September 24, 2017

NYPL, CPL Wi-Fi Lending Pilots Progressing | ALA Annual 2015

NetGear ZingEarly results from two Knight News Challenge award–winning pilot programs indicate that mobile hotspot lending could help bridge the digital divide in city neighborhoods where broadband adoption is low, and home Internet subscriptions are considered a luxury. A capacity crowd was on hand to hear Luke Swarthout, director of adult education services for the New York Public Library (NYPL) and Michelle Frisque, chief of technology content and innovation for Chicago Public Library (CPL) discuss NYPL’s “Check Out the Internet” and CPL’s “Internet to Go” services during their “A Tale of Two Cities: NYPL and CPL Wi-Fi Lending Projects” presentation at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco.

Swarthout began by outlining the significant problems that these two programs aim to address.

“Twenty-seven percent of New Yorkers don’t have home Internet access—which is roughly parallel to the national average—[and] it’s not a random 27 percent,” he said. Lack of home access “disproportionately is affecting low-income individuals in our cities, which means that our digital divide threatens to further exacerbate our economic divide.”

Swarthout noted that seven out of 10 teachers assign homework that requires Internet access, and many government services and employment opportunities are contingent on getting online.

“If you’re not able to practice, and you’re not able to gain expertise [navigating the Internet], you are closed out of a lot of opportunities,” Swarthout said.

Schools and public library branches can help address Internet access needs to some extent, but these facilities “are closed too many hours” to provide adequate access, he added.

“New York public libraries are open about 46 hours per week,” he said. “That’s a lot of evenings, Sundays, and even some Saturdays when our patrons need to access the Internet, but aren’t able [to do so] after their job or after school.”

Wi-Fi challenge

There is a clear need for these patrons to have Internet access outside of library walls and library hours. In fact, Swarthout said that NYPL CEO Tony Marx challenged his staff to think of ways that the library could help answer this need after noticing that people would often sit on the steps of library branches after hours to catch the Wi-Fi bleed.

There are a few options to help these users, such as amplifying a branch’s Wi-Fi signal to bleed further into the public space around a branch, particularly in urban areas, Swarthout said. But ultimately, NYPL decided to experiment with hotspot lending for several reasons. Most important, the portable devices could be deployed in a targeted lending program that offered the best access for households that needed it most.

During Spring 2014, NYPL partnered with nonprofit educational broadband service provider Mobile Beacon to launch a pre-pilot with 100 devices that cost NYPL $10 per month for unlimited access. These were loaned to patrons participating in NYPL after-school and English as a second language (ESL) programs for two month periods, renewable for an additional two months.

“The results we found were exactly what you would want,” Swarthout said. “We saw about three hours, on average [per day], of usage per device. The usage was mostly in the evenings, between six and midnight, the hours when our libraries are often closed. Folks self-reported using these devices to continue learning both from our classes and their schools, and looking for jobs. I’m sure they also use it as a communications tool to keep in touch with their families, and they use it as an entertainment tool. And one thing I’m pretty clear on is [that] we all use the Internet in roughly similar ways. Folks who expect that we are going to help low-income families get online and they are just going to use [Internet access] for education are suggesting that poor people are different from the rest of us.”

Pilots launched

Following the success of the pre-pilot, NYPL began building a broader pilot program that would ultimately include the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and the Queens Library (QL). Following a request for proposal, Sprint was chosen as the wireless provider for the program, and in December 2014, with funding from Google, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and the Robin Hood Foundation, the libraries purchased 10,000 Netgear Zing Mobile Hotspots—many of which were refurbished to lower the aggregate cost—at a bulk discount for $30 each, with one year of unlimited Internet service priced at about $13 per month, per device. Each library system is taking a slightly different long-term lending approach, with QL offering loan periods of one month with up to three renewals. NYPL is offering the devices for six months, renewable for a year, and BPL is loaning them out for the full year of the pilot.

NYPL and BPL are limiting loans to patrons who say they do not have broadband access at home, and are targeting patrons who are already enrolled in adult education or after-school programs, although neither system is employing means testing. QL has made the units available to any patron with a library card, although it is also targeting outreach efforts at patrons enrolled in adult learning programs.

“We focused on these long-term loans because we wanted to give people Internet access for enough time that it might be worth it for them to acquire a low-cost computer or device that they didn’t have,” Swarthout explained.

In Chicago, where about one-third of households do not have access to broadband Internet at home, CPL has taken a different approach with a pilot test that is more limited, but also more targeted and comprehensive. Focusing on neighborhoods where lack of access was especially acute, the library used funding from Google and the Knight Foundation to purchase 300 Netgear hotspots—100 each for its Greater Grand Crossing, Fredrick Douglass, and Brighton Park branches. Each of these libraries also offers ten Wi-Fi lending kits that each include a Google chromebook or Microsoft Surface tablet for borrowing with the hotspot. The hotspots and other equipment can be checked out for three weeks at a time, renewable up to 15 times if there are no holds at the branch from which it was loaned. CPL is planning to expand the program to three additional locations.

“This program, we’re hoping, not only entices people to sign up for a low-cost option for Internet at home,” Frisque said. The shorter loan periods introduce these patrons to the convenience of home Internet access, and help CPL convince users of its relevance for their households. One of the key hurdles that CPL is attempting to address is “trying to make the case as to why they would want the Internet at home,” Frisque explained.

Early results

Although both projects are pilots, and issues ranging from long-term funding to patron privacy (Sprint tracks and retains usage histories, just as it would for individual consumers purchasing and registering these devices) are being reviewed, Swarthout and Frisque both said that the programs had been well received by patrons. With little marketing aside from flyers posted at the participating branches, CPL loaned out 90 percent of its hotspots within the first week of its launch this winter, and Swarthout said that, anecdotally, patrons have been “overwhelmingly excited” about NYPL’s program.

At CPL, where loan periods are shorter than NYPL, branches are working with telecom logistics company Manage Mobility to ensure that the devices are returned. Through the Manage Mobility platform, CPL can restrict access to administrative passwords, disable roaming (which is not included in CPL’s contract with Sprint), and turn off individual hotspots when they become a few days overdue, for example.

And in terms of funding, the federal government is beginning to view bridging the digital divide as a priority. On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced ConnectHome, a pilot project with the Department of Housing and Urban Development that will bring broadband access to residents of public or assisted housing in 28 communities nationwide.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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