The digital divide widens when you look at race, age, income and especially education level. Only 37 percent of non-high school graduates have broadband, compared to 57 percent of high school graduates, 78 percent of those with “some college” and 89 percent of those with a higher degree.
Out of 148 countries, the United States ranked 35th for Internet bandwidth capacity. Broadband Internet in the United States is, on average, slower but still more expensive than in other countries. Riga, the capital of Latvia, has an average Internet speed two-and-a-half times faster than the one in San Antonio, TX, and yet their service is only a quarter of the cost. Two plans to begin lending portable WiFi hotspots to underserved communities were among the winning projects of the Knight News Challenge to strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation. Although the Chicago Public Library and New York Public Library initiatives are unique, however their goal to expand internet access and promote digital literacy are the same. Since the target demographic for these projects are underserved, often poor communities, the libraries will have to be careful to not infringe on users’ privacy or digital freedoms in order to demonstrate the success of the projects. New York Public Library and Chicago Public Library want to see users from underserved communities become more comfortable using digital technology. Their longterm goal is to see an increase in broadband adoption rates in the communities they serve and to begin eliminating the countrywide digital divide
The digital divide in New York City is even higher than the national average, Currently, anyone with a library card can use a desktop or laptop computer at one of the 92 branches for up to 45 minutes. The NYPL website suggests making an advance reservation up to one day in advance (through, of course, an online reservation system). The Chicago Public Library, provide a third of the free computer and Internet access in the city, and the largest provider. Anyone with a library card (or an ID proving they don’t live in Chicago) can get on a computer for up to two hour-long sessions per day, 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. (They also have an online reservation system, although the website states computers can be reserved in person as well.)
The proposed plan in Chicago would provide members of underserved communities in three locations access to both portable WiFi and laptop computers for up to three weeks. During the course of the two year pilot, 300 – 500 WiFi hotspots would be made available in several library locations in areas with less than 50 percent broadband adoption rates. In both New York and Chicago, the hotspot lending program will be accompanied by digital literacy and Internet safety classes.
The pilot programs will be judged based on exit interviews conducted with participants. The libraries want to ensure that borrowers become increasingly comfortable with digital technology and if home Internet access changes their attitudes towards technology. They will also probe whether borrowers are aware of or interested in free or low cost broadband Internet programs.
Chicago Public Library will also collect and analyze circulation data to understand demand and use. The NYPL plans they to look at the broad categories of Internet use such as social media, education, entertainment, commerce, search and utility. NYPL is in talks with other New York City library systems (Brooklyn & Queens) as well as Maine and Kansas (rural areas)