Feeling Access Pains
“It's insane, you know, it's like the job I just got, you need to have the Internet to apply for the drug test let alone submitting your resume. Then you need to give them a digital signature so they can do the background check, then you need to print out the label to take to the doctor, so that they're willing to give you the drug test. It's mind-boggling because they're like, ‘Oh no, just go online and do this’. Well, going online when you don't have a computer is not as simple as that especially, you know, here [at the library] you get 50 minutes on the computer. So, if it takes more than 50 minutes you've got a problem.”
This is what needing Internet access feels like if you are poor.
This man was beyond frustrated as he talked about his scramble to put together a job application when he did not have home Internet service. The occasion of our conversation was some research we are doing looking at library-provided hotspot lending programs.
New York Public Library, with the Brooklyn and Queens libraries as well, were among the earliest -- and certainly the largest -- libraries initiating a hotspot lending program. In this program, 10,000 library card-holders lacking home Internet service were able to receive a Mi-Fi device that gave them free Internet service for up to one year. Without it, life for many was a scramble to locate places where they could do things that may be routine to most of the people reading this. With the device, life was not only easier, but more efficient, less frantic, and more enriching. One woman commented that with home Internet, “We can be a little more competitive. Our chances are better.…”
We heard about people completing education required for their jobs, kids using the devices to do their homework, people staying connected with distant family members, home care workers taking the device from house to house so they could stay connected and get directions, children taking the Mi-Fi with them to visit relatives without an Internet connection.
While we don’t usually think of cities as lacking broadband services, what they often lack is affordable broadband. Go to a local library in a city and you often see waiting lists for using their computers, or you see many people with their own devices using library-provided Wi-Fi. The New York Public Library program was prompted, in part, by a New York Mayor’s Office 2015 report noting that 36 percent of the city’s households with incomes below the poverty line lacked home Internet service.
We know a lot of people have abandoned high priced cable or telephone company-provided Internet plans and just use their mobile phones to access the Internet, but those plans, too, are expensive and typically have data caps. The library patrons we spoke with were clever with work-arounds, but the bottom line was that not having an Internet connection that allows you to work with files, to work for longer periods of time, to work in a comfortable place where you can concentrate, impairs many routine activities. For kids in schools that assume students have easy Internet access, there is real jeopardy they will not be able to participate. Library-based hotspot programs may be a useful, if temporary, solution to access for people who lack the ability to subscribe to broadband services.
Our work is ongoing. In addition to New York/Queens/Brooklyn Public Libraries, we are looking at some rural libraries in Kansas and Maine that are also lending hotspots. Affordability is a common refrain both in rural and urban regions. There are some other dynamics in rural areas that complicate the picture, and we will share some of those observations later on. But the fundamental questions have to do with the status of this essential infrastructure in America. Why do we have the highest prices around the world for gaining access? Why so much less high-capacity service (like fiber) compared to many other industrialized countries? What is the role for wireless services filling in where wired infrastructure is either unaffordable or unavailable? And where do libraries fit in our broadband plans?
Sharon Strover is a Professor in Communication and former Chair of the Radio-TV-Film Department at the University of Texas where she now directs the Technology and Information Policy Institute. Her current work examines policy responses to the digital divide internationally and domestically; the economic benefits of broadband, particularly in rural areas; and the role of libraries in local information environments. Dr. Strover has worked with several international, national and regional government agencies and nonprofits including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Center for Rural Strategies, and the European Union.