As libraries strive to provide relevant services to their communities that go beyond the traditional books and audio-visual resources, increasing numbers of them are finding that enabling internet access – outside the library – for patrons is a valuable service.

As much as most of us take ubiquitous internet service for granted, for a sizable number of Americans it simply isn’t available, at least conveniently. Both adults and students can find it difficult to keep up if their only real option is to go to the nearest coffee shop or fast food restaurant to get Wi-Fi connectivity. And many of them require access to find jobs, look for housing, or to keep up with homework assignments.

More and more libraries are discovering that an important way to extend service to their citizens is to loan out hotspots, enabling patrons to create their own Wi-Fi connection.

The hotspot loans can be done one by one to individuals, or they can be part of a larger program, such as the adult learning program run by a large Ohio library system, which makes hotspots part of that initiative. Not only is that convenient for the participants, but it helps the library track each participant’s progress in learning.

An advantage to hotspots is that because they use a private, secure network, they are substantially safer than public Wi-Fi networks, with their inherent security risks. Hotspots also allow several simultaneous users and device connections, so they can be a practical solution for an entire family to use at home or elsewhere.

There are costs for acquiring and maintaining hotspots, which is why funding is an ongoing concern for libraries. Often libraries will use a grant or other special funding program to launch a hotspot initiative, but encounter difficulties when that funding runs out. As they seek ongoing governmental funding to keep the hotspot effort going, they require accurate usage data to help them make their case.

That is why it is important for libraries to be sure their hotspot provider has a management solution available that can help them track usage data, to prove how heavily the hotspots are being used. The metrics that they establish can demonstrate the impact that a hotspot program has on individuals and communities.

Beyond libraries

It isn’t just public libraries that are making good use of hotspots. School libraries – sometimes entire school districts – make them available to students, particularly those students without internet access available at home, either due to economic disadvantage or living in a rural or underserved area. In a learning environment where more and more research and schoolwork itself requires use of the Internet, it can be a huge challenge for already challenged students to keep up.

Highly active students, with lots of after-school activities, can also benefit from hotspots, connecting wherever they are, leveraging spare time between activities such as club meetings or sports practices. The same is true for rural students, who may spend a lot of time on school buses going to and from school; they can connect as they travel and use that time to work on homework assignments.

Universities are also increasingly adopting hotspots, to allow students to connect anywhere, as are local governments, who want to do ensure connections for many of their mobile workers, such as social workers or field service staff.

What to look for in a hotspot

There are several key points for libraries and other entities to keep in mind as they consider a hotspot program.

First is mobile device management. Tracking the hotspot, its usage, its current status, and other basic information is critical. For libraries, as an example, people are just as likely to have an overdue hotspot as an overdue book. The advantage of a good mobile device management solution is that the device can be easily disabled if it is overdue. Then the user who tries to connect is blocked, receiving a message that they need to contact the library to return or renew the hotspot.

Second is ample data. Even if the library or school or other hotspot owner doesn’t want to offer truly unlimited data, they still need to make sure that their hotspot provider isn’t capping the data at such a low amount that people are throttled after only a short usage period.

Third is filtering. Anytime children are involved, it’s critical that their access is blocked to objectionable websites. In the case of libraries, which often don’t restrict access in their on-site connections, it’s important that the mobile device management system at least give them the option of activating a filter, depending upon who is borrowing the hotspot or the prevalence of local community standards.

Whether your city or school district has a single library or dozens of branches, Wi-Fi hotspots can help keep residents connected and provide them with access to valuable reading and learning tools.