Check Out the Internet: Libraries Lending Internet Access

The goal of this project is to expand the reach and benefits of free access to the Internet provided by The New York Public Library (NYPL) to underserved youth and communities by allowing them to borrow portable WiFi Hotspot devices from their local libraries for a sustained period of time. This service would substantially expand the Internet access that is currently available only when libraries are physically open; with this effort, patrons would bring the Internet into their homes, 24 hours a day.

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Andrew Carnegie believed that the “industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.” His belief and ambition led him to establish over 2,509 Carnegie libraries between 1883 and 1929.  As part of that legacy, NYPL is exploring ways to meet Carnegie’s historic charge and provide a helping hand to those seeking to advance themselves in the digital age.

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.
Scalable public library model
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).

In ONE sentence, tell us about your project to strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation.

The Library has historically played a role in strengthening communities by supporting literacy and providing access to knowledge; in an increasingly digital society, the Library will continue to do so through technology training, access, and resource advisory.

Who will benefit from what you propose? What have you observed that makes you think that?

Data shows that there are children participating in NYPL’s learning programs who live in households where their parents or caregivers cannot afford to pay an Internet bill. These students and others underserved by the current lack of low-cost ubiquitous access have the most to gain from this project, since it is well established that access and skills associated with access to the Internet are a prerequisite for success in the 21st century global economy.

More broadly, society at large will benefit: by bringing high-speed Internet access into lower-income households, a greater number of diverse voices will explore, experiment with, and contribute to the world wide web, ensuring that the Internet is not restricted to the needs and perspectives of a more affluent society.

What progress have you made so far?

NYPL has begun talks with the Federal Communications Commission to petition that E-rate funding be expanded to include paying for the cost of Internet access beyond the physical walls of schools and libraries, as is currently the case. In addition, NYPL has begun exploratory discussions with wireless carriers, educational broadband services providers, and others to understand how best to lend safe and affordable mobile internet services from the Library at scale.

What would be a successful outcome for your idea or project?

One successful outcome for the Internet Lending Project would be the creation of a scalable and replicable model for libraries everywhere to expand their Internet services beyond the walls of their buildings. A second successful outcome would be demonstrating a successful program with pilot funds from the News Challenge that would encourage the investment of ongoing federal funding for a program at scale.

Who is on your team, and what are their relevant experiences or skills?

The NYPL team, led by President Tony Marx and Chief Library Officer Mary Lee Kennedy, consists of experts in the fields of education, information technology, and operations, as well as the hundreds of library service professionals who served patrons who logged over 3.5 million hours of public computer time last year in one of NYPL’s 92 locations in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island.

Leading coordination with students participating in the Library’s Out of School Time programs will be Education Director Maggie Jacobs and Out of School Time Manager Siva Ramakrishnan. In the past year, they have designed and launched four innovative Out of School Time programs in branch libraries in high need neighborhoods of New York City. Richard Stalzer is NYPL’s Director, Technology Infrastructure and Service Delivery, who has built, maintained, and upgraded high-speed broadband access in all 92 library sites. Members of NYPL’s in-house Strategy team will test and select devices, track their usage, and help to modify the program as needed to ensure its success.

In developing this project, NYPL is advised by a group led by Andrew Rasiej, the Chairman of the 38,000 member NY Tech Meetup, and Founder of Personal Democracy Forum, and Tim Wu, Columbia University Law professor, and author of the Master Switch, along with Joshua Briebart, recently of the Open Technology Initiative. NYPL is also coordinating this effort with the New York City Mayor’s Office.


New York, NY, United States


Join the conversation:

Photo of Jacob

If at all possible I would like to get a copy of your findings when you have concluded the project. I am an Emerging Services & Technologies Librarian in Pasco County, Florida. There is a real need for something like this here, as I can imagine it is in other parts of the country.

Photo of James


Thanks for your support. we will post our findings online. By the way we have completed exit surveys for our pre-pilot which was a 100 unit test done to prepare for the 10K unit pilot. Results can be found at
ther is a slide share as well at

Stay tuned!

Photo of Elaine

Our Libraries, swimming areas, all our doctor offices all have wi-fi (not to mention coffee shops) but we are a very small and very child educational oriented community. Our libraries were a part of the global free lending through the internet gosh, must be two years ago now. I remember my friend online used my links and tutorials to access their library with her ipad.

It is wonderful to have so much knowledge at the click of a few buttons, at the same time, learning how to do things in the old fashioned way (no internet) is also good. "The destination is not the point, the journey to get there is. "

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