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Washington Libraries Boost Wi-Fi Range for Those in Need

Libraries within the North Central Regional Library system are using grant funds to extend the range of public Wi-Fi service to guests outside. The move will allow visitors to access service without entering.

(TNS) — The North Central Regional Library recently announced plans for technology upgrades funded with grant money.

The regional library system plans to add equipment to make Wi-Fi connections available outside every library in its system in the coming weeks.

In Grant County, the regional library network operates libraries in Grant County in Moses Lake, Ephrata, Quincy, Royal City, Warden, Mattawa, George, Coulee City, Soap Lake and Grand Coulee.

All of the libraries NCRL serves have free Wi-Fi inside.

But libraries statewide were ordered closed by state officials to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. The NCRL facilities will reopen once all counties that NCRL serves enter Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s phased reopening plan.

“The stay home order has highlighted the crucial role that Internet connectivity plays in all of our daily lives,” said Barbara Walters, executive director of NCRL, in a press release. “Just as the pandemic closed library buildings that were the source of Internet service for many people in our communities, the need for Internet access grew exponentially. Among those relying on libraries for digital access are people experiencing homelessness and poverty, older adults, and students. They use the library’s broadband and Wi-Fi to apply for jobs, complete school work, connect with health care providers, communicate via email, find information, and conduct business.”

The project will extend the range of Wi-Fi signals 400 to 600 feet around each library. It is funded by a $20,000 grant from the Public Library Association and Microsoft.

Michelle McNeil, NCRL communications manager, said a library card is not needed to access the NCRL Wi-Fi system.

“Anyone can drive or walk up within the range and access the Internet,” McNeil said.

The opportunity to expand Wi-Fi access directly addresses an objective in the library district’s 2019-2021 Strategic Plan, to strive to ensure access to broadband and current technologies. When the plan was adopted, broadband use in its five-county service area was 47.7 percent, compared to 65.2 percent statewide, according to NCRL. In 2019, the wireless Internet at NCRL’s libraries was used almost a half a million times.

“While recognizing that libraries can’t be the only answer to this problem, we are a key part of the solution,” Walters said. “The lack of broadband access in rural communities is a long-term problem that affects everyone.”

An unrelated grant, for $12,000, will pay for Internet connectivity for 30 Wi-Fi hot spots throughout the NCRL system. McNeil said NCRL officials had not determined where the hot spots will be installed.

The $12,000 was awarded through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and Washington State Library.

The grant also includes 100 additional hot spots, but those do not come with funding to pay for Internet connectivity, McNeil said.

A second CARES grant, for $3,000 and also through the state library, will pay for washable covers for keyboards. The covers will be installed in all NCRL libraries once they reopen to the public.

©2020 the Columbia Basin Herald, Wash. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.