Evanston Public Library to launch Wi-Fi hotspot program


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Evanston Public Library is offering free WiFi hotspots beginning May 1. The hotspots will be available to library members and is meant to help bridge the digital divide.

Tucker Johnson, Reporter

Evanston Public Library cardholders will be able to check out a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot beginning May 1.

The program is designed to help bridge Internet access for Evanston residents who do not currently have web access in their homes. EPL currently provides free Internet and computer access at its Main Library location, 1703 Orrington Ave., and its North Branch, 2026 Central St.

“Throughout the community there are folks that have varying degrees of access to high-speed Internet,” said Jill Skwerski, community engagement librarian at EPL. “In trying to come up with ways to bridge the gap, we thought of circulating these hotspots.”

EPL has acquired 30 battery-operated mobile hotspots, 28 of which will be available to the public, Skwerski said. The other two hotspots will be reserved for librarians’ use when they are involved in programming outside the library. The current program is considered to be a pilot, and EPL intends to expand the number of devices if the program is successful, she said. Patrons who are at least 16 years old will be able to rent out the hotspots for two weeks at a time.

The mobile hotspots are about the size of a smartphone and connect users to the Internet via Sprint’s cellular network. They serve as a relay between a user’s computer or smartphone and the cell network, allowing users to connect to the Internet over the network without paying for data fees themselves.

EPL purchased the devices through a special contract Sprint offers to nonprofit educational institutions for less than a dollar each per hotspot device, said Tim Longo, head of technical services for EPL. However, the library will pay Sprint $1,200 per month for unlimited data and upkeep for all of the devices, Longo said.

Chicago Public Library began a similar Wi-Fi lending program with 100 mobile hotspots in February 2015 after winning grants from Google and Knight News.

“There’s only a handful of public libraries that have started to circulate mobile hotspots to their community,” Longo said.

According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Americans have a broadband Internet connection at home, and 43 percent of those who did not have home Internet access reported that the main reason was that they could not afford it. In the same study, 69 percent of Americans said not having home Internet access would put them at a major disadvantage when searching for a job.

Connections for the Homeless, an Evanston-based non-profit, is exploring how they can work with EPL’s hotspot program. The organization currently provides clients with computers to aid in their job search.

“Our clients need Internet access,” said Sue Loellbach, director of development for Connections for the Homeless.” “[It allows them] to apply for jobs online, look for jobs online. Some of our clients are even getting involved in online education, but this is an area of exploration for us at this point.”

This article was updated Thursday at 10:50 p.m. to reflect the new amount of time hotspots can be rented out for.

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