Ottawa County libraries offer mobile hotspot devices

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Nathan Slauer, Staff Reporter

Ottawa County libraries received a $81,450 grant from the Library of Michigan to expand its Mobile Hotspot Device Lending Initiative. The pilot program will make 100 mobile broadband hotspots available for checkout at all nine Ottawa County libraries. 

Mobile broadband hotspots provide wireless Internet access to laptops, smartphones, tablets and gaming devices. Library patrons use these portable, cell phone-sized devices to avoid using data during road trips or gain Internet access in areas with spotty coverage. 

“These devices will make it possible for users to expand their educational opportunities, complete online schoolwork, search and apply for jobs,” said Loutit District Library Director John Martin. “The benefits are endless.”

The Mobile Hotspot Device Lending Initiative aims to make the Internet available to all Ottawa County residents. County survey data shows that 22 percent of county households do not have a fixed broadband connection, and 35 percent of residents say they cannot afford home Internet access.

“If you don’t have Internet access at your home, and you’re supposed to be keeping up with your schoolwork or projects for work, you’re already at a disadvantage,” Martin said.

Ottawa County officials estimate that 18 percent of Ottawa County lacks Internet coverage, although they consider maps tracking coverage areas to be inaccurate and unreliable.

“Data from Internet providers say the whole county is covered, but when you parcel it out, there are dark spots all over the county that don’t get a signal, ” Martin said. “This is especially true near coasts, sand dunes and rural areas, where there’s not enough houses to justify stringing a line down the road.”

Paul Sachs, Director of Planning and Performance Improvement at Ottawa County, said it is not cost effective for Internet providers to build wireless towers in remote areas with few residents. He is developing a business plan with Comcast and AT&T that would expand coverage with a reasonable return on investment. 

As negotiations between Ottawa County officials and Internet providers continue, the Mobile Hotspot Lending Initiative will fill in the gaps over a two-year period. The Ottawa County Planning & Performance Improvement Department will collect survey data from library patrons to determine if further program expansion is warranted. 

“We’ve been working for nearly 15 years to facilitate the expansion of high speed broadband Internet,” Sachs said. “Having access to high speed broadband is the next utility.”