October 21, 2017

How to Hot Spot | TechKnowledge

BROADBAND IN BROWARD Broward County Library recently launched a hot spot lending program that offers broadband Internet access to members of the local military community and their families

Spearhead a successful Wi-Fi hot spot lending program with advice from those who led the way

Wi-Fi hot spot lending can help bridge the digital divide by addressing a persistent problem: lack of Internet access at home among low-income families. Without such access, students are often unable to complete homework with an online component, and parents can’t effectively job hunt or apply for government and other ­services.

While Wi-Fi in school and library buildings has alleviated the problem somewhat, there are too many hours when those facilities are closed for that to be a total solution. Also, patrons with disabilities may face additional hurdles in getting back and forth to other locations to use the Internet.

Wi-Fi hot spots—small, portable devices that connect laptops and mobile devices to the Internet—are well suited to be part of an answer that libraries can offer to their communities. These devices can be checked out like any other item in the library’s collections, and they don’t require installation in the home, as they rely on a cellular signal.

popular programs

Several libraries have launched successful hot spot lending programs recently. The New York Public Library (NYPL) has the ConnectED Library Hot Spot Loan Program, which began as a Knight Foundation–funded pilot in 2014. “Even in New York City, arguably the media capital of the world, Internet is not something everyone can afford,” says Luke Swarthout, director of adult education services for NYPL. “We had two main objectives: helping some of the two million New Yorkers without home Internet gain access and demonstrating that connecting all Americans is within our grasp.”

Chicago Public Library’s (CPL) Internet To Go program was also piloted in 2014. At both NYPL and CPL, the programs have been well received by patrons, with checkouts running at or near capacity since launch.

In order to determine the success of its program, CPL studied circulation data, conducted follow-up email surveys, and had conversations with individual patrons during the early stages of the rollout.

Among the encouraging insights gained from CPL’s surveys: 11 percent of hot spot borrowers were first-time library users, 70 percent used the hot spot to apply for jobs (and 17 respondents reported they had found one), seven percent used the hot spot to do their own homework or to help someone in their household with homework, one group of college students reported using a hot spot to complete an online class together, 59 percent said using the hot spot made them more comfortable trying new technologies, and 23 percent said they had subscribed to home Internet service since using the hot spot.

In June 2017, Broward County Library (BCL), Fort ­Lauderdale, FL, launched the Veterans Connect Hot Spot Program for veterans, active military, and their dependents. The program encourages education, self-development, and career advancement through technology. It also promotes use of all BCL services by members of the local military community.

Before proceeding with a hot spot lending program, however, especially when developing a program in a rural area, remember this: “There must be a solid cell phone signal associated with the anticipated high-speed service in a given territory. Not all signals are equal!” stresses ­Sharon Strover, a professor at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s department of radio-television-film, who led an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)–funded study in 2016: “At the Edges of the National Digital Platform: Rural Library Hot Spot Lending Programs.” If there are issues with connectivity or coverage across your library’s communities, a Wi-Fi hot spot lending program may not be feasible until those infrastructure issues are addressed.

[ED Note: UT, in partnership with the Technology & Information Policy Institute, Simmons College, and Oklahoma State University have also published a general guide to launching a Wi-Fi Hot Spot lending program, available here].

Local APPROACH

Next, identify who will be the primary beneficiaries of your program, which will inform how many portable hot spots the library will need to purchase. That number can vary widely, not only based on the segment of your population you’re targeting but on how heavily populated your area is. A library in a thinly populated rural area may need as few as ten; NYPL has 10,000.

One common approach is to open the program to all ­patrons. In that case, anyone with an adult or teen library card can check out a hot spot device, as is the case at CPL. This scenario works best when there is broad community outreach and can pay off by bringing in residents who have never used the library. However, if the library can’t afford enough hot spots to meet total demand, such an approach may end up bypassing those who need it the most.

Another approach is to specifically target patrons who are at or below a set income level and/or report not having Internet access at home. Still a third approach, sometimes dovetailed with the second, is to address specific populations (such as Broward County’s veterans or those enrolled in a particular library program).

In communities where there is a significant problem with students being unable to complete homework owing to lack of home Internet, it may make the most sense to gear the program to patrons who report both having a child attending a local public school and not having Internet access at home. In this case, it would be essential to connect with the local schools to promote the program and identify the children who would most benefit from 24-7 Internet service. NYPL, for example, originally restricted its loans to those participating in NYPL after-school and English as a second language classes, then partnered with the Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Library, and New York Department of Education to extend to those who have a child in school, and eventually removed that caveat as well.

GET A HANDLE ON THE COST

Once the scope of the program is determined, a budget should be drafted. Experts interviewed for this story advised taking the following expenses into account:

The price of the devices: Hot spots can range in price from $30 to $100, depending on the hardware and the terms negotiated with the partner company. At CPL, patrons can borrow just a Wi-Fi hot spot or a Google Chromebook Kit, which includes a hot spot and a Chromebook. Of course, bundling a laptop with the hot spot will boost costs.

CPL encountered an unexpected equipment issue. The hot spots use a standard charger that is compatible with many other devices. Patrons wound up keeping them and paying the replacement fee. “We had a higher than expected loss rate,” Michelle Frisque, chief, technology, content, and innovation for CPL, says. “This meant the hot spot could not circulate until another charger was procured.” After noticing the pattern, staff purchased a supply of chargers to keep in stock.

Another easily forgotten extra cost is a case to protect each device from wear and tear. Adding a library’s logo to these cases presents a great branding opportunity but does up the price. Some libraries use relatively inexpensive ­generic plastic storage containers.

