Libraries are helping users access Wi-Fi from home. But who should pay for it?

Thanks to portable Wi-Fi hotspots, some library patrons can go online for free. Critics say that branches shouldn’t be in the business of subsidizing home internet
By Mary Baxter - Published on Mar 13, 2020
Starting this month, the Grand Valley Public Library is offering portable Wi-Fi hotspots. (google.com)

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In the hilly countryside surrounding the town of Grand Valley, north of Guelph, where high-speed internet service dead zones are common, many people make do with cellular-data plans — if they can afford them. Starting this month, however, the Grand Valley Public Library is providing another option: portable Wi-Fi hotspots that let up to 10 devices in one household connect to the internet via cellular networks.

Through a new program, launched March 3, the library’s users can borrow one of five hotspots at weekly intervals. While the branch has Wi-Fi and nine internet-connected computers, Joanne Stevenson, CEO of the town’s library, says the program meets a different need. “Some of our patrons live 20 kilometres outside of our library,” says Stevenson, whose library serves a community of 3,000, plus surrounding rural municipalities. “How do they make it to the library [before closing]?”

Hotspot-loan initiatives such as Grand Valley’s can bridge gaps in internet connectivity across the province, say those who champion them. “Libraries are all about providing equitable access to information,” says Lesa Bach, innovation and integration director at the Kitchener Public Library, which in 2016 became the first library system in Ontario to adopt a hotspot program. “We want to make sure everybody in the community has access to information that they need to go about their daily lives.”

Krista Zimmerman lives 10 minutes outside the village of Drayton in Wellington County. In her family of six, five attend school — and internet access is essential for academic projects. The only home-internet service available doesn't offer the necessary bandwidth, she says, so a hotspot helps: "It has the capability for all of us to do what we need."

Research the Kitchener library conducted in 2018 shows that one quarter of its community didn’t have access to home internet, Bach says. A 2017 Toronto Public Library survey found that, of 1,561 respondents at eight different public libraries in Ontario, 56 per cent used technology at the library and 46 per cent accessed the internet there. Sixty-three per cent of respondents who identified as low income were “more likely to find that library services gave them access to technology that they would not otherwise have had access to”; further, 68 per cent of respondents aged 55 and older said the library was their sole source of access to technology.  

Yet, in 2018, only about 10 per cent of the more than 300 Ontario and First Nations library systems offered hotspots, according to provincial statistics. “A lot of libraries have been able to launch things like this through grant funding,” says Erika Heesen, the CEO of Perth and District Union Public Library and the president of the Ontario Public Library Association. “But that kind of thing is one-time funding, and the main cost of offering something like hotspots in particular is the ongoing data charges. That requires continued fundraising or continued budget support in some way.” At her library, it costs $1,200 a year to pay for the cellular-internet service for the two hotspots on loan. “To help put that in perspective, our total annual technology budget is $5,000 per year,” she says. “Any computers — anything like that — that’s how much we have to spend.”

Cost is what motivated the London Public Library board to discourage the city from funding a hotspot program during this year’s budget talks. Initially, the library wanted the municipality to boost its budget so that it could, among other things, continue running the program after a provincial grant ended. But the municipality replied by asking the library to reduce its proposed budget increase, according to Michael Ciccone, the library’s CEO.

Recognizing that the loan program has the potential to attract donors (a fundraising campaign added 25 more hotspots in 2019), the library, Ciccone says, recommended removing it from the municipal budgeting: “We thought that the Wi-Fi program, even though it would be lovely to have it funded fully by our operational budget, that was one thing that would be attractive for donors to support.” Some councillors praised the proposal because it relied on ingenuity rather than municipal dollars, but others, including Arielle Kayabaga, criticized it. The proposal was “anti-immigrant, anti-poverty, anti-women, anti-children,” she said during budget talks.

Kayabaga, London’s first Black female councillor, says her objection arose from remembering what it had been like when she had had to rely heavily on her local library for internet access as a single mother studying political science in Ottawa. And after her family emigrated from Burundi when she was a child, she says, the local library played an important role in their lives: “There’s no class divide in the library … It’s a safe space for a lot of people.”

She points to the loan program’s success — the hotspots (60 are currently in circulation) have been borrowed 1,300 times so far, and holds often top 150. “I don’t understand why we couldn’t think about expanding, continuing to have it be supported by the City of London,” she says, adding that private donations could be used to acquire more hotspots. 

But Ciccone says that addressing the internet-access gap would take more than library resources and that “if it’s publicly funded, it should be everybody’s responsibility.” The library “fills the gap” as best it can with programs such as free Wi-Fi within library branches and access to computers, he says, adding that the Wi-Fi hotspot program “is the one that we weren’t able to help with.”

Heather Hill, a Western University faculty of information professor who studies the role of public libraries, says that internet access, like access to hydro, water, and gas, involves a broader social responsibility. “I think it’s incumbent upon us as a society to help those that don’t have access,” she says. “The library ends up picking up a lot of the slack for public programs that perhaps would be ideally funded but aren’t.”

London councillor Michael van Holst objects to the idea of libraries providing hotspot programs. “Essentially, we’re asking the taxpayers to fund people’s home internet,” he said during budget talks. He suggested the marketplace should deal with the issue and referenced a recent local initiative from an internet provider that introduced service to a low-income housing development. Councillors, including van Holst, ultimately voted nine to five to forgo funding. Ciccone says that, during budget talks, city council did appear open to the possibility of reconsidering support at a later dates but emphasizes that he’s confident the library will find the money elsewhere.

Purchasing $100 hotspot units in Grand Valley wouldn’t have been possible if not for funds raised through the library’s annual silent auction this past October. “It was a good way to get it started,” says Stevenson. Nevertheless, the $300-per-month cost to operate all five will be added to the annual budget. Municipal council is supportive, she says. “If there’s a demand, there’s a demand, and it needs to be met by somebody.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.


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