At Orange County Public Library, residents can check-out more than just books.
A program at local libraries allows people to borrow an internet hot spot for up to three weeks. But the program may see a reduction of available hot spots to control costs.
Jim Northrup, Orange County’s chief information officer, said he credits the idea of renting hot spots to Library Director Lucinda Munger. Munger sent Northrup articles about the New York and Chicago public libraries implementing something similar.
Northrup said what drove him to action was meeting with so many residents concerned about their household broadband speed or lack of internet access altogether.
“We’d been meeting with these residents for like a year, and I just kept on thinking, ‘God, all I’m doing is talking here,'" Northrup said. “I’m not doing anything to help anyone.”
At that point, Northrup said he decided the county should fund the library’s to-go hot spots through a pilot program to collect data about who uses them and where they live.
Orange County Board of County Commissioner Penny Rich said the program started with only a few hot spots to see if people would actually borrow them, but demand rose quickly.
Today, Munger said the program has expanded to include around 130 hot spots split between Orange County’s main library and two Carrboro locations.
“We really didn’t do a whole lot of advertising when it first came out a couple years ago. We did some, and then it just kind of spread by word of mouth really,” Munger said. “That’s sometimes the best advertising you can get.”
As the county increased the number of to-go hot spots, Northrup said the number of people on the waitlist also increased, and Munger estimated that over 130 people are currently in line to borrow hot spots as soon they are returned.
“It’s really just about demand for really good broadband connection out in the rural areas, or sometimes areas that are just close to Hillsborough," Munger said. "Time Warner Cable won’t go in certain places even though you think you’re in the town limits."
Northrup was quick to credit Verizon Communications Inc. for keeping the program’s cost much lower than it could have been. He said the county’s contract with Verizon supplies hot spots for public employees to use for county business, but the company agreed to allow the county to distribute the hot spots to residents through libraries.
Northrup, Rich and Munger all expressed concern that the cost of the program would make it unsustainable in the long-run, but agreed it was a creative way to provide internet access to residents as the county worked on a permanent solution.
Northrup said the hot spots cost $38 per month as part of a partnership with Verizon, and keeping 130 hot spots for just one year costs $59,280. He said the county manager and Board agreed it would be more productive to put some of this money toward a strategic solution to increase broadband access in Orange County, and Northrup's unofficial budget for next year recommends reducing funding to cover about 60 hot spots.
“(The hot spot program is) not long-term fiscally sound, but for what we call the ‘band-aid cure,' it helps right now,” Rich said. “But at the same time, if you can help one kid do their homework or help one person get a job, then for me, it’s sure worth it to try to think outside the box and try to come up with some sort of solution.”
Northrup said many residents also thought the program would be unsustainable long-term, but he said he was still motivated to address the lack of internet faced by many in the county.
“On a day-to-day basis, if you want to get around in the world, you can’t live without the internet,” Rich said. “The people that are denying that, or want to be deniers, they just aren’t living in the real world.”
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