At the Edges of the National Digital Platform

Assessing and Creating Mobile Hotspot Lending Programs in the Rural library

Institute for Museum and Library Services

Sharon Strover, University of Texas at Austin; Brian Whitacre, Oklahoma State; Colin Rhinesmith, Simmons University 


US Cellular MiFi Device used by the Maine State Grant program.
US Cellular MiFi Device used by the Maine State Grant program.

This research investigates hotspot lending pilot programs in small and rural libraries in Kansas and Maine to understand the changing role of the library and the libraries’ relationship to robust rural communities. The rural hotspot lending programs in Kansas and Maine were pilot programs started by the state libraries in both locations. Hotspot lending programs move Internet connectivity out of the library and into people’s homes by loaning out devices that connect to 3G or 4G cellular networks for a loan period of around one week.

This research aims to contribute both theoretical and practical knowledge that addresses (1) the role of rural libraries in their information ecosystems; (2) how loaned hotspots contribute to users’ quality of life, digital literacy and social capital; (3) how such programs interact with other anchor institutions and their services (schools, government, etc.) within their communities, and (4) the practical, operational requirements and considerations for offering hotspot lending programs.  The changing role of the library is at the heart of our research, and the rural context invokes issues of economic development, community sustainability, and the sorts of institutional collaborations, especially with schools, that enable these communities to remain vital.

This research undertook more than 75 one-on-one interviews conducted with library staff and public stakeholders, and also conducted ten focus group meetings with hotspot users and library patrons from the communities with hotspot lending programs. Further, this project also conducted a mailed and online survey of a universal sample of registered voters in six communities where libraries participated in their state library pilot programs.

Some of the findings from the research are summarized below:

  • Varied assets/hidden systems: rural libraries don’t stand alone; importance of regional consortiums for tech support in Kansas
  • Major differences in support models and “robustness” between programs; librarian support is critical for success
  • How internet scarcity in rural locations works: not FOMO but KOMO – knowledge of missing out of connectivity
  • Affordability a major driver for people to use hotspots
  • Financial precarity: most users had mobile phones but prepaid or intermittent service
  • One-to-one school commitments means hotspots are impetus for kids and families to have connectivity
  • Assessment of hotspots’ utility: helpful, but not a substitute for 24/7 unlimited access
  • Experience at sites contrasts with FCC data on number of providers and speeds in both Kansas and Maine

A link to the final report is forthcoming, May 2019.