Rural North Carolina & the Digital Divide
Northwestern Regional Library is a public library system, made up of 13 branches and serving four counties in the northwest part of North Carolina.
As a predominantly rural region consisting of many small towns – one of which has a population of just a little over 100 residents – WiFi connectivity can pose a significant challenge. Spotty coverage and dead zones are all too common, especially in the mountainous terrain. Even if Internet access is available, affordability can be a challenge – one town has a poverty rate as high as 33%.
Northwestern Regional Library saw this need – the breadth of which was revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic – and elected to pursue solutions to bridge the digital divide in the communities it serves.
While this goal was clear, finding the technical support who would be able to manage the day-to-day maintenance of a WiFi connectivity program is not always easy. While the regional library system has access to outside IT help, none of the library staff members are solely dedicated to technical support.
Connecting with Kajeet
When the Northwestern Regional Library team connected with Kajeet, they realized this partnership was the right next step. Not only would the Kajeet SmartSpot® devices allow them to offer seamless mobile connectivity to their patrons across the wireless carrier of their choice, but the technical support offered from Day 1 would also enable them to onboard their solution quickly and with confidence.
“Although we have a very dedicated staff, the support provided by Kajeet has been incredibly helpful to us,” shares Joan Sherif, Director of Libraries, Northwestern Regional Library.
“Kajeet walked us through every step, which we really appreciate.”
Launching a WiFi Hotspot Lending Program
Northwestern Regional Library (NWRL) launched their Kajeet program in December 2021 with 52 SmartSpot® devices, which are portable WiFi hotspots. They initiated a SmartSpot lending program, in which patrons are able to “check out” one of these WiFi hotspots – like they would a book or CD – and use it for their connectivity needs. After 3 weeks, SmartSpot devices are either due back in or can be renewed. According to Sherif, the program has so far been successful and cost-effective.
“We appreciate the competitive pricing offered by Kajeet,” says Sherif. “We understand there are probably some cheaper solutions out there, but when you consider the support included with Kajeet, it is absolutely worth it.”
The primary use of the lending program is to facilitate digital learning, so that K-12 students with Internet access challenges can keep up with their peers, utilize online tools, and complete their assignments. Embedded filtering at the device level ensures students remain safe and secure online. The Kajeet Sentinel® administrator platform enables library staff to track usage – including allowed and denied website visits – as well as manage data across devices and carriers.
But NWRL has also seen adult patrons and even library staff use SmartSpot devices to support life management tasks – such as online banking, adult education, and healthcare. One group even used it to enable connectivity during their camping trip at a nearby natural area.
“We have heard positive reports from many of our Branch Managers,” shares Sherif. “In one instance, we heard about a patron who is on a limited income and whose choice, or necessity, is to live without Internet access in her home. Being able to check out the WiFi hotspots has been very valuable to her because she can come check it out when she needs it and not worry about the hassle or expense of maintaining a connection at home.”
Looking Ahead: Funding & Sustainability
NWRL received two rounds of Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) support to fund their Kajeet program. Once that funding runs dry, they hope to sustain the program via other revenue streams.
“Every year, we present a budget and document how the solution helps people and makes a difference in our region,” Sherif says.
“There is a lot that is unknown, but our staff sees the value of this program for people who would not have Internet access otherwise, and we hope to continue to make an impact in our patrons’ lives.”