Libraries fight digital divide by loaning internet access via Wi-Fi hotspots

By The Canadian Press
April 17, 2018 - 2:15am

TORONTO — Two years after running a pilot project to assess whether there was a demand for letting library users "borrow" internet access, the Toronto Public Library has decided the answer is a resounding yes.

The library recently expanded the project five-fold from its modest beginnings, with up to 1,000 library users and their families now getting free, unlimited access to the internet at their homes for six months via a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Toronto is one of a number of cities across Canada where library systems have embraced the trend of providing short-term internet access for users, with Wi-Fi hotspot loan periods ranging from a couple of weeks to half a year.

While some libraries lend the devices out to anyone who requests one — some want a hotspot to get online during long drives, trips to the cottage or other areas where a user has limited or no access to an internet connection — others have invested in the devices to help address the digital divide.

That's the case in Toronto, where the lending program is linked to the city's poverty reduction strategy.

"Our goal is to provide some community support and a community option for folks who don't have (internet access) while we await bigger government policy decisions around affordable access," said Pam Ryan, director of service development and innovation at the Toronto Public Library.

"Libraries that are doing the longer period of time are hoping to make some substantive changes in people's lives in terms of the outcomes we're looking for. So we're looking for folks who can be job searching for that period of time, who can be working through course work."

A past survey of users who borrowed a hotspot found more than half had a household income that was less than $20,000, about 80 per cent said they did not have internet access at home because they could not afford it, and nearly two-thirds said the library was their only source of connectivity.

"There's themes of social inclusion," Ryan said of feedback the library received from users.

"Folks being able to access what we take for granted."

The Edmonton Public Library will soon mark two years of lending out Wi-Fi hotspots with a similar mission. The program started with three-week loan terms before expanding to three months.

"It's to provide internet access to Edmontonians who do not have access in their own homes and who are potentially socio-economically disadvantaged and or have low digital literacy skills," said Vicky Varga, a manager with the Edmonton Public Library.

"So bridging the digital divide is one component of this, as well as the equity of access."

Varga acknowledged the program did need to be tweaked as the library's 40 hotspots were sometimes being lent out to users who wanted them to supplement their own data plans.

"We had hoped, somewhat perhaps naively, that people would self-select for inclusion in the program (based on income and need)," she said.

"We weren't hitting the demographic we had hoped."

The library refocused its efforts on lending the hotspots in areas with lower average household incomes and did outreach to identify library users who could benefit from the service most. When some users said they did not have a computer, phone or tablet to make use of a hotspot, the library decided to invest in some low-cost Chromebook laptops to lend out as well.

"That's our latest evolution in this project, creating 10 kits to test the waters and see how we do or don't meet our community needs," Varga said.

Most Wi-Fi hotspot lending programs provide unfiltered internet connections with no content blocks. Ryan said the library's internet-use policy still applies but there have been no issues yet around inappropriate uses of the devices.

"It'd be no different than the expectations of using a public computer or the Wi-Fi at the libraries. But it's not something that has been a concern."

Michael Oliveira, The Canadian Press

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