In Appalachia, a community gets internet access — and connected to the world

This story is part of TechConnect, a series about how Facebook’s tech innovations and investments help people build deeper connections and community.

Our area has always been kind of behind when it comes to internet connectivity. When libraries first thought about the internet, in the 1990s, people came to our branches in droves, because they weren’t able to get internet in their homes. You have to understand that our county is in deep Appalachian Ohio, almost a two-hour drive from Columbus. There are, like, 23,000 people in the whole county. Our main library is in Pomeroy, and about 3,000 people live here. Everybody’s pretty spread out: You’ve got a lot of hills, and that’s hard for internet signals.

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It’s surprising how many areas of our county still have people who aren’t properly served with the internet. Even some people on my staff here at the library can’t get high-speed internet in their homes because they live so far out of town; they rely on satellite or dial-up.

In a community like ours, people come to the library to take care of essential things. Some people want to stay in contact with relatives who live out of town, so we had them come in and set up email accounts. Everything nowadays has to be done online: applying for unemployment insurance, for example, or applying for jobs. That’s in addition to gaming, or checking Facebook.

The pandemic made everything exponentially worse. Our libraries closed in March 2020, and partially opened with curbside service in mid-May. We opened our doors to the public in June. We tried to do things online to keep people connected, but a lot of the community didn’t have enough internet at home to download books — even though we were buying more digital books. One of the biggest challenges was just knowing that what we were doing online was good but only for the limited number of people who had solid internet access. The reality is there was still a large portion of our community that couldn’t use a lot of the services we were working so hard to provide — things like online children’s storytime, where we’d read books. Or adult programming, like cake decorating and acoustics night. Libraries in other communities remained closed into 2021. But we couldn’t wait that long, because we realized how much our community depended on physical libraries for internet service.

Last October, we received Wi-Fi hotspots with a year’s worth of internet service, thanks to a partnership with the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, Facebook, and T-Mobile. A hotspot is a small portable device that allows people to connect their computer or phone to Wi-Fi from anywhere. We have 40 hotspots, with 10 for each of our branches. When the hotspots came, we advertised them on the digital sign in front of our central library, right on the main street in town, so that anybody driving through could see that we have hotspots available. The local newspaper covered the news of the hotspots. We informally worked with the schools to let parents know the hotspots were here. Finally, students have been able to complete schoolwork from home, and adults have been able to work remotely. The hotspots helped alleviate the isolation that people felt when they couldn’t go out to socialize.

But, really, word-of-mouth was key. Oh my gosh. From day one, we had people putting holds on the hotspots, and all 40 of them went out within the first couple of days. Everybody wanted to have them. One device has gone out 194 times! The hotspots have circulated almost 1,000 times in the last eight months. Would we have survived the pandemic without this technology? Of course! But having the hotspots certainly made the world brighter and brought people closer. People are thrilled.

Some people use the hotspots while traveling. I know there hasn’t been a lot of traveling in the last year. But people use the hotspot and let the kids play on the iPad while driving. Lifesaver! My mom’s internet service went out at her home, and it can take several days for them to come repair it. So I was on the hotspot waiting list, and eventually I got one. My mom used it for a few days until her internet service was fixed. My mom lives alone, so this technology was a big deal: It’s almost like a lifeline to communicate with people and stay connected.