OKEECHOBEE – The Okeechobee County Public Library has 146 WiFi Hotspots, which can be checked out like library books. Currently 28 are missing.
At the Sept. 8 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said he is concerned about hotspots that are checked out from the library and never returned.
“If they do not bring it back, we turn off the data,” explained Library Director Kresta King. She said only one hotspot may be checked out per family, and if a hotspot is overdue, family members are not allowed to check anything out from the library until the hotspot is returned.
Usually when they turn the data off, they hear from people, she added.
“The day that we see they are overdue, we turn the data off,” said King. She said they charge $110 replacement cost plus $5 processing fee if the hotspot is not returned. That charge is placed on the library card holder’s account the day the hotspot is overdue. That cost is waived when the hotspot is returned, she said.
King said while they do know who checked out the 28 missing hotspots, “that does not mean they still reside where they said they were.”
She said many of these library patrons no longer have phones in service. “This tells me those people have moved or they are deceased.”
Most of the missing hotspots were from the group purchased in April 2020, she said. Of those purchased last year, only eight are missing.
She said 13 hotspots have malfunctioned and those were replaced by T-Mobile. Since the start of the program, six patrons have paid for hotspots that were lost or damaged.
Burroughs asked if the library could require a deposit. County Attorney Wade Vose said state statute is vague but “state library folks in Tallahassee have verbally advised that statute means they can’t require deposits.”
“We want every item to come back,” said King. However, she explained that as of July 1, 2021, Okeechobee County Public Library’s hotspots became enrolled in the Emergency Connectivity Fund program, as part of the Heartland Cooperative. She said the Emergency Connectivity Fund now pays for the data. The ECF program does not allow the libraries to require a deposit, she said.
“Any hotspot Heartland has will be paid for by that fund,” she said. “So for future purchasing, we don’t have to pay anything as long as the feds are providing that.”
King said she does not know how long the ECF will provide the funding, but she suspects it will continue until the Broadband Initiative is in place.
Burroughs said he understand a new program is coming out to provide low income residents with WiFi for $30 a month.
Commissioner Brad Goodbread asked if the library could publish a list of the people who have not returned hotspots in the hope their friends would encourage them to do the right thing. King said due to privacy laws, they cannot release library patrons’ names.
King said Okeechobee County has been a leader in providing hotspots from the library. She said the rest of the Heartland Library Cooperative only has 60 hotspot devices to share.
“We’re definitely leading the way in helping people,” she said. King said the hotspots have been used by 4-H Clubs in their booths at fairs. They’ve been used at rodeos to help with ticket sales.
“We keep some back in the library because students’ Chrome Books don’t work with our library WiFi due to the privacy settings,” she explained. Students use hotspots at the library in order to work on their Chrome Books.
The hotspot uses must follow strict guidelines. Hotspots can connect up to 10 devices. Hotspots are checked out for two weeks and are not renewable.