA highlighted key takeaways of this report for libraries.


BroadbandUSA is a program of the US Department of Commerce and NTIA. Building on expertise gained from overseeing the $4.7 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, BroadbandUSA provides resources, including technical assistance, toolkits and guides, to help communities assess local broadband needs, engage stakeholders, explore business models, evaluate financing options and attract private-sector investment.


In July 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Obama Administration launched ConnectHome, a pilot initiative intended to accelerate broadband adoption by children and families living in HUD-assisted housing in 28 communities across the nation. ConnectHome is a platform for collaboration between local governments, public housing agencies, Internet service providers, philanthropic foundations, nonprofit organizations, and other relevant stakeholders that will produce local solutions for narrowing the digital divide. The pilot aims to reach 200,000 school-age children living in HUD-assisted housing with affordable broadband access, devices, and other resources.

Urban Libraries Council’s Edge Initiative

Edge is an easy-to-use suite of tools managed by the Urban Libraries Council; it allows public libraries to utilize assessment and planning tools, to evaluate public access technology and identify how it can be used to help communities. The Edge Assessment: 1) evaluates the library’s public technology services, based upon a set of national benchmarks focused on assessing current public technology and how it is used; 2) identifies ways to strengthen or enhance public technology; and 3) enables libraries to engage with key leaders about the public libraries’ roles in improving communities, such as digital inclusion efforts.

Edge outcome data is used to improve and enhance library services to better meet community needs. It also supports decision-making regarding the allocation of technology resources and investments, helping libraries reduce the digital divide in their communities through new and innovative strategies.

National Digital Inclusion Alliance

To improve the daily lives of all community members, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance(NDIA) calls for digital inclusion public policies that reflect its members’ expertise and diverse experiences. NDIA, formed in May 2015, is comprised of leaders of local community organizations, public libraries, cities and other institutions working to reduce digital disparities among neighbors. NDIA currently has 147 affiliates, including 12 local libraries, three regional library councils and the Urban Libraries Council.

NTEN Digital Inclusion Fellows

The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) recruited and trained 16 emerging community leaders in eight Google Fiber communities to be Digital Inclusion Fellows. The program supports and expands local capacity by recruiting the Fellows locally and partnering with community-based organizations that currently have or desire digital inclusion components in their organization. Two of the local host organizations are the Nashville Public Library and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. The other host organizations have local library partners. NTEN will share successes, lessons, examples, case studies, research, and materials/resources to ensure any interested organization may learn about and adapt digital inclusion programs into their work.

Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition promotes government policies and programs that enable schools, libraries, healthcare providers, other anchor institutions, and their communities to obtain open, affordable, high-speed broadband connections to the Internet. Of the SHLB Coalition’s 57 members, five are library associations.


As the digital component of our lives increases, libraries are again fulfilling a public need by help our community members participate in the emerging digital economy. Beyond traditional digital-inclusion work, libraries are expanding their roles to provide resources for broadband adoption. Working with schools, municipalities and nonprofit organizations, libraries are integrating public access computing, digital literacy training and home broadband programs to provide community-specific needs for connectivity, devices, skills and motivation to connect and stay connected.

This paper highlights just two urban library systems that are piloting, researching and collaborating to reduce the digital divide in their communities. It is important to remember the library should be a part of any digital inclusion strategy at the local level because each community’s needs are inherently different.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) report, Building Digital Communities, sets forth a vision of what a modern, 21st century community looks like when digital inclusion is made a priority. The report suggests principles, goals and strategies to achieve that vision that includes a library leadership role in regional collaborations.

Communities must engage all sectors to achieve digital inclusion and public libraries (recognizing their role in bridging the digital divide) are uniquely positioned to convene the planning process and coordinate this essential work. Most communities are still in the early stages of digital inclusion planning and collaboration. Each phase requires creativity, innovation and leadership by libraries to ensure the least fortunate are not left behind.