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The New York and Chicago public libraries are both planning to experiment with new ways to bridge the digital divide. 

With about half-a-million dollars each in grant money, the New York and Chicago public library systems will soon begin a major expansion to how they serve up Internet access to local residents in their communities.  

The Knight Foundation has announced the winners of its annual News Challenge, which sought solutions that strengthen the Internet for free expression. The New York Public Library and the Chicago Public Library, two of the nine winners that will receive funding to launch projects at scale, are both focusing on lending out WiFi hotspot devices to households with limited Internet access. Both institutions believe this type of service can help tackle the digital divide in their cities, providing in-need individuals and families a way to engage with the Internet even during hours when physical libraries are closed.

The NYPL’s “Check Out the Internet” project will lend WiFi hotspots for up to one year at a time and plans to distribute the service through various educational initiatives already running across its neighborhood library branches—for example, Out of School Time programs, technology training classes, and courses in English for speakers of other languages. 

The NYPL actually launched a mini version of the program last month, distributing 100 devices across four library branches. According to NYPL president Tony Marx, it’s still too early to draw any conclusions from the 100-household pilot, but they’ve already begun collecting data like how much time participants are spending online and whether they’re using the devices at home or elsewhere. This information will guide the larger roll-out aimed at 10,000 households with an anticipated cost of $1 million. The Knight Foundation grant will get the NYPL half of the way there, and the library is currently trying to fundraise for the rest.

The Chicago Public Library, which will get $400,000 for its "Internet to Go" project, plans to lend out WiFi hotspots for up to three weeks at a time. Instead of working through educational programs, the CPL will target six specific neighborhoods that have household broadband adoption rates of 50 percent or less. Both institutions will receive the grant dollars over the summer.  

Insight derived from these two approaches over the coming months and years will certainly help inform similar services in communities across the U.S. In fact, part of the NYPL’s project involves collaborating with the State Library systems of Kansas and Maine to figure out how WiFi hotspot lending programs can work in less urban regions as well.

 

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