Toronto Star: Toronto library hopes to bridge 'digital divide' by lending free Wi-Fi hotspots

Posted June 17, 2016

Some Toronto Public Library card holders who can ill afford pricey data plans or home Internet connections will now be able to surf the web free anywhere.
The library unveiled a program Wednesday, in partnership with Google, to offer lendable Wi-Fi hotspots at six branches in low-income neighbourhoods.
At a news conference Wednesday, Mayor John Tory told reporters at the Thorncliffe library branch that the hotspots will help disadvantaged Torontonians lift themselves out of poverty.
“This is one small way of seeing what kind of contribution the library system can make to bridge the digital divide, knowing there is much more that has to be done to truly bridge that divide,” he said.
The library has already chosen 210 participants for the first six months of the pilot program, but will be seeking more in January, library spokesperson Sara Tavakolian said.
Riaz Qureshi, a 46-year-old family doctor by profession and father of two teenage boys, was one of the first to sign up. Although he has Internet access at home, he wasn’t able to pay for a cellular data plan to study on his long daily commute.​
He now takes his wireless hotspot everywhere to study online for his medical certification exam this September.
“It’s handy. If I’m outside, I’m connected with my study group; we can exchange resources, questions, or schedule study time,” he said.
Unlike the lendable Internet programs in Chicago or New York City, which have unlimited data plans, the Toronto library’s routers come with a 10-gigabyte cap. “At this point, the wireless providers we spoke to weren’t willing to offer any more (data) to us, but we’re hoping we can advocate for more and continue talks with them,” said Michelle Leung, a library spokesperson.
Anti-poverty advocates say lack of Internet access excludes low-income Canadians from equal opportunities in employment and education. ACORN, a national organization of low- and moderate-income families with 70,000 members in nine cities across the country, is pushing the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission to mandate a $10-per-month high-speed home Internet product for families and individuals living below Statistics Canada’s low income measure (LIM).
“It’s not even something we should be asking for, because the information highway is a public asset,” said ACORN member Nathalie Hundt.
For Akeem Raphael, the pocket-sized router has helped him research concert venues and promote his music on social media.
The 26-year-old, who lives alone in Thorncliffe Park, made ends meet as a music student at Centennial College by working in shoe stores and a gym, but wasn’t able to afford Internet at home.
The library set aside $100,000 in its 2016 operating budget for lendable Internet and Google contributed the same amount.
There are no overdue fines for the devices, but borrowers must pay a $215 replacement fee if the hotspots are lost or damaged.
Library branches participating in the pilot program are:
  • Albion
  • Cedarbrae
  • Evelyn Gregory
  • Parliament Street
  • Thorncliffe
  • York Woods
Article by Geoffrey Vendeville for the Toronto Star