Pilot Program allows Families to "check out" Wi-Fi Hotspots

Twenty-five Kansas City households with school-age children will get free wireless Internet access at home—or wherever else they choose to connect—as part of a pilot program allowing them to "check out" the service from the Kansas City Public Library.

The plan targets residents in underserved areas who now lack home access to the Internet, allowing them to utilize free Wi-Fi hotspots at least six months. The pilot program will serve students attending two Kansas City public schools, East High School and Faxon Elementary School, and their parents, guardians, or caregivers, offering training in addition to the wireless connections.

The program could launch as early as the start of the 2015-16 school year in August. The Library, which is partnering with Kansas City Public Schools and local nonprofits Literacy Kansas City and Connecting for Good, hopes to expand the innovative lending service in succeeding years.

"The mission of the Library is to be a doorway to knowledge for all," says Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, its deputy director of strategic initiatives. "With this program, we hope to open the door for students and their families to be able to operate in today's digital society.

"This is a continuation of our effort to connect kids to services they need. And it furthers a community-wide initiative to close the digital divide in Kansas City."

The Library's leadership role in digital inclusion efforts was underscored by its selection by broadband service provider Mobile Beacon as a pilot site for Wi-Fi checkouts. Mobile Beacon, based in Johnston, Rhode Island, will donate 25 wireless Internet devices and unlimited data plans for the duration of the program, plus a matching number of Lenovo laptop computers, plus end-to-end support.

The announcement was made at last week's Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition conference in Arlington, Virginia. The Kansas City Public Library will join a handful of libraries nationwide, including the New York and Chicago public systems, in lending mobile wireless service to households in underserved neighborhoods.

"Having a low-cost, high-speed broadband Internet connection is absolutely essential to participating in today's digital economy and society," says SHLB Coalition Executive Director John Windhausen, noting that 30% of American households still lack one. "The Kansas City Public Library is one of the nation's leaders in reaching outside the library walls and working with the community to address this critical need. No one is more deserving of this award."

Says Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, a coalition of more than 90 cities and counties advocating widespread availability of fast and reliable broadband Internet service, "The Kansas City Public Library's deep commitment to addressing digital inclusion is a shining example of the type of work we champion. They are a leading model of how to engage the community to provide Internet access and show the benefits of broadband, and we applaud the recognition they have received from Mobile Beacon."

The Library's foray into mobile wireless lending comes amid growing attention to digital literacy barriers and a national digital divide. Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler called this week for the expansion of a government phone subsidy program to help low-income Americans pay for Internet access. The FCC is scheduled to vote on the proposal on June 18, 2015.

The Kansas City Public Library was instrumental in the formation of the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Coalition and hosted a first-of-its-kind Digital Inclusion Summit in October 2014 that addressed troublesome gaps in residents' access to computers and the Internet. Kositany-Buckner is a member of the founding council of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

The Mobile Beacon-backed Wi-Fi lending program addresses concern in Kansas City about the high concentration of school-aged children, ages 4-18, in homes that do not use the Internet - the school district says 70% of its students do not have online access where they live. Library and school officials are scheduled to meet next week to begin identifying the 25 students and other household members who will participate in the pilot program.

The program is designed to help students access online resources and pursue educational activities at home. Parents and other caregivers will be required to take part in training with the students to enable them to provide support - and to augment their own digital literacy skills.

Officials also will work to determine how to measure the impact of the program and the enhanced Internet access.