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

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 …read more

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