By David Gordon, Associate Editor
Demand remains stronger than the supply of portable “Wi-Fi Hotspots,” three months into the new program that makes them available through the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library.
The Hotspots provide users with Internet access at home or on the go, and are compatible with most laptops, smartphones and tablets. They operate on Sprint’s 4G LTE network.
As of this week, there are 65 people on the waiting list for the nine available units, according to Isa Small, programming and communications manager for the Library. That’s 15 more than were waiting a month ago.
More than 70 people have checked out units since the Hotspots were first made available last summer, Small said.
The program enables Library cardholders who are at least 18 to borrow one of the portable devices for up to two weeks and use it with their own digital device.
Small said a tenth unit is currently dedicated to the Library’s book bike, and will become available for checkout when the that program suspends for the winter. So far, all of the checked-out units have been returned on time, she said, while also noting that there is a $10 daily fine if they are overdue. No Hotspot renewals are possible.
Small said that leasing the 10 units for a year cost the Library $1,380, which came from funds originally allocated for unused data base subscriptions that were not renewed. The cost of an individual unit is $205.
The units are provided by Mobile Beacon, which – according to its website – is a nonprofit organization “dedicated to providing affordable, mobile, high-speed Internet access to other nonprofits” to help them carry out their missions.
The Library’s program aims to help bridge the “digital divide” separating people with access to the digital world from those without that access. A report published by whitehouse.gov indicated that about 25% of Americans lack home access to Internet service, even though only about 2% have no access at all.
Older, less-educated and minority individual are more likely to be without home access, the report said.
Small noted that while Library computers provide the public with Internet access, this may not be sufficient for people who lack it at home. Most employers now “request application materials to be submitted electronically, which puts those without Internet access at a great disadvantage,” she said.
“Some folks find it easier to complete the applications at home, and others may need access when the Library is closed,” she added.
She said that one woman, when she returned her borrowed unit, remarked that she was excited about being able to do a job search from home, where she does not normally have Wi-Fi access.
Another borrower related that she checked out one of the Hotspots because she had houseguests coming to stay with her for several days, and the group included five children. Small said the borrower reported that all five of the kids “were on (the Internet) at the same time, streaming videos, playing games. They were very happy and so were we, as they occupied their time. Win-win all around.”
Small noted that the Library has seven iPads which can also be checked out. These can be used with a Hotspot, if borrowers lack devices of their own. The Library first made iPads available in 2011, but demand for them has dropped more recently, she said.
Small also said the Library is working on plans to provide laptops for in-house use, in addition to the desktop units it now has available for the public. One factor driving this, she said, is that some 400 UW-Eau Claire students have moved into the new Haymarket Landing apartments located just a few blocks away, and many of them may well seek Internet access at the Library.