Libraries and Schools Are Bridging the Digital Divide During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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  • Stay-at-home policies have made the web critical for tasks such as schoolwork, applying for unemployment benefits, and consulting with doctors.
  • But millions of Americans lack reliable broadband access.
  • Libraries, schools, and businesses are taking creative steps to expand WiFi networks in underserved neighborhoods.
  • These measures are effective but temporary, and can't serve everyone in need of internet access, advocates say.

After his 100th unanswered phone call to the unemployment office, Terry Hargesheimer felt he was running out of options. The long-time hospitality worker, now in his 50s, had been laid off along with many others in his town. The coronavirus crisis had hit Pottsboro, Texas, pretty hard, essentially shutting down many of the lakefront hotels and resorts that had provided jobs for hundreds of bartenders, cooks, waiters, and busboys.

Hargesheimer couldn’t get through on the phone because, like people in other states, his state, Texas, has been buried in new unemployment claims—1.2 million in about a month, the same number usually filed in a year and a half. The solution was to file a claim online, but he didn't have internet access at home or much experience using the web. In the end, Hargesheimer was able to get help filing online from Dianne Connery, the director of the town library.

During the current crisis, libraries, schools, and businesses have been scrambling to patch together local solutions to the digital divide, the gap between the majority of Americans who can easily access the internet and the rest who cannot. The crisis is putting the issue into razor-sharp focus at a time when the internet has become a critical lifeline for work, education, and even access to healthcare.

"One of the many things we have quickly learned as millions of Americans have shifted to working, providing childcare, and learning from home is the absolute necessity of a reliable internet connection," says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumers Reports.

Libraries Offer 'Parking Lot WiFi'

About 18 million people lacked access to broadband internet at the end of 2018, according to the most recent figures from the Federal Communications Commission. BroadbandNow, an advocacy organization that's critical of the FCC's data collection methods, says the real number is much higher, up to 42 million.

Many of these people are concentrated in poor urban areas and in rural towns challenged by both poverty and a lack of broadband infrastructure. According to the FCC, more than 26 percent of Americans in rural areas and 32 percent on tribal lands lack access to broadband.

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Pottsboro is typical. It's a community of fewer than 2,500 people about 90 miles north of Dallas and 15 miles south of the Oklahoma border, where many residents either lack internet access altogether or have to rely on slow and pricey satellite service.

Right now, the town library is allowing only one person at a time through the doors. Connery says many veterans and senior citizens are coming in to use the internet for the first time to schedule doctors’ appointments, refill prescriptions, update wills, and set up powers of attorney in the event they get sick.

"I'd say about 90 percent of the people coming in are new users, and some of them have never used a computer," she says.

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The library in Pottsboro, Tex., got a disaster-relief organization to put a hot-spot trailer in a hotel parking lot for residents who lack home internet.

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But one-on-one assistance is only part of what Connery and other library directors around the country are doing to help people get online during the health crisis. To start, many of them are keeping their WiFi networks on even if the building itself is closed, according to the American Library Association. That enables people with cars to use what the FCC's commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, and others are calling “parking-lot WiFi.”

In Pottsboro, the library installed a wireless access point on the roof to extend WiFi to cars in the parking lot. Connery also led an effort to get local businesses to remove passwords from their WiFi networks and keep them active even if their stores were closed. In addition, she obtained a mobile hot-spot trailer through the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, a nonprofit that usually provides emergency communications and other resources to communities after natural disasters.

"It's now live and has had a phenomenal response," she says. "We positioned it in a hotel parking lot outside of town in an area that has very limited access. This is my proudest achievement because it will impact so many people."

In conversations with Consumer Reports, library directors in places like Rochester, Minn., and Nyack, N.Y., reported taking such steps as covering more of their parking lots with WiFi networks and lending mobile hot spots that can connect a number of devices at a time. "This library had been a place where kids without computers or access to broadband could do homework, but we now also have members of the public trying to do other things, such as file for unemployment or fill out census forms," says Nyack's library director, Angela Strong.

In Kansas, the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library repurposed two of its bookmobiles as WiFi hot spots. Both are set up in southeast Topeka to support local high school students who lack internet access at home.

Bethlehem, N.Y., just south of Albany, came into the crisis particularly well prepared. Several years ago, the town library worked with the parks and recreation department to establish high-speed WiFi networks at the town's pool and several parks. The facilities are closed for most uses during the pandemic, but people can stay in their cars or spread out on benches or lawns while connecting to the networks. They can also use WiFi hot spots outside the library building.

"At the time, some people thought wiring the pool and parks was frivolous, but in hindsight it's looking like a pretty smart move," says library director Geoff Kirkpatrick. "We were lucky that we had a lot of creative people, both elected officials and in the community, that saw the value of what we wanted to do."

While their buildings are closed, library staff members in many communities are helping people new to the internet without meeting in person. In Bethlehem and elsewhere, they're getting on the phone from their homes to talk people through everything from accessing telemedicine resources to making their first Zoom call.

In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library already offered access to instructional videos from DigitalLearn; now it's promoting selections for people with limited technical skills, covering such topics as basic computer and smartphone use, and how to stay safe online.

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Closing the 'Homework Gap,' for Now

The digital divide can be particularly tough for students. School closures in all 50 states are now worsening what experts call the “homework gap” that low-income students face. Even in normal times, many assignments and communications with teachers take place online.

A recent analysis of U.S. census data by The Associated Press shows that an estimated 17 percent of U.S. students don't have access to computers at home, and 18 percent lack home access to broadband internet. While the pandemic continues, some school systems are aggressively trying to help students get online.

In South Carolina, education officials have placed hundreds of school buses equipped with WiFi in low-income and rural communities. In South Bend, Ind., schools have deployed about 20 buses with WiFi across the city. Students can sit nearby using Chromebooks to log on to the networks. And more sites are being added.

In San Antonio, five city agencies are providing internet service to students using WiFi-equipped vans that usually transport seniors and the disabled. The vans will go back into regular service once stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. The WiFi range is 100 to 200 feet, and students can access the networks by sitting nearby in parked cars.

In addition to libraries and schools, private enterprises in many towns and cities are providing parking-lot WiFi. A restaurant near the Six Flags Great Escape Resort in northern New York State is broadcasting WiFi to help students at SUNY Adirondack, a community college that has closed its campus but is holding classes online. In San Antonio, the Spurs of the NBA are providing free WiFi in its stadium parking lot.

As libraries, schools, and businesses start to reopen, some of these creative solutions to the lack of web access may be extended. Consumer advocates say the stop-gap measures highlight the need for a national effort to close the chasm between digital haves and have-nots.

"Now more than ever, consumers need access to a broadband internet connection," says Schwantes at Consumer Reports. "The government has an opportunity to make an enormous infrastructure investment to both expand internet access and make it more affordable—or free—to ensure that all Americans can reliably access the internet in order to stay connected to work, find new jobs, apply for unemployment benefits, attend school, or access medical care."

James K. Willcox

I've been a tech journalist for more years than I'm willing to admit. My specialties at CR are TVs, streaming media, audio, and TV and broadband services. In my spare time I build and play guitars and bass, ride motorcycles, and like to sail—hobbies I've not yet figured out how to safely combine.