Mobile Beacon and the NYPL: Loaning Out the Internet to Thousands of New Yorkers

We just found out that TechSoup donor partner Mobile Beacon was chosen by the New York Public Library (NYPL) to provide 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspot devices as part of the library's mobile hotspot lending program.

Last summer we covered the big library tech news that mobile hotspot lending is finally getting national press. Libraries across the country have been lending out free Internet access for home use for some time now, but the trend got national attention when the New York and Chicago Public Libraries launched large-scale hotspot lending.

NYPL's program was so successful that the library has massively expanded the program.

How It Works

The New York Public Library Hotspot Loan Program is in a second phase of its pilot program to provide free at-home Internet access to patrons across the library's 88 branches. Mobile Beacon provided devices and service for the initial phase of the New York Public Library Hotspot Loan Program, which piloted lending 100 devices to library patrons.

The newly expanded program provides 10,000 mobile hotspots throughout New York libraries, including Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library. The hotspots supply unlimited 4G Internet service to patrons.

Each library system is handling loans slightly differently:

  • Brooklyn Public Library allows patrons to borrow the hotspots for one year if they don't have broadband at home. Patrons must have a valid library card with under $15 in fines and agree to attend an orientation session and answer surveys.
  • NYPL allows patrons to borrow devices for six months if they don't have home Internet access and are enrolled in one of the library's after-school or adult learning programs. Patrons may renew for an additional six months.
  • Queens Library patrons can check out the hotspots for a month at a time and request three additional one-month renewals. Patrons can also check out tablets to pair with the hotspots.

All the libraries require patrons to sign an acceptable use policy or borrowers' agreement.

Mobile Beacon's Philosophy

Mobile Beacon logo

Katherine Messier, Managing Director of Mobile Beacon said of the project:

“Libraries are on the front lines of the digital divide as they are often the only source of free Internet access in a community. It’s a real equity issue as patrons need access to apply for jobs, interact with government agencies, or access healthcare information. Programs like the NYC Library Hotspot lending program demonstrate how affordable, mobile access can significantly expand library services by letting patrons ‘borrow the Internet.’ They can use it on their own time and in the privacy of their own homes. It’s a powerful equalizer for any digital inclusion effort.”

She continues:

"As one of Sprint's largest educational broadband service partners, we're excited to be partnering with them on this program. This public-private partnership gets to the heart of the issues that the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate program and the White House's ConnectED initiative seek to address to make anytime-anywhere learning a reality for all Americans."

Of course one important aspect of this is that because Mobile Beacon is itself a nonprofit, it is able to keep costs very low for this and all U.S. library Internet lending programs.

Why Mobile Hotspot Lending?

The key findings from phase one of the NYPL hotspot pilot provide a compelling argument for loaning out hotspots to patrons:

  • Patrons spent an average of three hours a day using the Internet (compared to a 40-minute session using a library workstation).
  • The majority of time online was during the hours of 6 p.m. – 11 p.m. when the library was closed.
  • Patrons used an average of 9 GB of data per month.
  • Eighty-six percent of participants reported they would renew this service.

These results helped NYPL secure a grant from the Knight News Challenge, an initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Open Society Foundations; and Robin Hood Foundation, as well as an additional $1 million donation from Google.

Want to Try Mobile Hotspot Lending at Your Library?

The TechSoup Mobile Beacon hotspot donation program is a great way for other libraries to repeat this sort of pilot. Working with TechSoup, Mobile Beacon qualified all library locations within San Mateo library system and St. Paul library system using the TechSoup donation program. San Mateo started with 120 devices and St Paul will use 130 devices.

The Mobile Beacon donation program at TechSoup has had a 50 percent price drop since we last covered this story. Wi-Fi hotspots are available to libraries for an admin fee of $45 for up to 10 devices. There are 3 to choose from:

  • CLEAR Stick Atlas: A portable USB modem for connecting one computer to Mobile Beacon's 4G mobile broadband Internet service.
  • CLEAR Spot 4G (Voyager): This is the hotspot device that Providence Community Library has been loaning out. It's a portable wireless hotspot for connecting up to 8 Wi-Fi–capable devices to Mobile Beacon's 4G mobile broadband Internet service.
  • CLEAR Hub Express: This is a bigger Wi-Fi modem/router meant for stationary use. It can wirelessly connect up to 10 Wi-Fi–capable computers, tablets, phones, cameras, or printers. 

Unlimited 4G data plans that accompany each device are $10 per month (prepaid, so $120 per year).

Organizations must confirm that the devices will be used within the Mobile Beacon 4G coverage area before requesting this offer.

Note that Mobile Beacon's mobile data service and devices will be migrating to Sprint's 4G LTE network by the end of November 2015. The current devices will no longer work with the new Sprint data plans, but Mobile Beacon will offer new hotspot devices. Libraries can cancel the monthly subscription when the current 4G WiMAX network is discontinued. Mobile Beacon will issue a prorated refund for the remaining value of the service contract upon cancellation.


Image 1: Dima Groshev / Shutterstock

Image 2: melanzane1013 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Image 3: Mobile Beacon

Image 4: New York Public Library