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Public Works: Libraries Lending Wi-Fi

New York and Chicago public libraries are lending out wireless internet access to underprivileged patrons.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Last week, the New York Public Library (NYPL) and Chicago Public Library (CPL) were among 19 winners of a grant competition seeking to fund projects that “strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation.” Both received money for programs that allow library patrons to borrow Wi-Fi hotspot devices in the same way they borrow books—NYPL for its “Check out the Internet” project, which offers free internet services and media literacy education to low-income families; and CPL for “Internet to Go,” a similar program operating in six neighbourhoods where less than 50 per cent of the population has internet access.

NYPL has conducted a survey of people who take advantage of the free internet and computers in libraries around New York. It found that 55 per cent of them did not have internet access at home. And among library internet users whose household income fell below $25,000, 65 per cent were without the web.

So why does this matter? And why is it worth awarding a combined $900,000 to the NYPL and CPL?

Consider this: the internet is the world’s primary means of learning and communication, and a significant venue for social interaction. Several countries have declared internet access a human right, because it facilitates so many other rights, including to free expression, education, peaceful assembly, and access to healthcare. To be without the internet today—when everything from job applications, to apartment listings, to access to social services can be found online—is to ride a horse in the Daytona 500. Those who can’t afford access are doomed to fall behind.

As of 2012, 42 per cent of Canadian households with an income of $30,000 or less lack internet access, compared to 2 per cent of households with an income of at least $94,000. In Toronto, a whopping 80 per cent of public housing units are without a web connection, while just 20 per cent of homes province-wide lack access.

In 2013, Rogers Communications teamed up with Microsoft Canada and Compugen computer company to create Connected for Success, a program offering more affordable internet service to Toronto Community Housing residents. Participants can get access at a reduced rate, plus a refurbished desktop computer for less than $200.

It’s a great offer, and a step in the right direction. But it’s the cost-free aspect of the NYPL and CPL projects that is so important—not only financially, but also symbolically. New York and Chicago libraries are making the bold statement that everyone deserves internet access, cost be damned.

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