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Everything You Wanted to Know About WiFi Hotspot Lending But Were Afraid To Ask

2016 November 16
by Cindy Fisher

“I don’t have Internet at home and I need to complete my homework or apply for a job.”

“I’m experiencing a break in Internet service due to a recent move or lack of funds.”

“I’m heading out on vacation where I’m unsure of the WiFi connectivity and want to be able to check email and upload photos.”

These are just a few of the reasons that patrons have given for checking out a WiFi hotspot device from a participating library. But what is this technology and how does it work?

A mobile hotspot device, “enables users to connect to the Internet using a small box with a cell phone data plan that they can bring with them wherever they go. Similar to a data plan for a cell phone, as long as the device can connect to the cell tower, users can access the Internet.” (from Starting a Mobile Hotspot Lending Program)

This description is probably why you’ve heard this service marketed as “checking out theInternet,” “lending WiFi”, “WiFi to go” and other great catchy taglines. As the examples above illustrate and

wifihotspotdevice2

The WiFi hotspot device we use here at TSLAC to ensure we can be connected during our CE trainings.

what we know from our personal library experience, Internet connectivity is vital for so many aspects of our lives.  For some, a WiFi hotspot is a convenience; while for others, it’s their only way to be connected.

Origin Story

In 2009, Verizon Wireless released the Mi-Fi and just a year later, non-profit broadband service provider Mobile Beacon began providing hotspot devices to connect other non-profits and educational institutions to the Internet.

Then in 2014, Chicago Public Library began circulating hotspot devices; quickly, other large urban libraries like New York City and Queens followed suit. But so too did libraries in suburban towns such as San Mateo County, CA, Oak Park, IL and Mission, TX. Even small and rural town libraries like Pottsboro, TX and Bremerton, WA are now providing the service.

WiFi Lending: A Texas Perspective

map of the state of texas with place marks for survey respondants libraries

WiFi hotspot devices are on the minds of many librarians in Texas

In advance of our recent webinar, “Lending Wi-Fi Hotspot Devices to Patrons“ with Rae Cheney of the Keller Public Library, we sent out a survey to various Texas listservs to better understand what’s happening statewide in terms of hotspot lending and interest. The results show that as of November 2016, there are four Texas libraries that currently check out WiFi hotspots*:

  • Keller Public Library in Keller, TX
  • Mansfield Public Library in Mansfield, TX
  • Pottsboro Public Library in Pottsboro, TX
  • Speer Memorial Public Library in Mission, TX

Of the forty responses we received about hotspot lending, just about half were either planning to implement the service or gathering information to begin reviewing the next steps.  View an interactive Google Map of the responses, download a quick snapshot of the survey results, or view the webinar in its entirety to hear Rae’s insights and experience at Keller Public Library, plus great audience Q&A. And, if your library is investigating hotspots but isn’t listed and you’d like to be included, add your information here.

Should My Library Circulate Hotspots?

If everyone’s doing it, should you?  Like any new service you’re considering at your library, it makes sense to assess your community’s needs before deciding to implement lending WiFi hotspot devices.

It’s important to note that because hotspot devices rely on cell towers to provide service, you’ll want to first check your area’s coverage to get a better understanding of your options. Use OpenSignal to see which providers perform well in your area.

In addition to mainstream service providers, TechSoup and MobileBeacon, two non-profits that partnered back in 2012 and have long understood the technology needs of libraries, also offer mobile WiFi hotspot devices to libraries.  In keeping with TechSoup’s mission to provide discounted technology products and services to libraries, their hotspots and service contracts can come at a significant discount, so it is worthwhile to add them to your list of service providers to investigate.

One of the biggest challenges to implementing a WiFi hotspot program is funding (what else is new!?).  With reported high demand for the devices once the service is implemented, it may seem out of reach; however, here’s how a little creative thinking could help you make it happen:

  • Apply for E-rate! While WiFi hotspot devices are not eligible for E-rate, you can use the cost savings you obtain from the federal discount program – up to 90% off your connectivity costs, such as your monthly internet bill, and any equipment such as cables, routers, and other infrastructure – to pay for the WiFi hotspot devices. Get to the nitty-gritty in this blog post from TSLAC tech consultant and E-rate coordinator Henry Stokes. Subscribe to his Texas E-rate mailing list to receive E-rate news, training opportunities, tips, and deadline reminders, or contact him at hstokes@tsl.texas.gov for more information.
  • Apply for a TSLAC Impact Grant!  Use a grant to fund a small pilot program where you lend WiFi hotspot devices focused on a particular population or need. A pilot program, also sometimes called a feasibility study, is a smaller trial version of a program used to learn how a larger implementation might work. It helps surface issues that you may not have considered and provides time to fine tune your program all while being a good steward of your library’s resources. The results from your pilot can be used to demonstrate to your stakeholders if a full-scale implementation would be good investment for your community.

Readings and Resources

Now that we’re almost three years in since the first library implementation of WiFi hotspot lending , there are some excellent resources for you to consult.

Questions or comments? Share below or get in touch: cfisher@tsl.texas.gov or 800-463-4855 (toll free in TX).

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