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Hotspot lending programs at rural libraries finding success, high demand through first year

The Marshall County Public Library in Benton.
Marshall County Public Library
The Marshall County Public Library in Benton.

Some free wireless hotspot lending programs launched last year in western Kentucky public libraries to help connect students and library patrons to the internet are in high demand.

According to a release from the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet, funding from the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Connectivity Fund — started in 2021 with more than $7 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act — allowed 26 libraries across the state to buy more than 2,700 hotspots and more than 400 laptops to check out to patrons for use outside of libraries.

Crittenden County Public Library Director Brandie Ledford said her library bought six AT&T portable hotspots and six HP laptops with about $8,400 — the costs 100% covered by federal funding. Since the hotspot and laptop lending program started in September of 2021, she said, its popularity has increased as more people have learned about it.

The hotspots, in particular, are being checked out constantly at the small county library for patrons to connect their cellphones and other devices at home. The hotspots are checked out on three-week intervals, and library staff are having to encourage patrons to reserve the hotspots like books.

“I wish we had more of these,” Ledford said. “I feel like the more people know about it, they're going to be like, ‘Well, I really need one and I can't wait for several weeks until one comes back.’”

Marshall County Public Library also started a free hotspot lending program last year, purchasing 50 portable hotspots from Verizon. Marshall County Public Library Director Tammy Blackwell said the need for the hotspots spiked following the December tornado outbreak, and demand has been high ever since.

“A lot of people learned about them at that time and learned, you know, just how great that is that you have this little device and you take it with you and wherever you are, as long as you have a cell signal, you have internet,” Blackwell said.

A second round of funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund announced this week is paying for continued data service for hotspots at the Crittenden County Public Library and also allowed for the Marshall County Public Library to purchase 100 more hotspots, some of which are being circulated in the county school district.

Blackwell said she plans to continue offering the free hotspots at her library system regardless of if federal funding continues because of the need she sees for the devices.

“We see people returning over and over again to check out these hotspots, because it's their only opportunity to have internet at home,” Blackwell said. “There are lots of places in Marshall County where [it’s] just not accessible, and also internet is somewhat cost prohibitive.”

For smaller public libraries, like in Crittenden County, future funding is uncertain to pay for the data service the hotspots use. Ledford said she also plans to keep offering the hotspots to her community but may have to implement fees in the future to check them out.

Other western Kentucky libraries that recently received continued funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund include: George Coon Public Library in Caldwell County, Hopkinsville-Christian County Public Library, Daviess County Public Library, Hopkins County-Madisonville Public Library, McCracken County Public Library, Muhlenberg County Public Libraries, Ohio County Public Library, Todd County Public Library and Warren County Public Library.

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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