Ottawa County’s public libraries are offering residents more access to broadband service.
Through a pilot program called Mobile Hotspot Device Lending Initiative, libraries are working to bridge the gap between residents and information resources. One-hundred T-Mobile hotspots have been distributed to nine libraries in the county through a $81,450 grant from the Library of Michigan Library Services and Technology Act, which is administered by the Museum and Library Services.
The grant covers about two-thirds of the program’s overall costs, an expected $119,850. The grant will be divided between $43,050 in the first year and $38,400 in the second year. Participating libraries will fund the remaining $38,400.
The broadband hotspot devices are available by visiting local libraries and presenting a valid library card. Devices can be checked out for a one-week period before fines begin and the devices are turned off.
Eight of the 10 devices at Spring Lake District Library were checked out in the first week, Library Director Maggie McKeithan said.
By providing the opportunity for patrons to check out the devices, McKeithan said she thinks it’s an opportunity to bridge the digital divide in the community. It’s something that can be used by individuals and families who don’t have the internet at home or for people going on vacation, she added.
Patrons have already started checking out some of the 20 hotspots available at Loutit District Library. Director John Martin said they’ve heard from a number of people through the years who can’t get high-speed internet at their home, whether it’s for financial reasons or because of their location. Martin said they think the devices will also be used to download or gain access to free online library materials.
The efforts to provide the hotspots stem from a countywide effort to expand broadband to underserved areas.
Based on survey data, 22 percent of Ottawa County households don’t have a broadband connection, and 35 percent indicated internet access isn’t affordable.
Ottawa County worked with Connect Michigan to help expand broadband services, said Paul Sachs, director of planning and performance improvement for the county. Developing initiatives to further that goal led to collaborating with stakeholders, including some library directors. Sachs said the directors stepped up and discussed additional efforts they could do to help residents.
Previously, Coopersville District Library, Herrick District Library and Howard Miller Library offered mobile hotspots. In working with library directors, Sachs said they helped secure the grant funding to roll out the program at all nine libraries in the county.
As patrons use the devices, Sachs said the county is collecting data, which will remain confidential, to identify how often the devices are used, if they’re working, and whether or not the service is connecting. That information will be used to help refine efforts to provide broadband coverage in areas with gaps in the county, Sachs said.
“We want to ensure all residents have tools that enhance their quality of life,” he said.
Once the pilot program is evaluated, Sachs said it will be up to library directors and governing boards to make decisions about whether or not to continue with the hotspots.