(TNS) — AUSTIN, Minn. — The Austin Public Library's wireless hot spots are red hot with patrons.

The program allows patrons to check out portable, wireless devices that offer free, reliable internet access. The hot spots have a loan period of three weeks with no renewals. There are no travel restrictions or roaming charges, so patrons are able to take the hot spots with them on the road.

The city's library owns 85 hot spots (the program started with 25 in January).

"We were able to add 30 devices at one time, which brought our total to 85," said Jake Fejedelem, technology librarian.

The program's popularity has skyrocketed, with word of mouth effectively driving demand. Community receptiveness, Fejedelem said, also has been high.

Each device costs about $200 depending on the model. The library pays $30 per month for each device to access the internet. A Hormel Foundation grant covered the cost of 25 devices and data for those devices for three years. The city of Austin's contingency fund -- about $27,600 -- will cover 30 devices for two years. The Friends of the Library also are sponsoring 20 units for two years, and the 10 remaining devices the library will cover for two years.

Many of the patrons who have borrowed the hot spots have taken them on vacation. Others are looking to try the internet for the first time (the library has 35 Chromebooks it loans out). Others use the hot spots as a way to continue their education or job search because they cannot afford internet service at home.

As of Wednesday, the library had recorded 171 unique borrowers and 447 checkouts for the hot spots. On July 6, there were 127 unique users. July's monthly data total for 55 hot spots was 784 gigabytes.

So far, the highest single month of data use was 87 gigabytes -- considered an outlier -- and the mean usage of the hot spots was in the 7 to 12 gigabyte range.

"The biggest indicator is that the hot spots are not being used for heavy streaming or downloading," Fejedelem said, "which would show much higher usage. All I get in my reports is the total data used. Patron security is important to us, so we don't have any access as to what they do online."

There haven't been any reported issues of stolen or lost hot spots. If a unit is overdue for a week, then the device gets reported to T-Mobile, and service at that number is suspended.

While the need is high for the devices, Fejedelem said it was difficult to know how many hot spots would meet the demand from the community. The additional 30 hot spots from the most recent expansion were checked out within three days.

However, Fejedelem sees the program as a temporary fix for the bigger problem of affordable, reliable internet access for everyone.

"Hopefully, there will be affordable high speed internet available in the near future," he said. "It's a vital component for functioning in modern society."

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