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Narrowing the Digital Divide: New York Public Library Loans Out Hotspots

by on June 11, 2015

The New York Public Library (NYPL), along with the City of New York, is bringing low-income New Yorkers out of the “digital dark” with free internet access at home. NYPL partnering with Sprint, decided to improve access for its patrons by lending out hotspots, which are essentially mobile devices that transmit a wireless signal. At present, library users can “checkout” a hotspot for six months, with the option to renew for another six. The patron brings the hotspot home and can connect to the internet right away. As detailed on their website http://hotspot.nypl.org/, NYPL’s reasoning is to “help NYPL patrons access online resources at home and to raise their digital exposure and confidence.”

New York City has over 730,000 homes without internet or broadband access. Unlike smaller cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, that are making public broadband a reality through their local government, it is simply not feasible for New York’s large and diverse population to do the same thing. In this day and age, people do expect to have internet access anytime and anywhere, just like other public utilities (i.e. water or power). And although the FCC officially classified broadband as a public utility this past February, it will not involve itself in pricing decisions/negotiations. This leaves the cost of internet to be, on average, $60 per month, fundamentally turning a public utility into a luxury item for many.

New York City is trying to give the largest internet companies a reason to become more competitive. The city developed free wireless access points with mobile computer labs and Wi-Fi hubs, including underground and public spaces as well as defunct payphone booths. Unfortunately, many residents in New York are still being left out of these smart communities.

When an affordable internet connection is a problem, it can be extremely difficult to access important online resources from home when someone is unemployed or underemployed. It can be just as difficult for someone’s school-age children to do their homework or do research without online access. Some families struggle with these issues, but find relief in the accessibility of public libraries. However, when the local public library closes at 5pm on some days or doesn’t open at all, the digital divide widens. NYPL decided that all of their patrons should still be able to access online resources, even when they are at home.

Partnering with the Knight Foundation (along with Sprint), which awarded NYPL a $500,000 grant for this purpose, the library rolled out their hotspot lending program this year. And so far so good! A PBS story discusses one family’s journey into digital literacy growth because of the hotspot lending program. Since borrowing a hotspot from NYPL four months ago, a struggling single mother is now working on her nursing degree online, and her children can do their schoolwork at home instead of rushing to the library to complete their assignments before the building closes for the day. It’s clear that for this family and many others, NYPL has given them a sense of stability that most people take for granted.  There are other cities and public libraries developing similar lending programs for their own communities. Look into grants for your library and see your own community’s digital confidence and overall well-being grow!



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