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New York and Chicago Libraries Loan Hot Spots like Books

New York Public Library President Tony Marx said the project is a way to “leak” the Internet in a more meaningful and pervasive way.

Against the tug of today’s digital economy, New York and Chicago public libraries are experimenting with two projects to take the Internet to the people by loaning Wi-Fi hot spots like books.

The Knight Foundation, a journalism and civic technology philanthropy, on Monday awarded  $500,000 to the New York Public Library system and $400,000 to the Chicago Public Library system to accomplish the task. The funding came from Knight’s more than $3.4 million 2014 Knight News Challenge, a grant competition geared toward enriching the Internet with outlets for free expression.

New York and Chicago libraries, which represent two of Knight’s 19 winners, will attempt to bridge their city's Internet access gap with the hot spots in different ways.  

Starting in New York, a pilot called “Check Out the Internet” will start in September to offer Wi-Fi hot spots to the public on an annual basis. It’s hoped that 10,000 low-income households will take advantage of the free service, thereby improving New York broadband statistics that report 27 percent of households are without access, according to a Knight release.

President of the New York Public Library Tony Marx said the grant represented aid to help libraries, a 19th-century institution, modernize themselves to meet 21st-century demands and serve 40 million walk-in visitors each year. About one-third of those visitors, Marx said, rely on the library system because they don’t have computers at home.

“People are sitting on our stoop to get leaked broadband,” Marx said. “And that’s when a light went off for us that said ‘No, we’ve got to do better than this.’”

He described the project as a way to “leak” Internet in a more meaningful and pervasive way. While Knight’s support will bolster efforts, Marx explained that talks are underway with a potential investor to secure another $1.5 million to complete the library's goal of 10,000 hot spots.

The initiative represents further expansion to citywide efforts.

In May, New York’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT)  announced plans to replace its 7,300 aging pay phones with communication structures equipped with free Wi-Fi in addition to pay phone services. Contractor bids are expected at the end of June, and the city will award the project by the end of 2014.

In Chicago, the hot spots are to be distributed under the “Internet to Go” project, which, instead of basing distribution primarily on income level, will make hot spots available based on neighborhood Internet usage stats -- areas with low Internet adoption will take precedence. In the program, the mobile hot spots — coupled with laptops, tablets and other Internet-enabled devices — can be on loan for up to three weeks, and users can call on digital literacy services for advice and support.

Chicago will test Wi-Fi hot spot lending in six neighborhood libraries.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.