Internet access can make a big difference in peoples’ lives. It’s not just about Facebook; according to Toronto Chief Librarian Vickery Bowles, quoted in the Star,

"People who lack broadband Internet access at home, they’re really at a disadvantage when it comes to employment, looking for a job or access to government services and education."

That’s why big cities like New York and Chicago and smaller ones like Spring Hill, Tennessee, are lending out mobile hot spots, so that people who cannot afford full-time Internet can get it at home. In New York City, the program is funded by the likes of Google, The Knight Foundation and other organizations, using Sprint cellular modems. It’s not cheap, using expensive mobile data. According to NPR, the Spring Hill program of 20 modems will cost $10,000 per year.

modemThe Internet in a box (Photo: New York Public Library)

In the much larger program in New York City, it helps take the load off the computers in the libraries themselves. According to the president of the New York Public Library, quoted in Ars Technica, they are mobbed:

"At every branch you walk into, every computer is being used all the time. As more and more of what the library offers moves online, it became obvious that there was a problem.”

People are also hanging around outside the library in the evening. The New York Public Library Program Manager, Charity Kittler, told the Star:

"So it’s not just that our libraries are packed during the day. Even after the libraries close, people are still there because it’s one of the few places you can get free Wi-Fi."

The really surprising thing is how long you can borrow it: up to a year. They have 10,000 mobile units, but that’s not much in a city the size of New York. One would think they would spread them around. (They are also lending out thousands of Chromebooks.) But according to American Libraries:

“New York Public Library wanted a long loan period,” Kittler says. “We wanted to give [users] enough time to experience what it’s like to have the internet at home.”

This program won’t be needed forever in New York; this week saw the first conversion of a phone booth into what will be one of 7500 Wi-Fi spots with a 150 foot range. Wi-Fi is a lot cheaper to run than the cellular data that the modems use. New York is relatively dense compared to other American cities, so each station can handle a lot of people. It’s also not in a state that has banned free Wi-Fi, as 19 states have, branding it as “broadband socialism” because it uses public funds to compete with the private sector.

That’s one of the reasons that the libraries step in: to help the young and the poor. It’s a shame that they have to.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.