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Libraries Hope to Help Close the Digital Divide by Lending WiFi Hotspots

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, June 27 2014

Computers for public use at the New York Public Library (Wikipedia)

Two plans to begin lending portable WiFi hotspots to underserved communities were among the winning projects of the Knight News Challenge to strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation. Although the mechanics of the Chicago Public Library and New York Public Library initiatives are unique, the goal—to expand Internet access and promote digital literacy—are the same. Since the target demographic for these projects are underserved, often poor communities, the libraries will have to be careful to not infringe on users' privacy or digital freedoms in order to demonstrate the success of the projects.

As of May 2013, 70 percent of American adults had access to high-speed broadband Internet at home, and 3 percent were still connecting via dial-up. That still leaves more than a quarter of Americans without any kind of home Internet access. Even if one includes smartphone owners, 20 percent of Americans go without personal Internet access of any kind. That excludes them from all the advantages of a digitally connected world: easy access to health and education information and online applications for jobs or services like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Increasingly companies will not accept applications in person; more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies only take online job applications.

“Having fast, reliable Internet access is a basic human right,” former White House official and telecommunications policy expert Susan Crawford has said. “It makes zero sense that in this nation people are not able to do school work or basic communication. It’s not the people’s fault. It’s the marketplace’s fault.”

The digital divide widens when one looks at subsets based on race, age, income and especially education level. Only 37 percent of non-high school graduates have broadband, compared to 57 percent of high school graduates, 78 percent of those with “some college” and 89 percent of those with a higher degree.

There is also a growing digital divide between the United States and the rest of the developed world. Out of 148 countries, the United States ranked 35th for Internet bandwidth capacity. Broadband Internet in the United States is, on average, slower but still more expensive than in other countries. Riga, the capital of Latvia, has an average Internet speed two-and-a-half times faster than the one in San Antonio, TX, and yet their service is only a quarter of the cost.

These are the inequalities that the New York Public Library and Chicago Public Library have set themselves against. In the short run, they want to see users from underserved communities become more comfortable using digital technology. Their longterm goal is to see an increase in broadband adoption rates in the communities they serve and to begin eliminating the countrywide digital divide.

Check Out the Internet” with the New York Public Library (NYPL)

The digital divide in New York City is even higher than the national average, which perhaps surprises no one after Bill de Blasio's campaign against the “Tale of Two Cities.” More than a quarter (27 percent) of New York City households do not have broadband access (that jumps to 46 percent in households with incomes of less than $35,000). Existing services at the NYPL begin to bridge part of that gap, but is a bridge enough?

Currently, anyone with a library card can use a desktop or laptop computer at one of the 92 branches for up to 45 minutes. The NYPL website suggests making an advance reservation up to one day in advance (through, of course, an online reservation system). In 2013, library patrons used 3.1 million computer sessions, and borrowed 1,539 laptops 409,912 times.

Still, imagine filling out a tedious job application or government form in only 45 minutes, or having to decide which school assignments to complete and which to let slide. There is a world of difference between that and 24/7 access.

A small, 100 unit test of “Check Out the Internet” is already underway in New York City. A 10,000 unit pilot will launch this fall. The first beneficiaries of the program, which began in May, were already enrolled in public programming like Out of School Time and English Speakers of Other Languages.

James English, a manager in NYPL's Strategy Office, tells techPresident that, because demand will surely be greater than supply, mobile hotspots will first be made available to participants in educational programming at the library. This is in part inspired by Andrew Carnegie, who financed many branch libraries in New York City, and who believed that “those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.”

“We preselected branches in our communities of greatest need,” says English. “We screened candidates using a poll asking about their enrollment, access to the Internet and computer availability at home. The participants come from our educational programs being provided in Staten Island and the Bronx.”

Under the proposed plan, households will be able to borrow a hotspot device for three to 12 months; students could borrow them for the 9-month-long school year.

