OSU teams with libraries to bridge ‘digital divide’

Donald Stotts OSU communications
Many rural residents rely on the public library for their internet connectivity. Todd Johnson/OSU

STILLWATER (TNS) — Oklahoma State University’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and public libraries in four Oklahoma towns are joining forces to provide broadband access to residents in some of the state’s more rural areas.

“This pilot program is something that has never been done in rural Oklahoma and hopefully will allow residents and civic leaders to experience firsthand how broadband access can improve people’s quality of life and strengthen local communities,” said Brian Whitacre, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension agricultural economist and the program’s principal investigator.

DASNR and its cooperating partners — the Elgin Community Library, the Reiger Memorial Library in Haskell, the Thomas-Wilhite Memorial Library in Perkins and the Seminole Public Library — are asking local residents to take advantage of the pilot program and provide feedback as to their experiences.

“As a small rural library with many areas not having internet access, I hope this will provide yet another beneficial service to our communities,” said Leslie Durham of the Elgin Community Library. “It will enable kids to be able to do their web-based homework, adults to do job applications or patrons to just cruise the internet.”

Life in the 21st century has increasingly become interdependent with internet access, yet the cost of maintaining a monthly connection exceeds what far-too-many Oklahomans can afford.

A 2015 survey indicated that only 44 percent of Oklahoma households with incomes of less than $25,000 have a broadband connection. This is less than half of the 91 percent for Oklahoma households with incomes greater than $100,000.

Enter the pilot program between DASNR and the public libraries. The program essentially “loans out the internet” by allowing individuals to check out one of four mobile hotspot devices assigned to the library.

“These devices use cellular networks, the same as smartphones,” Whitacre said. “They can be used inside a home; taken to restaurants, community centers and the like; and even go on a road trip. As long as the cellular network provider used by the hotspot has service in that area, the devices will provide broadband access.”

The hotspot technology can be used to hook up multiple devices. Individual libraries have specific policies about who can check out the hotspot devices and the length of the loan period. Generally speaking, most libraries with such a program allow adults with a valid library card to check out the devices.

The pilot program will run through April 2018 and is being supported by Mobile Beacon, an organization focused on providing broadband to nonprofit entities across the nation.

Whitacre hopes this pilot program will lead to more libraries across the state embracing the idea of providing mobile hotspots and beginning lending programs of their own.

“We know many local residents use the library exclusively for their internet connectivity,” said Alison Bloyd of the Thomas-Wilhite Memorial Library in Perkins. “We hope the hotspot program will fill a digital gap for the households that currently lack access to online resources for job training, educational research and social connections.”

Holly Hughes of the Reiger Memorial Library in Haskell agrees, citing how libraries have long been places for people to access information and technology that they might not otherwise be able to obtain.

“This is certainly true for our community, which is why providing hotspots in the library is so vital,” she said. “Haskell is a small community with limited household incomes. The program will allow the residents of Haskell to have access to the internet in a way they wouldn’t be able to simply because of the prices involved.”

Also, residents of rural Oklahoma should be aware Whitacre has authored an OSU Cooperative Extension fact sheet, AGEC 1065, “Internet options for low-income households in Oklahoma,” containing detailed information about a number of low-cost broadband options available for rural Oklahomans. The fact sheet is available online at http://osufacts.okstate.edu.

“The fact sheet authored by Dr. Whitacre is incredibly helpful for Oklahoma digital inclusion programs and others providing guidance to community members on the wrong side of the digital divide,” said Angela Siefer, director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

Anyone interested in additional information about either the library mobile hotspots pilot program or potential ways to enhance broadband access to rural Oklahoma should contact Whitacre by email at brian.whitacre@okstate.edu or by phone at 405-744-9825.