Long before the pandemic started, the Seattle Public Library understood the need for internet and Wi-Fi access.
In a 2013 study about technology access and adoption in Seattle, the city found 15% of 4,315 Seattle residents couldn’t access the internet, despite resources such as community center and library computers.
These residents were disproportionately unhoused, unemployed, low-income, disabled, older and those who didn’t pursue higher education, and reported their most common barriers as high service cost and slow internet speed.
Two years later, SPL launched the Wi-Fi hot spot circulation program as a way to address the lack of affordable, widespread internet access.
While anyone with a library card can check out a hot spot for up to 21 days from their nearest library branch, outreach hot spots can be loaned out for much longer.
For example, clients of API Chaya — an SPL community partner that primarily supports survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking — can check out hot spots for up to six months, according to Peter Seith, the group’s office and technology coordinator.
By the end of the hot spot program’s first year, these devices were checked out at least 2,300 times.
While SPL’s yearlong closure caused a dip in checkouts in 2020, Seattle residents actually used their checked-out hot spots even more during the pandemic.
Kate Sellers, SPL’s technical manager, believes the number of general circulation hot spots is enough to keep up with demand.
In 2021, additional general circulation hot spots shortened the waiting time for a hot spot from 10 to “four or five weeks.” A person who regularly uses hot spots will usually place a hold for one, then place a hold for another as soon as the first one arrives at their local branch. The second device will then come a few weeks after the person has to return the first hot spot.
Residents and community partners generally agree the hot spot program has been beneficial. It currently has a rating of 4.5 stars on its website, averaged among 418 reviews as of August 17.
One of SPL’s community partners is the Low Income Housing Institute house tiny villages, where SPL installed long-term hot spots.
“While obviously more hot spots would be better, for the most part, [there are] enough hot spots to get full coverage,” said Hattie Rhodes, village operations manager at the Whittier Heights tiny house village.
Having the internet is “absolutely necessary” for residents, not only to secure basic needs but also to transition to permanent housing, Rhodes emphasized. Applying for identification cards, social security and driver’s licenses require filling out online forms.
Villa Comunitaria, another SPL community partner that mainly serves Spanish-speaking communities, runs skills training classes where participants often utilize the loaned hot spots to learn how to use email, Google Drive, Microsoft Word and social media, among other basic computer and internet skills.
The program was initially funded by two Google grants and the Seattle City Council’s general fund. Currently it is supported by the 2019 library levy, the SPL Foundation, the 2012 library levy, federal COVID-19 relief and departments such as the city of Seattle’s Human Services Department.
While the program is satisfying current needs and providing necessary infrastructure, Sellers cautioned against advocating for increasing program funding for things like additional hot spots. Even if partners like LIHI tiny house villages received more hot spots, factors such as rain and extreme temperature affect hot spot internet speed and quality.
Support for the outreach team could be increased, Sellers said, but more emphasis should be placed on longer-term, sustainable goals. A big objective of the program is to give patrons temporary internet services and work with them to apply for more stable, low-cost internet providers.
“The ultimate solution,” Sellers urged, “is to have broadband access more widely and permanently” across the city.