Broadband First Responders: Libraries, Schools, and ISPs Open Wi-Fi Hotspots for Students

Visitors to libraries across the country are being greeted with signs declaring, “Library Closed,” in an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. But increasingly, those words are followed by the ones seen outside Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, Pennsylvania: “Park for Free Wi-Fi.”

As the Covid-19 outbreak pushes almost all daily functions online, libraries, schools, and Internet service providers (ISPs) are finding themselves on the front lines of responding to their communities’ connectivity needs — especially those of students. Nationwide, these broadband first responders are working rapidly to open and deploy public Wi-Fi hotspots that families can access from the safety of their parked cars.

Even before the current crisis, the “homework gap” meant that 7 million school-age children did not have Internet access at home, hampering their ability to get an education. Now, the digital divide is being thrown into even starker relief, as students struggle to access online classes and school districts grapple with equity concerns.

Though it isn’t a permanent solution to the homework gap, these community institutions and providers hope that the emergency Wi-Fi access will give students on the wrong side of the divide a chance to learn while schools are shut down.

Students Trade Desks for Cars

Earlier this week, the American Library Association (ALA) recommended that libraries leave their Wi-Fi turned on and accessible while facilities are closed. In a press release, ALA stated:

America’s 16,557 public library locations are essential nodes in our nation’s digital safety net . . . The COVID-19 Pandemic is disrupting this safety net and spotlighting the persistent digital gaps for more than 20 million people in the United States, including millions of school-age children and college students forced out of classrooms.

Even before ALA issued that guidance, librarians across the nation were moving wireless routers next to windows and hanging up signs with log-on instructions in an effort to ensure patrons could still access Wi-Fi networks from the library’s parking lot. (Many recommend users stay in their vehicles, but some sites are allowing walk-ups, provided people distance themselves.)

Starting last week, Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, Pennsylvania, alerted community members that the Wi-Fi network remains accessible 24/7 from the building’s parking spots. A sign outside the library provides information on how to sign on to the network. The marquee outside the Virginia Public Library in Virginia, Minnesota, simply tells visitors, “OUR PASSWORD IS BOOKWORM.”

Networkmaine, which helps connect public universities, schools, and libraries in Maine, has started the Study-From-Car Initiative to track schools and libraries with Wi-Fi networks open to students. It is also offering to help schools in the state set up separate guest wireless networks for the public to use during the shutdown.

Schools themselves are finding creative solutions to close the connectivity gap faced by many students. In Illinois, Belleville Township High School District 201 is deploying Wi-Fi-enabled school busses to various sites in the community so students can download digital assignments.

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) clarified that schools and libraries could continue to open their wireless networks to the public without endangering federal funding, quelling some institutions’ fears. “Shutting down these Wi-Fi networks could have been disastrous for the millions of people who depend on schools or libraries as their only point of internet access,” said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition. With that reassurance in hand, expect to see many more schools and libraries follow these examples in the coming days.

ISPs Move to Connect

Since the FCC launched the Keep Americans Connected Pledge two weeks ago, hundreds of broadband providers have agreed to make their Wi-Fi hotspots accessible to the public. National monopolies and small independent alike have signed the pledge, but we have heard reports that, with Comcast’s network at least, people are struggling to find working hotspots and actually get online.

On the other hand, community broadband networks have not only opened access at existing Wi-Fi hotspots but are actively working to deploy more throughout their communities. The Holland Board of Public Works in Holland, Michigan, has set up an access location at the Holland Civic Center using its broadband infrastructure, helpfully offering residents a map of the best-connected parking spots. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the municipal fiber network is partnering with the local school district to deploy EPB Quick Connect Free Wi-Fi at 25 sites, including schools, churches, and community centers.

Rural cooperatives, too, are working overtime to meet their communities’ connectivity needs. Through its broadband subsidiary, Kit Carson Electric Co-op in New Mexico has set up Wi-Fi hotspots in 14 locations. One thousand miles north, Minnesota-based telephone co-op CTC is deploying drive-up Wi-Fi access sites across their rural service territory and will continue to add more.

For the most part, providers are positioning Wi-Fi hotspots in spots where families can park their cars to access the network, but consulting agency CTC Energy & Technology also developed a short guide for how communities could set up wireless networks in public housing and other residential buildings.

In many ways, these efforts wouldn’t be as necessary if federal and state governments had invested adequately in high-quality, affordable networks years ago. However, there is still time for officials to support providers’ efforts now. Joe Buttweiler, the telephone co-op’s Director Of Business Development, shared on LinkedIn:

CTC will keep adding locations and doing our best to support our communities and neighbors but we need funding NOW and without red tape . . . Get us funding to build robust, future proof, fiber networks to avoid all of these connectivity challenges from hindering us in the future.

Listen to Community Broadband Bits podcast episode 400 to hear how local broadband company US Internet is addressing connectivity needs during the pandemic.

Broadband Is an Essential Service

Naturally, students can use these Wi-Fi networks to complete coursework, but the connection to their schools also serves a bigger purpose — ensuring their emotional and physical wellbeing during this difficult time. Assistant Superintendent Brian Mentzer explained to Illinois public radio how Belleville Township School District 201 was using the connectivity to check in with students:

[Class] starts with: How are you doing? Is there anything you need? Are you healthy? Do you need food? Those are the questions our lessons . . . are beginning with because we understand that’s also a priority.

Even without a pandemic, it’s evident that Internet access is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity. Fundamental services, like education, healthcare, and public safety, require a broadband connection, now more than ever. Families will not follow orders to shelter in place if they can’t safely access these essential services.

The Covid-19 outbreak is expanding many people’s perceptions of who first responders are in a time of emergency. It’s not only medical professionals and police officers but also grocery store workers and delivery drivers who are on the front lines of the battle to contain the novel coronavirus.

The fast-thinking schools, libraries, and companies working across the country to connect American students — our broadband first responders — deserve recognition too.

Image credit: Schlow Centre Region Library and Don Means, Gigabit Libraries Network. Join Gigabit Libraries Network every Friday at 12 eastern time for their online discussion series "What is a library if the building is closed?"