High Wi-Fi Demand Promising for New Library Program

Brighton Park is one of three Chicago Public Library branches to host the new Internet To Go program.

By Phoebe Tollefson

Rebecca De Santiago takes her daughter, Itzel, to Pilsen’s Lozano Public Library after school to help her with homework. They need a computer with Internet access and the library has it – for two hours a day.

“Es un lujo con nosotras,” De Santiago said of Internet access. “Como somos madres solteras, no es una prioridad.”

Her words were simple: It’s a luxury with us. As single mothers, it’s not a priority. De Santiago said paying rent and building up savings come first on her limited income. Instead of scrounging the money for in-home access, De Santiago relies on library computers, which allow patrons two, one-hour sessions per day. She said she could not afford the $9.95-a-month Comcast broadband service available to parents of Chicago Public Schools students on free or reduced lunch.

De Santiago and her daughter are just the kinds of patrons Chicago Public Library officials want for a new grant-funded Internet To Go program, which will lend Wi-Fi hotspots and computers.

While the program is still in the pilot stage, branch managers say they expect it to thrive. The program was announced Jan. 28.

“That afternoon and the next day we received calls: ‘So, can I pick one up?’” said Portia Latalladi, manager of the Fredrick Douglass branch in Lawndale.

Latalladi said that on busy days, patrons might wait as long as three hours to use one of the eight desktop computers.

Douglass, Brighton Park and Greater Grand Crossing are the three libraries hosting the new program. Three more branches will be added after a 60 to 90 day pilot period.

Patrons will need a government-issued photo ID that shows their current address to borrow the Wi-Fi cards, which will be made available at the three locations in mid-March. Each site will have approximately 100 cards, according to a press release from Mayor Rahm Emanuel announcing the program. The sites will each lend 10 laptops and 10 tablets after the initial hotspot rollout, according to library officials.

Library staff will be able to remotely shut off devices if they are not returned on time, and laptops and tablets will have tracking software.

The mayor’s press release cited Internet connectivity rates as low as 50 percent in some neighborhoods.

Julianne Chiu, who teaches digital literacy at Douglass, said the hotspots will be the coveted item, since many patrons at that branch have their own devices.

“I’ve seen a lot of résumés being created on a phone,” said Chiu, who helps patrons download free word processers such as Open Office. “They can do job applications. People get a lot done on their smartphones.”

But even with a phone, patrons’ Internet access is limited to the library’s open hours, meaning no late-night job searches or college applications.

Library officials declined to provide a shortlist of the next three sites to host the program. Patrick Molloy, public affairs director for Chicago Public Libraries, said program managers will use the same criterion that was used to select the pilot sites: neighborhoods with low connectivity rates that don’t already have technology initiatives such as Smart Communities, which operates in Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Pilsen.

That means Pilsen residents Rebecca and Itzel De Santiago, who rely on the Lozano library for homework resources, will not get to use the program unless they go outside of their neighborhood. Library officials want to remove these barriers.

“Online communication is central for everything now—applications, government forms, news,” Molloy said. “We feel like it is the library’s role to democratize access.”

The program is funded by a $400,000 grant from the Knight Foundation and a $175,000 grant from Google.

Photo at top: Brighton Park is one of three Chicago Public Library branches to host the new Internet To Go program.(Phoebe Tollefson/Medill)