Hamilton Spectator: Hamilton Public Library helps bridge digital divide with free Wi-Fi

Posted June 4, 2020

After rent, utilities and a basic data plan on his phone, Jamey Nelson is left with about $300 a month.
 
Since groceries still haven’t been accounted for, that’s not enough to justify the expense of home internet, which costs an average of about $55 in Ontario.
 
“At the moment, my entire access is split between my cellphone and my friends’ Wi-Fi when I go to their places,” he said.
 
Nelson’s phone plan, which costs $63, gives him 12 gigabytes — enough to watch about an hour of video content a day.
 
“But then I wouldn’t be able to do anything else,” he said. “It’s quite challenging.”
 
A report published by ACORN, an independent organization representing low- and moderate-income families, in April found that 80 per cent of respondents with household incomes of $30,000 or less had internet at home — compared to 96 per cent of respondents with incomes over $60,000.
 
Since the pandemic began, Nelson, who relies on social assistance for income, has struggled to get enough internet. Unable to work due to an HIV diagnosis, he uses his phone primarily for news and entertainment to stay occupied during the day.
 
“I have enough energy to be awake and alive, but not quite enough to participate in the full gamut of activities,” Nelson said. “So things like reading and watching stuff are a way to keep busy without overexerting myself.”
 
Though its buildings are closed, Hamilton Public Library (HPL) is helping people stay connected during the pandemic by allowing public access to Wi-Fi outside its 22 branches.
 
“It’s great there’s all this digital growth and we’re able to help people that way, but there’s a lot of vulnerable people that don’t have access to technology or bandwidth,” said Paul Takala, CEO and chief librarian at HPL.
 
In the six-week period between March 15 and April 25, HPL reported more than 10,000 Wi-Fi connections at its branches.
 
“Oftentimes, you’ll see people parked in their cars, or in other locations you might see people sitting on the bench and they’re using our Wi-Fi,” he said.
 
Internet use across the library system is down more than 90 per cent from the same time last year. But some branches are still seeing lots of people accessing library internet. There were more than 1,200 connections at the Barton branch — a decrease of only about 50 per cent from last year. The Lynden branch had 540 connections — down 15 per cent from the previous year.
 
“Access to connectivity is so critical nowadays,” Takala said. “There’s a huge gap right now that the COVID pandemic has really highlighted.”
 
Wi-Fi connections at Locke, a small branch in downtown Hamilton, increased from 152 to 202 — about 30 per cent. Connections at the Greensville branch more than doubled in that six-week period.
 
When the library is open, Ann Brown typically visits the Greensville branch two or three times a week to use the desktop computers to check her email and for research.
 
“I use the Wi-Fi because I do not have internet at home, mainly because I’m not on it all that much to warrant putting out the cost,” she said.
 
Since the library closed mid-March, Brown has been relying on her phone and a weekly visit to the library parking lot to access the internet.
 
“Right now I’m using my cellphone, and I can access my emails,” she said. “But the cellphone is limited in that I can’t access everything.”
 
Brown gets a limited amount of data every month, and is careful about how she uses it.
 
“I’m trying to conserve as much as I can.”
 
For many, particularly vulnerable populations, the library is a social hub.
 
“They’ve played an instrumental role, I think, in assisting people to stay socially connected,” said Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. “Unfortunately, again, we’re in a time where it’s become much more difficult to proactively be able to ensure that.”
 
Free Wi-Fi is also accessible via a number of hot spots in Gage Park, and some municipal buildings, when open. Cooper said while publicly-accessible internet helps people stay connected in the short-term, the digital divide is a much bigger issue.
 
“It’s a bit of a Band-Aid on a situation that’s really unacceptable in terms of looking at people’s income versus the cost of data,” he said.
 
While many places with internet access are closed during the pandemic, some low-income families are struggling to complete tasks online, including banking, ordering groceries and connecting to community groups, family and friends.
 
“Governments, federal and provincial, have called for social, physical distancing during the ongoing health emergency due to COVID-19,” said Mike Wood, chair of ACORN Hamilton. “The internet was essential before COVID, and now, more than ever, is needed by individuals and families.”
 
He said some are having to make difficult choices. Twenty-five per cent of respondents surveyed reported having sacrificed food in order to pay for internet services.
 
“Many low-income Canadians found themselves in a difficult position of deciding whether to pay for home internet and the opportunities it provides, or pay for basic necessities such as food, clothing, transit.”
 
 
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Article by Kate McCullough for the Hamilton Spectator 

 

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