Check Out the Internet: Libraries Lending Internet Access
Because many Americans find themselves unable to afford quality Internet at home, they are caught on the wrong side of the digital divide. This chasm presents an obstacle to participation in America’s $8 trillion dollar digital economy and deprives the Internet of contributions from these individuals. In New York City alone, 27% of NYC households do not have access to broadband. This figure is tilted heavily to those in low- and lower-income households: 46% of those earning less than $35K do not have access. In a city where the Internet is easily available but where an estimated 1.7 million residents fall below the federal poverty line, surveys have shown NYPL that expense is the most often-cited reason for not subscribing to available Internet. Last year, NYPL provided a significant bridge to this divide, hosting over 3.1 million computing sessions and 2.8 million Wi-Fi sessions and providing patrons with access to 1,539 laptops, which were borrowed for on-site use 409,912 times.
Through an innovative pilot initiative to provide mobile Internet access, The New York Public Library (NYPL) seeks to increase the overall population who can have the benefit of the open Internet. Through this effort, NYPL will demonstrate a new model of public Internet service by which libraries provide portable 4G LTE WiFi devices, (which use cellular networks to create a personal broadband Internet hotspot), to public school students and others underserved to use at home, work, or anywhere they may be. Specifically, NYPL proposes to begin lending devices to students participating in the Library’s Out of School Time (OST), English for Speakers of Other Languages, and Technology Training programs.
This innovative NYPL initiative will bridge a major gap in the availability of the Internet for a critical segment of the population, which has the most to gain from its use. The program will provide essentially 24/7 quality access to those who are currently limited to accessing the Internet during a 40-minute, once-a-day time slot at one of NYPL’s 92 physical facilities, allowing them to continue to learn, work, explore, and create even after library doors have closed. In short, this effort will connect wired users who live in disconnected households, fostering an expanded community for reading, learning, and creativity.
This is a logical extension of libraries’ mission to make information available to all. NYPL, and libraries in general, have long been in the business of ensuring that even those who cannot afford books and other resources have access to that material, so that they may be able to learn from, enjoy, and ultimately contribute to the global body of information. This program builds on NYPL’s recent efforts to create a vibrant library model in an increasingly digital world, by developing and facilitating online access to NYPL’s rare and unique collections and negotiating with publishers in an effort to help shrink or eliminate the widening gap between access to and use of ebooks commercially versus through libraries, which was evidenced in the divergence between ebook sales in the market and ebook circulation in libraries.
Who are the users or target customers of your project, and what have you learned from them so far? Please give specific examples.
Initially, The New York Public Library NYPL plans to deploy this pilot to 10,000 households in New York City. Specifically, NYPL will target participants in three key educational programs that it conducts throughout neighborhood branches in New York City: Out of School Time programs, Technology Training classes, and courses in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).
In the 2014-15 academic year, when this pilot would be implemented, NYPL expects to serve approximately 20,000 students in its formal Out of School programs and ESOL courses, both of which require at least a semester-long or ten-week session commitment, and over 84,000 participants in its Technology Training classes.
NYPL has detailed demographic data about the neighborhoods in which these programs are located, since those sites that had the highest need for after-school programming, ESOL classes, and technology training tended to be those communities that are under-resourced, high-poverty, and home to large immigrant populations. Correlative to economic-need, as evidenced in a report released by New York City’s Comptroller in April 2013, is a lack of home broadband Internet, with 60 percent of households in New York City without broadband Internet having annual incomes lower than $35,000.
By running surveys of current users to assess their home broadband status, NYPL has learned that its patrons have a great need for this project; fifty-five percent of those accessing the Library’s free Internet and computers do not have Internet service at home. That number grows to sixty-eight percent for those with annual incomes of less than $25,000. In May 2014, NYPL will be launching a preliminary test pilot program in which it will lend 100 WiFi units to current participants in its Out of School Time Programs. NYPL will be using the results of this test to refine the larger 10,000 unit pilot to be launched this fall.
What assumptions are you making in what you propose, and how will you test them?
NYPL believes that by providing broadband Internet access to 10,000 households who currently do not have access at-home, the Library will be implementing an innovative program that has the potential, at scale, to tackle the national digital divide. The project’s key assumptions are: (1) providing at-home broadband Internet access will result in: (a) raised digital exposure and confidence; and (b) increased engagement with library-provided and/or recommended learning resources. Additionally, through this project NYPL will be (2) establishing a scalable public library model for tackling the national digital divide. NYPL will test and assess these assumptions as follows:
NYPL will track: data on the number of devices lent and average duration of the loan via the same system that it currently uses to track other lendable library materials; the number of users within the household via surveys, which will also yield additional information on user demographics; and enrollment and re-enrollment rates of eligible households. NYPL will also survey participants about their intentions to continue within the program or purchase the devices/service after participation.