Chicago Public Library (CPL) and the “Hotspot at Home” program

Like NYPL, the CPL is already doing what it can to reduce the digital divide. They provide a third of the free computer and Internet access in the city, by far the largest provider. Anyone with a library card (or an ID proving they don't live in Chicago) can get on a computer for up to two hour-long sessions per day, 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. (They also have an online reservation system, although the website states computers can be reserved in person as well.)

“Broadband adoption is as low as 30 percent in parts of Chicago,” CPL Commissioner Brian Bannon tells techPresident.

The proposed plan in Chicago would provide members of underserved communities in three locations access to both portable WiFi and laptop computers for up to three weeks. During the course of the two year pilot, 300 – 500 MiFi hotspots would be made available in several library locations in areas with less than 50 percent broadband adoption rates.

“One of the things we know how to do well in libraries is lend stuff, and this is just an extension of lending content,” said Bannon, as well as “a symbolic extension of that core mission that libraries have to give free and open access to the ideas of the day.”

In both New York and Chicago, the hotspot lending program will be accompanied by digital literacy and Internet safety classes.

Demonstrating Success

The pilot programs will be judged based on exit interviews conducted with participants. The libraries want to see that borrowers become increasingly comfortable with digital technology and if home Internet access changes their attitudes towards technology. They will also probe whether borrowers are aware of or interested in free or low cost broadband Internet programs.

Bannon says that in Chicago they will also collect and analyze circulation data to understand demand and use.

The NYPL says they “will look at the broad categories of Internet use such as social media, education, entertainment, commerce, search and utility.”

English elaborated in a follow-up email:

We won't know any one users activity but merely aggregate bandwidth and categorical use and activity of the service. These are provided by the carrier. We established the metrics upfront before the pilot so that we can measure the impact against the the goals of the project. Much of the data we will collect through exit surveys to be conducted in July and August.

“The ways in which you demonstrate impact requires that you're asking information from people and/or monitoring them in a non-invasive way,” Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute (OTI), tells techPresident. “Both of which raise questions about is that right?”

Gangadharan studies marginal Internet users and digital inclusion, privacy, surveillance, and digital discrimination, and has experience observing and working with digital literacy classes at multiple organizations, including a large public library system.

“Certainly my hope that programs of this nature in general leave room for participants and patrons to articulate how improved Internet access improves and enhances their lives,” says Gangadharan. She hopes that exit surveys will ask “open ended questions” and not “rigid enforced categories.”

She elaborates: “That's a different way of tracking and evaluating the impact of this project, [one] that tries to meet people where they're at instead of having these rigid categories that people may or may not fall into.”

“When you have a wide range of ways to ask communities 'how is this technology changing your lives?' it is no longer this invasive way. . . of checking in on people.”

Certainly Gangadharan's concerns are relevant and necessary. Part of her research has compared data profiling to pre-digital systems of surveillance and discrimination against poor people and communities of color.

She hopes that the hotspot-lending programs do not “check up on people” in a way “that contributes to the feeling that privacy is a luxury.”

Closing the Digital Divide

“What we hope is that it becomes a very stable way and a consistent way for people to connect to the Internet,” Michael Maness, the Knight Foundation vice president of journalism and media innovation, tells techPresident.

Maness envisions the library programs as an eventual pathway to broadband adoption. “Once it [the Internet] becomes vital, how do we bridge that moment?” is one of his concerns.

English describes an ideal scenario: “Hopefully if they're someone who borrowed it to find a job online, they found one and they can afford it. . . they understand the tangible value of having Internet access, then they can bring themselves to a point that they can afford it.”

Gangadharan's colleagues at the OTI will be talking with NYPL to discuss the possibility of mesh networking to expand coverage even further.

English says the NYPL is in talks with libraries in Queens and Brooklyn (which have their own public library systems), as well as with state libraries in Kansas and Maine, where the hotspot lending program could be adapted for rural use.