OSU, AARP team up to help bridge the ‘digital divide’ in rural Oklahoma
Monday, December 10, 2018
Oklahoma State University’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources has teamed up with AARP Oklahoma to expand the ability of select public libraries to enhance broadband access in some of the state’s more rural areas.
“Access to the internet has become increasingly important,” said AARP State Director Sean Voskuhl. “We hope to empower Oklahomans to be able to access digital services such as healthcare, entertainment, and job and education resources, while also being able to be more socially connected and personally fulfilled.”
In November, AARP Oklahoma provided a $3,000 grant to fund 12 internet hotspots in Atoka, Davis and Marietta through the division’s rural broadband outreach program. The grant also will fund data services for three mobile hotspot devices previously made available through the program in the Okemah Public Library.
“The hotspot devices use cellular networks, the same as smartphones,” said Brian Whitacre, OSU Cooperative Extension agricultural economist and the program’s principal investigator. “They can be used inside a home; taken to restaurants, community centers and the like; and even go on a road trip. As long as the cellular network provider used by the hotspot has service in that area, the devices will provide broadband access.”
The mobile hotspot technology can be used to hook up multiple devices. Individual libraries have specific policies about who can check out the hotspot devices and the length of the loan period. Generally speaking, most libraries with such a program allow adults with a valid library card to check out the devices for a period of one week.
Participating public libraries now include the Atoka County Library, the Davis Public Library, the Elgin Community Library, the Grove Public Library, the Guthrie Public Library, the Love County Library in Marietta, the Reiger Memorial Library in Haskell, the Okemah Public Library, the Thomas-Wilhite Memorial Library in Perkins, the Sayre Public Library and the Seminole Public Library.
“It seems as though everyone wants to use the mobile hotspots, so much so that it’s December and we still have a waiting list a month into the program; the devices are not sitting in the library but are checked out and being used continuously,” said Jonathan Edwards, branch manager of the Davis Public Library.
Whitacre said AARP’s help in bringing broadband capabilities to Atoka, Davis and Marietta – and in helping to enhance the program in Okemah – is greatly appreciated, as well as being an example of benefits gained through cooperative partnerships between the university and public and private organizations.
“It’s very easy for individuals who have broadband access to take it for granted,” he said. “Think about all you do through the internet. Many people living in rural areas are not able to do those taken-for-granted activities as easily.”
Surveys of patrons at participating libraries indicate OSU’s rural broadband outreach program is overwhelming popular, with more than 90 percent of respondents ranking it as a nine or higher out of 10. A number of respondents even called the mobile hotspots “a blessing.”
Whitacre added there were many favorable comments about the mobile hotspots making it easier for parents to help their children with homework, playing an instrumental role in the start-up of small businesses, assisting in the planning of community events and keeping people in touch with family members residing within or outside their hometowns.
Randy Taylor, OSU Cooperative Extension assistant director, said the program is one way DASNR is helping the university meet its state and federally mandated land-grant mission.
“Extension has a long history of working to improve the quality of life for Oklahomans, rural and urban, and this program reflects our continuing commitment as technologies and lifestyles change,” he said.
The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is one of two state agencies administered by DASNR, and has been helping Oklahomans solve issues and concerns of importance to them since the organization’s establishment in 1914.
Anyone interested in additional information about either the library mobile hotspots or potential ways to enhance broadband access to rural Oklahoma should contact Whitacre by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 405-744-9825.