It’s no surprise to those in the NDIA network that public libraries are often the only source of free internet access for many patrons. Libraries throughout the U.S. have addressed local digital divides by implementing hotspot lending programs where patrons can borrow devices that connect to cellular networks to access the internet anywhere within that network.
Lending programs at large public library systems demonstrate the tremendous impact that these devices can have on expanding broadband access and use. New York Public Library has implemented the largest hotspot lending program in the country, loaning 10,000 Sprint hotspot devices to patrons without home internet access for up to one year. The scope of the NYPL lending program was modified in Kansas to provide 95 Verizon Wireless hotspot devices to 18 libraries around the state. In this model, devices were able to be checked out for seven days. Many of the participating libraries were rural libraries, which reported high patron interest and huge circulation rates. Individual library branches, such as the Keller Public Library in Texas, have also instituted local hotspot lending programs.
Ongoing research on rural library hotspot lending programs can help illuminate the needs and unique challenges of working in areas with limited data service and other resources, but it is critical that these discussions include tribal library voices. Rural regions face challenges to providing library services, such as limited financial resources, limited hours of operation, fewer staff, and limited availability of technology services, yet are still expected to serve as agents of broadband deployment in their communities. Tribal libraries–especially those in rural areas–have distinctive characteristics while facing similar barriers to digital inclusion, and yet national research on library capacities to provide services tends to exclude tribal libraries. According to the FCC’s 2015 Broadband Progress Report, 63 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands (2.5 million people) lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband and 85 percent living in rural areas of Tribal lands (1.7 million people) lack access entirely. These are staggering numbers. It will take creative and innovative solutions to address digital inequity in these spaces.
As part of my activities in the Digital Inclusion Corps, we are currently working to start two hotspot lending pilot programs in two different tribal communities in Arizona with low rates of home internet access. The aim is to document the processes, challenges, and outcomes of the pilot to demonstrate how hotspot lending can enhance tribal libraries’ capacity to meet meaningful digital inclusion goals and to inform the design of a larger lending program throughout the state. At this point, we are awaiting approval from the tribal councils, but I look forward to revealing more on our sites and community partnerships in the coming weeks.