Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Increasing Focus on Connectivity

Internet Wireless Connection logo
image courtesy of Pixabay
Two recent developments show how libraries continue to assist in solving the digital divide. During ALA Annual 2015 the Chicago Public Library, and the New York Public Library (consisting of the Queens Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library) presented an update on their hotspot lending pilot programs. The Queens Public Library loan period for the devices are one month with up to three renewals. The Brooklyn Public Library loans the devices for six months, renewable for a year. The Boston Public Library loans the devices out for a full year. Brooklyn Public Library and Boston Public Library designed the program to target those who do not have broadband access at home, and are enrolled in education or after-school programs. The Queens Public Library has the devices available to those with a library card, but is focusing on implementing the program in its overall outreach strategy. The Chicago Public Library gave three branches 100 hotspots each, along with ten Wi-Fi lending kits that include a tablet or Chromebook. These can be checked out for three weeks and can be renewed up to 15 times if there are no holds placed on the kits.

Each of the libraries are using a different strategy in their implementation of the hotspots. The Queens Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library loan the hotspots out for longer periods, and Chicago Public Library loans them for shorter periods, using a logistics company to keep track of the devices and shut them down if they are overdue. Hopefully, analyzing both programs will provide quality data on the short vs. long loan period and overall usage.

A couple questions still remain, such as long term funding and privacy (the hotspots provided by Sprint tracks and retains usage history). These are definitely concerns that need to be addressed, especially privacy as it pertains to libraries.

While the hotspot lending programs are helping to narrow the digital divide on a smaller, more temporary scale, the ConnectHome Broadband Initiative looks to do the same on a larger scale, more permanent scale. This initiative looks to provide high speed internet access to more than 275,000 low-income households. The program is launching in 27 cities and will look to expand in the near future. The initiative consists of many partners including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Best Buy, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and PBS, among others. A big contributing partner to this program will be public libraries. The recent Council of Economic Advisers report, Mapping the Digital Divide, goes over the current landscape in the US looking at connectivity and what are the factors that determine who is connected and who isn't, with income arguably being the most crucial.

Below is a map of the United States (courtesy of Vox Media, first shown in an article on The Verge website), showing the percentage of people with home internet access and the mean household income by county:

The American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) will help develop programming for to focus on key areas like digital literacy, privacy, and technical skills.  ALA President Sari Feldman stated, "As part of this initiative, libraries will provide tools and training so that residents can maximize broadband access to advance job skills, complete homework assignments, pursue online learning and certifications, and protect their privacy and security of personal information as they expand their online lives."

The libraries doing the hotspot lending project are reporting that it is very popular. It is becoming more and more apparent how important it is for communities to be able to access the internet, comparing connecting to the internet with electricity and water. Wisconsin libraries continues to improve its connectivity for its communities

Written by:
Ryan Claringbole, Public Library Development Team