Library hot spots help bridge ‘digital divide’

ST. LOUIS – After Emily Beck had to cut back on work due to a disability, she found one of the best ways to cut her expenses was to get rid of her in-home Internet. Luckily for her, the St. Louis Public Library had a solution to her Internet needs.

That solution, one that may come as a surprise to many in St. Louis, is Wi-Fi hot spots, which can be borrowed from the library much the same way one might borrow a book.

For three weeks at a time, any adult public library card holder can borrow one of the wifi hot spots, with unlimited data and the ability to connect up to 15 devices to the Internet at a time.

The only problem with the hot spots? The demand is far greater than the supply.

The demand, itself, is a pretty basic one in the modern world. It’s extremely difficult, if not near-impossible, to get by in the 21st century with no Internet access. Homework, applying for jobs, even paying bills happens largely online these days. But considering how expensive an Internet package can get – the average cost of a monthly Internet bill in Missouri is $41 – it’s no wonder that many people cannot afford it.

Lack of Internet in the home has caused what the Library Foundation’s manager of public relations and digital marketing, Jen Hatton, calls “the digital divide.” Those without regular access to the Internet don’t have the same easy access to information or resources as those that do. And it’s one thing she’s proud to say the library’s hot spots help to combat in St. Louis.

That’s always been the library’s forte, even before the days of hot spots and 4G. Free access to knowledge is the cornerstone of libraries everywhere, making them something of a great equalizer for Americans. And as technology has become more a part of literacy and daily life, the St. Louis Public Library has expanded its services to offer access to information in all its forms.

Beck herself called the hot spots a “no-brainer” as a way to have a positive impact on people in St. Louis who can’t necessarily afford in-home Internet. She said she hoped to see the availability of the devices expand.

“In St. Louis, we know there are so many folks that can’t afford Internet, and they’re looking for jobs, quite frankly,” she said. “If you go to any library at any time, there’s always a few people sitting at the computers just looking for jobs.”

But, she added, having hot spots available to rent can be better for many people than having to go into the library to access Wi-Fi, as there can be hassles in getting to a library branch or hauling around all the items one might need to complete any given Internet- or computer-based task.

For now, the waiting list to borrow one of the devices is lengthy, meaning that one might wait months to actually get a hot spot.

It was even worse last year when Beck began looking into them. After she complained to her friend Michael Powers about being the 187th person on the waiting list, Powers began to wonder if there was a way to put more money towards the acquisition of more devices.

He said he reached out to the library and was directed to the St. Louis Library Foundation, where he hoped “to connect the library with some donors in the community on the tech side who would see this as a worthwhile cause and found that expanding that system could also be affordable.”

One way he thought it might be easy to expand was to get local tech companies and start-ups invested in sponsoring more hot spots for the library. The hot spots are rented from T-Mobile for about $30 a month each.

Since then, the number of hot spots has grown to about 60, though as of June there was still a waiting list of about 100 people.

“Sixty hot-spot units in a city of 3000 people – we can do better,” Powers said. “And how can we do better? And who can be brought to the table to really work on getting a program that could meet anybody who has a need for the Internet and can’t afford access to it?

“How we can meet that need in full and then measure time to see if that program is something that’s bringing substantial value into the communities that we’re hoping to serve?”

Power, currently a real estate development manager for Habitat for Humanity St. Louis, has previously worked seven years in City Hall including as a legislative director for the Board of Aldermen. He is especially interested in the ways the St. Louis Public Library can meet community needs.

“We think that we should be talking about the library as sort of the center of many of the social issues,” he said. “And we think that not only because they are well-equipped to be, but also they already have those users that we’re trying to get to sign up for new programs or when we start new efforts.”

He added that the locations of the library branches made them uniquely situated to reach people who need those resources the most.

Beck, on the other hand, said that what was great about the library was not only that it could level the playing field in terms of access to technology and information but also that it could provide information about what resources communities are missing as well as what it would cost to better meet those needs.

“We have a very quantifiable data set to say, ‘Okay this is what it costs and this is what the demand is,’” she said about the hot spots specifically.

On the SLPL’s webpage about the Wi-Fi hot spots, guidelines are laid out not only for the use of the hot spots but also for the cost should one – or any part of one – go missing. A replacement cost for the whole hot spot is $100, a missing charger costs $10 and a missing cord $5.

It’s easy then, Beck said, to measure precisely how much it might cost for the library to expand the number of Wi-Fi hot spots to keep waiting time for the devices to a minimum.

Of course, there’s the matter of where the funds might come from for that sort of expansion. Powers still thinks that approaching tech companies and startups in the St. Louis area is key, especially as it encourages them to give directly back to the St. Louis community.

Both Beck and Powers think that if more people knew about the hot spots, they might be interested in putting donations towards acquiring more devices. Powers said he was “hoping the community could rally around what they’re [the library] doing so that it could be fully realized. And if we do bring attention to it, that greater demand could be met.”

Until then, you can still check out a Wi-Fi hot spot. You just might have to wait a while.

For more information about the Wi-Fi hot spots, visit https://www.slpl.org/slpl-hotspots/.

Samantha Auch

Author: Samantha Auch

Sam Auch graduated from Knox College, where she studied Theater and Gender Studies. Outside her work with The Northsider, she works as an actor, playwright, and artist. You can found out more about her at her website thisisauchward.com

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