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Chicago Public Library lending hundreds of hotspots

Adult Chicago residents and Chicago Public Library cardholders can check out Wi-Fi hotspots, which enable widespread internet access on tablets, smartphones and laptops, from more than a dozen library branches. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media

The Chicago Public Library was already the largest provider of free internet access in the city, but it’s taken things to a new level: now patrons can check out the internet too.

In all, 973 wireless internet hotspots are available at Chicago library branches. The goal is to have 1,000 available, said Patrick Molloy, director of public and government affairs. The hotspots, about the size of a BlackBerry cellphone, allow smartphones, tablets and laptop computers to go online from almost anywhere.

They seem to be popular — fewer than a dozen are available and holds have been placed on about 200, according to the library’s online reservation system.

The Chicago Public Library lends wireless internet hotspots at 13 sites.

The portable hotspots that can be checked out from select library branches connect mobile-enabled phones and laptops to the internet. | Chicago Public Library
The portable hotspots that can be checked out from select library branches connect mobile-enabled phones and laptops to the internet. | Chicago Public Library

Devices were added at branches in communities with the lowest usage rates of broadband, or high-speed internet, according to Molloy. Those areas were determined based on a 2011 survey from the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, he said.

Five branches also have Chromebooks kits, which include laptop computer and Wi-Fi hotspot.

A hotspot can be borrowed for up to three weeks at a time and can be renewed up to 15 times if nobody else has placed it on hold. The fine for returning it late is $1 a day, up to $10, and the wireless service is shut off.

Replacing a lost hotspot costs about $100, but lost devices have not been a big issue, Molloy said. Still, as with any items the library lends out, some go missing — though the library can simply transfer the data plan to the replacement device.

On its website, the Chicago Public Library received mostly positive feedback on the program.

The Chicago Public Library has received mostly positive feedback on its website for its Wi-Fi lending program called “Internet to Go,” but some patrons say they have experienced patchy service.
The Chicago Public Library has received mostly positive feedback on its website for its Wi-Fi lending program called “Internet to Go,” but some patrons say they have experienced patchy service.

One said the program is convenient for completing schoolwork, a mother said it helps her save money and several want the devices available at more locations.

Others offered minor complaints about excessive paperwork requirements for borrowing and sporadic problems with the signal strength, but they acknowledged the convenience of checking out Wi-Fi.

“We have people who say, ‘This is great, I used to have to schedule my day around having to go into the library'” to use the computers, Molloy said. “People have been extremely pleased.”

The Chicago Public Library began testing “Internet to Go” in February 2015 at three branches; it was funded by a $400,000 grant from The Knight Foundation with a $175,000 contribution from Google.

The program is part of a larger digital skill-building initiative that goes beyond providing Wi-Fi, Molloy said. At more than half of its branches, the library also has CyberNavigators, tutors who teach patrons basic computer knowledge as well as how to write resumes and find jobs online.

“We’re trying to get people more comfortable with the digital technology and increase the perception that it’s relevant to them,” Molloy said. “We’re informing these patrons of the low-cost options they have.”

BlackBerry-sized hotspot devices enable patrons to connect to the internet virtually anywhere. | Chicago Public Library
BlackBerry-sized hotspot devices enable patrons to connect to the internet virtually anywhere. | Chicago Public Library

Closer to 2018, when the grant funding ends, Molloy said the library will analyze the impact of “Internet to Go” and consider whether to seek additional funding for the program.

After starting in the Brighton Park, Greater Grand Crossing and Douglass branches, the program expanded to 10 more: Austin, Canaryville, Richard M. Daley (West Humboldt), Galewood-Mont Clare, Legler, North Pulaski, Sherman Park, Vodak (East Side), West Lawn and Woodson Regional Library.

Chromebook kits are available for checkout at Austin, Brighton Park, Douglass, Greater Grand Crossing, Vodak and Woodson Regional branches.