Libraries in Appalachian Ohio have always been a hotspot for Wi-Fi access. Patrons regularly visited branches to handle online business, print out documents, or simply check in with friends via social media. But things grew exponentially harder in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic hit, forcing much of life to transpire remotely.
Even when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the libraries in several counties to shut their doors, patrons without Wi-Fi at home could log on to their devices from outside the buildings. “You'd see people hovering around our front door or at the windows close by, trying to pick up a signal,” says Jennifer Wright, who is the Extension Services Coordinator for the Garnet A. Wilson Public Library of Pike County.
But as the entire state moved to online schooling, remote work, and virtual connections with loved ones, the library parking lot just wasn’t sufficient — or convenient — to keep everyone online. That’s why the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio (FAO) teamed up with Facebook and T-Mobile to launch a pilot program to allow patrons to check out mobile hotspots from their local libraries, just like they’d check out a book or a movie. The goal of this pilot was to jump start a mobile hotspot program in Appalachian Ohio to assess the need and the viability of making this type of program sustainable even after the pandemic ends.
Why Appalachian Ohio?
Wi-Fi has always been scarce in Appalachian Ohio (the 32 counties that span the state’s eastern border down to its southernmost tip). “Geography plays a significant role in connectivity challenges because the region’s rolling hills are a barrier to signal transmission,” says Kelly Mormon, who coordinates grantmaking initiatives, like the hotspot lending expansion program, through FAO’s I’m A Child of Appalachia Fund. “It’s also because we lack population density, which makes installing traditional fiber lines more expensive and isn’t always economically sustainable.”
Even where internet service is available, the monthly cost is often too steep for residents in a region where the poverty level hovers above 17 percent. As a result, the percentage of connected households falls below the national average.
In the spring and summer of 2020, library directors hustled to adapt by ordering electronic books or offering remote story hours for children, but their efforts felt hollow. “It was really hard knowing that there was still a large portion of our community that wouldn't be able to make use of those services,” says Kristi Eblin, director of Meigs County Library System.
Around that time, Facebook and T-Mobile collaborated with FAO to see how they could help. Facebook has been investing in Ohio for a few years now, with a data center outside Columbus and long-haul fiber builds to connect it to data centers in Virginia and North Carolina. Facebook was also actively working with partners in the state to find opportunities to contribute to the state as a whole. “We’ve seen how pervasive the challenges of the digital divide are in this region,” explains Lily Cheng Zedler from Facebook Connectivity. “Working with FAO and the local libraries meant we could build a solution that is shaped to the unique needs of Appalachian Ohio.” And T-Mobile similarly was seeking to support connectivity needs as part of its Project 10Million program, which was launched to help close the homework gap and provide internet connectivity for millions of children.
Since then, “They’ve been constantly circulated!” says Wright. Multiple people are on the waitlist for each of Pike County’s 20 devices at all times. She believes if they had 100 devices or more they would still all be checked out. And Eblin has witnessed a similar phenomenon in Meigs, reporting that the library system has lent out their 20 devices nearly 900 times in total. Patrons now know how to put their hotspots to good use, whether it’s sending out resumes, getting homework done, or occupying small children during long drives.
“With at-home learning, the kids needed [internet access] for school,” Wright says. “They received Chromebooks, but they weren’t provided internet access. The kids without internet had to have take-home packets with all the assignments on paper. So when they are able to drive to the library [to access the internet] with their Chromebook, or take a hotspot home with them, then they can submit more of their assignments online.”
Even as schools reopen, these libraries will continue to lend out hotspots to help local residents with schoolwork, job applications, and staying connected with loved ones. Helping to provide students with internet access at home is core to both T-Mobile’s efforts to close the homework gap, and our efforts to bridge the digital divide.
Eblin herself has seen the benefits of the program. “My mom's internet service went out at her home and it takes several days for them to come repair it,” she says. “I was on the list and was able to take one to her. She lives alone and, you know, it's kind of like a lifeline to be able to communicate with people.”
As part of this program, Facebook and T-Mobile also donated internet service access points. These Ruckus M510 access points are being deployed by FAO throughout the community to strengthen existing service where signals may be weak or to create several new Wi-Fi oases, hosting ~30-50 people at a time. For instance, FAO is working with local mentoring and afterschool programs like at the Sycamore Youth Center and the Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Central Ohio in Tuscarawas County to install access points capable of supporting several users at a time. The organization has also partnered with Oak Hill Food Pantry so that they can provide access when people come by to pick up groceries.
In fact, in Pike County, Wright will use one of those access points to launch the annual summer reading program this June. “To get the kids excited, we're going to have an event on the property of the future main library,” says Wright. “We’re going to have activities, some food, and — thanks to the access point — we can sign people up on the spot for the summer reading program or for library cards.”
The library MiFi program may also help libraries receive funding for more technology. With a year’s worth of internet service and WiFi hotspots in high demand, the program “enables libraries to provide this service without expending additional money, while also making the case for the need,” says Mormon.
For example, as part of her fundraising efforts for a new building in Pike County, Wright plans to write a grant proposal requesting money for technological infrastructure. She will build her argument by presenting hotspot usage numbers since October.
“Our dream is to have a building with more computers that people can use, more hotspots that people can take out, and to be able to extend our online programming,” says Wright. “We have big plans for the library and for the community.”