Library Parking Lots Become WiFi Hotspots In Response To COVID-19 Closures

Drive up, pick a spot and open your laptop. Drive-in WiFi is an emerging trend in response to public spaces closing due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s a scene reminiscent of drive-in movies, except people are using WiFi from inside their car, instead of enjoying a film while comfortably seated on the grass. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 shuttered businesses and public spaces across the world. While we all stay at home to slow the spread, many of us remain comfortably connected to the internet. Yet 19 million Americans lack access to broadband internet, according to FCC reports. Other reports show 33 million Americans lack access. Either way, that’s a staggering amount. Millions of people don’t have reliable internet access at home and depend on the free WiFi service public libraries provide. In addition to free WiFi, libraries have computers for patron use while at the library and many locations have laptop check-out and WiFi hotspot programs for patrons to use at home. So when the buildings close to the public, that can provide complications for this type of service and outreach. 

Doors close but services continue.

Many people rely on the library for services, WiFi included, and closure could be devastating. Schools move to an online learning model, and many jobs are done remotely at home instead of the office. Both of which require a good internet connection. So what are the millions of Americans without access or with limited access left to do? 

Libraries are stepping up to meet the community need.  According to the PLA response to COVID-19 survey, 98% of libraries closed to the public. But closed doors don’t mean service stops. If anything, libraries are working harder to bring services to the community in a safe way. The survey showed that 81% of libraries leave WiFi on even while the building is closed and 12% expanded or added to their WiFi service in response to the pandemic.

To overcome concerns about patrons complying with social distancing regulations while accessing library WiFi, the staff are getting creative, in typical librarian fashion. Many libraries are installing WiFi hotspots that can be accessed from parking lots or nearby courtyards. These drive-in WiFi access points are helping people attend classes, do work or just stay in touch with family they would otherwise be able to see in person. 

In these challenging times, library teams are working hard to continue service to communities. 

Locations are extending the reach of the signal by moving routers closer to the window. They’re transforming parking lots into drive-in wifi hot spots using signs and cones to direct users. School buses are being fitted with WiFi routers and parked at apartment complexes and neighborhoods to help children connect to online learning portals. College academic libraries are transforming parking lots into drive-in WiFi hotspots. Public libraries are leaving WiFi on 24/7. 

Libraries are key community hubs. 

Unemployment claims rose to nearly 17 million in just a few weeks. Public libraries are an important support system for individuals experiencing unemployment. They serve as critical lifelines to people in times of need by providing internet access, loaning technology and providing guidance and help. They are community hubs–offering a myriad of services and support all in one place. In addition to providing free WiFi 24/7, many libraries are extending their laptop loaning programs so people can apply for benefits, a difficult task without access, especially when complying with social distancing rules.

Students need computers to access online classes, and schools and libraries are meeting this need by checking out Chromebooks. Some public libraries already have an electronic check out system in place while others are ramping theirs up. These programs connect patrons to the materials and resources they need to stay afloat during this public health crisis. As we all continue to adjust to this new normal our community libraries will adapt and continue to provide critical resources.