The service plan: The big expense will be the monthly service plan for the devices. The cost can vary based on the provider, the available technologies in your area, and the amount of data you allot (typically, data use will be calculated on each device, not averaged across the library’s collection of hot spots). Similar to pricing an individual cell phone plan, a library can research and compare packages being offered by local firms. Some providers may be willing to negotiate special rates for a program such as this, but, generally, the higher the available data limit, the more expensive the plan will be.

BCL director Kelvin Watson, a veteran himself, helped broker a deal with T-Mobile to make the program at ­Broward a reality. “Of the several telecom providers working with county administration, only T-Mobile reached out to offer a digital inclusion project,” Watson says. He is certain that being able to communicate a specific, clear end result—in this case, providing Wi-Fi hot spots to the community’s veterans, active-duty military, and their dependents—was what got BCL approved. “We had a defined goal of providing access to online resources that would help them reach employment and educational goals and make the transition from military to civilian life easier.”

Watson decided on an un­limited data plan with a high-speed data cap for the 450 hot spots that BCL circulates. “It keeps monthly costs down, allowing us to circulate more hot spots to more customers. T-Mobile offers great solutions that allow libraries to do just that,” he explains.

Roaming charges: When comparing plans, don’t forget roaming fees. These are imposed when a device is taken out of your provider’s service area. Since the devices are by nature portable, this could happen occasionally, and fees can be steep.

Staff training: At CPL, staff members were encouraged to check out and use the hot spots themselves in order to familiarize themselves with the devices. “Not only did we want staff to be comfortable with the technology, we wanted them to promote it to our patrons, who may not be tech-savvy but would greatly benefit from the program. Patrons trust the staff in their branch,” says Frisque.

Interestingly, Frisque expected patrons to need one-on-one help with using the hot spot with their own devices but found otherwise. “Most people are able to connect their devices to the hot spot on their own or with a friend’s help,” she reports.

At least initially, expect the checkout process for the devices to take longer than for other materials. Patrons, especially first-time hot spot borrowers, will need to be told how to turn the device on, recharge it, use the password, and what the data restrictions are. Streaming video, for example, eats through data in no time, so some libraries may want to caution patrons to avoid streaming when possible so that they don’t quickly exceed the data limit. If a library has a two-week lending period and a monthly data limit for each device, overuse of streaming could limit the next borrower’s experience as well. Preparing a handout with all of this basic information can be a timesaver, points out Frisque. The user’s manual, though, should be simple, adds Watson. “The instructions have to be clear and in [layperson’s] terms so that users of all ages who may not be tech-savvy can use the new service.”

MIND THE DETAILS

The loan periods established by successful programs vary. At NYPL, hot spots are loaned out for an entire school year. The logic, explains Swarthout, is to give patrons Internet access for enough time that they might find it worthwhile to buy an inexpensive computer.

CPL, meanwhile, aimed to streamline lending and reduce confusion for patrons and staff. To that end, the loan period and terms for hot spots were made the same as those for books: three weeks, with 15 renewals, provided no holds have been placed. (At press time, 153 holds had been placed on CPL’s devices, with only 22 available to check out.) Be aware that demand will likely outstrip supply. “These can be very popular programs, so establishing a wait-list mechanism and considering reserving one hot spot for short-term, community group functions, may prove useful,” says UT’s Strover.

Libraries will also need to draft a user agreement for patrons to sign that outlines all the policies surrounding the loan, including consequences for lost or damaged equipment. An Internet-use agreement, similar to the one patrons sign when first using in-house computers, should be considered as well.

At CPL, the overdue fines for a Wi-Fi hot spot, which were based on the rules that apply to DVDs, are $1 per day, with a maximum fine of $10. For the Chromebook Kits, it’s $2 per day, with a maximum fine of $20. In both cases, unreturned devices are remotely disabled five days after the due date. If a device is lost, the patron is charged the replacement cost.

get the word out

Once the program is ready to go, it will need to be promoted. An announcement on the library’s website and trumpeting the news on social media are both good initial moves. Another effective, easy tactic is to introduce the program to attendees at other library programs, especially ones having to do with technology. Circulating a flyer in local shops and restaurants that allow community postings, as well as in schools, can bring results. It’s worth asking if local newspapers and radio stations will run an announcement or a news story.

The promotional campaign at BCL included media releases, posters, and palm cards, as well as coverage in the library’s newsletters and in those of other county agencies. A dedicated web page was created. “The challenge was ensuring that all promotional materials clearly convey what a hot spot is, how and where it can be used, and its benefit,” notes Watson. Also, BCL staff have attended events that serve the military community, giving hands-on demos, bringing laptops so customers see hot spots in action. These outreach efforts will be increased in November to tie into Veterans Day.

“Each library system will need to figure out how they can best use their resources to meet the specific needs in their communities,” says Swarthout. “The crucial lesson from this project is not that every library should lend hot spots but that libraries can and should continue to explore new ways to meet the needs of their patrons [with regard to] technology.”

Christina Vercelletto is an award-winning editor and copywriter who has written for Scholastic, Travel + Leisure, School Library Journal, and more

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Comments

  1. We put together a Guide on how to set up a hotspot program. You can see it at: http://sites.utexas.edu/imlsedgesgrant/files/2017/02/How-to-Hotspot.pdf

    – Sharon Strover, University of Texas at Austin

    • Thanks for pointing that out, Sharon! I linked the title of the paper to the article in D-Lib, and I added a link to this guide with an editor’s note below your first quote in the story.

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