NYPL will also evaluate the specific subgoals by:
- Tracking hours of use, and bandwidth and urls visited (in aggregate); using surveys to (1) evaluate general user attitide towards computers and the Internet and their perception of specific skills related to computers and the Internet, and (2) track participant usage of the Internet for various purposes (information search, job skills/search, lifelong learning, entertainment, and social networking, to name a few -- for different members of the household).
- Tracking usage of educational and library resources (urls); using surveys to assess user awareness of library educational programs.
NYPL will analyze the demand data (including re-enrollment rate) from the initial pilot to estimate potential demand. NYPL will evaluate cost per use (per household per month), which will include all upfront and ongoing costs, including the replacement cost for damaged and/or unreturned devices. NYPL will also know how many partner libraries will sign on to the pilot by the end of the year. NYPL will keep track of commitments received by corporate partners, by the FCC for ongoing funding, and by other potential future funders, as well as of interest in the program expressed by other cities/major library systems.
How will you get your project in front of the necessary people or organizations?
Most importantly, NYPL plans to target some of its most highly engaged patrons, who are also residents of high-need neighborhoods, for this pilot program. As noted above, two programs from which NYPL will draw potential participants require that they commit to at least a full semester or ten-week session, during which they visit the Library at least one time each week, often more, and participate in a formal class or program with a dedicated instructor. The staff responsible for rolling out the WiFi pilot program will work with the staff who lead these programs to promote the project to their students and recruit participants who could benefit from access provided by the WiFi devices.
NYPL has also established key partnerships to start to test the scalability of this solution. To enable rollout New York City-wide, NYPL will be working with the Brooklyn and Queens Borough Library systems, who have already expressed interest in participating in the pilot. To test this solution in more rural parts of the country, NYPL has built a relationship with the State Library systems of Kansas and Maine, who will be working with NYPL staff to see how the program could be adapted throughout the country. Additionally, NYPL has the committed support of the New York City’s Mayor’s Office, which is helping to both design this pilot and think creatively about sustainability.
To attract participants and to promote any in-kind donations to the program, NYPL will promote the program to local and national news outlets. Additionally, NYPL is actively making the case to the FCC that they consider innovative models such as mobile WiFi internet lending as they rethink the eligibility requirements of their $2 billion annual e-rate program.
What are the obstacles to implementing your idea, and how will you address them?
This program needs to be highly cost-effective to be able to scale. NYPL staff is working with non-profit Education Broadband Service (EBS) providers to connect this idea to the available education spectrum owned by EBS organizations nationwide. Doing so would help to keep the costs reasonably low (for the data service and the WiFi devices) for the scale of the 10,000 unit pilot and, perhaps beyond. However, reaching a scale of millions of households, while maintaining a cost-effective model, will require new and different types of partnerships, including with for-profit Internet Service Providers. NYPL, which has a demonstrated track record in negotiating breakthrough access agreements with e-book publishers, will negotiate with service providers to keep rates low for the pilot program and will request that the WiFi device manufacturers provide them at cost or as an in-kind donation.
How much do you think your project will cost, and what are the major expenses?
NYPL estimates that the initial pilot to 10,000 households will cost $2 million, which includes the cost of the devices and a full year of service for each household. The devices that NYPL is exploring range from $40 to $200, retail, and NYPL is currently negotiating with service providers to secure access for each family for $10 per month.
What are the goals for a “successful program with pilot funds,” and how will you work toward those goals?
The goal for the initial pilot is to provide high-speed internet access to 10,000 households who currently do not have access for one year, starting in September 2014. The initial pilot design calls for devices to be loaned out for periods ranging from 3 to 12 months with student loans being set for a 9-month period concurrent with the school year.
Pilot funds would enable NYPL to launch the program, and consequently provide 24/7 quality access to the Internet for those who currently are limited to accessing the Internet during the school day, or a 45-minute, once-a-day time slot at a library facility, allowing them to continue to learn, work, explore, and create even after library doors have closed. A “successful program with pilot funds” will place participants on a “digital parity” with students who otherwise have broadband access at home. In short, this effort will connect wired users who live in disconnected households, fostering an expanded community for reading, learning, and creativity.
Throughout the project’s first year, NYPL will undertake an assessment of the program as outlined above, evaluating what elements of the program were successful and those that were not. With demonstrated success after year one, NYPL will work with other public and private partners to expand the availability of the program and obtain additional devices for use.
As noted above, NYPL is discussing expanding this pilot to the two other library systems in New York City: the Queens and Brooklyn Library Systems as well as the State Library systems of Kansas and Maine to see how the program could be adapted throughout the country. NYPL estimates that at a national level this could reach millions of households (based on 77 million people already using library-provided computers and Internet access).