In early July, patrons at four Fort Worth Public Libraries will be able to check out a mobile Hotspot device that will give them free, unlimited Internet access in their homes for three weeks at a time.
Although it will initially last six months, the program moves Fort Worth on to a growing list of cities nationwide offering Internet access that is checked out just as a book, audio tape or other library materials.
They'll also carry late fees if not returned on time and the Hotspots can be turned off remotely by service administrators, Library spokeswoman Theresa Davis said.
The program is aimed at bridging the "homework gap," created when students are required to do work or research via the Internet, but have no access at home, and in helping adults fill out online job applications and search for employment. Patrons can use the Internet for fun, too.
The nonprofit Friends of the Fort Worth Public Library is funding the pilot program, pledging $14,400, or $2,400 a month, that pays for Sprint WiFi mobile data plan for 80 devices. Each Hotspot device can then connect as many as 10 laptops, tablets, computers or phones in the one location. The group raises money through book sales and other events.
"I think it’s great to see a love of great books and a love of the Fort Worth Library come full circle," said Bunny Gardner, President of the Friends of the Fort Worth Public Library. "Because of the book sales we make in our fundraising efforts online and in library branches, we have the funds to underwrite a pilot program that offers library patrons freedom, flexibility and access to information. That is something the Friends are proud to support."
The four branch locations each will get 20 devices. They include Cavile Outreach Opportunity Library, 5060 Avenue G; East Berry, 4300 E. Berry St.; Northside, 601 Park St.; and, Seminary South, 501 E. Bolt St.
The branches are located in economically challenged neighborhoods and where there is low Internet access, said Manya Shorr, Fort Worth's library director. Any library card holder can take advantage of the program, but they will have to go to one of the branches to check the Hotspot device out, she said.
That's being done to try and keep them in the neighborhoods the program is targeting, she said. It's not uncommon to see kids and adults outside libraries when they're not open tapping into the WiFi, particularly when they've reached the cap on their private data plans.
"The goal of this program and the reason why it's in these neighborhoods in particular, it's to give folks the dignity of having wireless Internet access in their homes," Shorr said. "As long as libraries have been offering wireless Internet, this has been happening, and especially with our current limited hours it's not unusual for people to come sit outside the building."
Shorr came to Fort Worth from the Washington, D.C. public library system where she started a similar program in 2016. That program now serves three locations and as of recently had a wait list of more than two dozen patrons.
Shorr said a program was conceived here in the last couple of years, but it never took off because there was no funding.
And as the case in other cities, Shorr said she expects the program to be well-used here.
A few families are testing the Hotspot lending program ahead of the July 3 launch.
Kimberly Bolden has one from the East Berry branch and uses it to get Internet service for a tablet her four-year-old son, Jamichael, uses to prepare him to enter pre-K in the fall. She said she likes the flexibility the device offers. She takes it with her when the two go to the grocery store.
"It's been working good so far," Bolden said. "I go to the library a lot. I was excited for him. It's really good for him."
Citing a Pew Research Center report released in February, 95 percent of Americans have some sort of cell phone. But, tradional broadband service has slowed and more Americans use their smartphones as their primary means of online access at home, Pew said.
Today one-in-five American adults are “smartphone-only” internet users – meaning they own a smartphone, but do not have traditional home broadband service, the Pew report said.
"Where you see it break is along racial and income levels," Shorr said. "Although most people have some kind of smartphone, far more people either in poverty or who are African-American or Hispanic rely on that cell phone for their only means of Internet access in their home."
Fort Worth has its Central library downtown and 15 branches.