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3 Chicago libraries to offer 'hotspot' devices, tablets

Chicagoans using three branch libraries — Brighton Park, Greater Grand Crossing and Douglass — will be able to check out Wi-Fi “hotspot” devices and tablets along with their books, periodicals and movies, thanks to $575,000 in grants tailor-made to bridge the digital divide.

Each of the three branch libraries will circulate roughly 100 hotspot devices that allow residents to check them out for up to three weeks at a time.

The Brighton Park, Greater Grand Crossing and Douglass branches also will each lend library patrons up to 10 tablets and have an influx of so-called CyberNavigators to provide digital skills training.

The so-called “Internet-to-Go” program is being bankrolled by a $400,000 grant from the Knight Foundation and a $175,000 contribution from Google. Last year, Google donated 500 so-called Finch Robots to the Chicago Public Library system to help kids learn computer coding.

The new program will determine whether borrowing a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to three weeks along with digital training makes a tangible difference in inner-city neighborhoods where only half of all households have broadband.

If it does, the program will be expanded to even more branches. With 80 locations, including the Harold Washington Library and three regional libraries, the Chicago Public Library system is already billed as the largest provider of free Internet access in Chicago.

“Closing the digital divide is essential to opening more doors of opportunity for every resident in Chicago and this effort will help us make even more progress toward that goal,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a news release issued as the mayor was introducing Library Commissioner Brian Bannon at a City Club of Chicago luncheon.

“I am grateful to the Knight Foundation and Google for supporting this effort that will put 21st Century technology in the hands of more residents in more Chicago neighborhoods so they can finally connect to the economic opportunities they deserve.”

Just weeks after taking office, Emanuel announced a plan to narrow for 330,000 needy Chicago students the digital divide that has left nearly 40 percent of all Chicagoans with little or no access to the Internet.

He joined Comcast in announcing “Internet Essentials,” a first-in-the-nation program designed to provide high-speed Internet services for the families of Chicago Public School students who qualify for free school lunches.

At the time, Comcast was charging $48.95 a month for broadband Internet service. Under the new program, eligible families got that service for $9.95 a month with no installation or service fees.

One year later, Emanuel dangled the use of light poles, streets, alleys, freight tunnels and unused city-owned fiber to jump-start his predecessor’s failed plan to establish high-speed Internet access to underserved Chicago neighborhoods, industrial corridors and public spaces.

At the time, Emanuel said he hoped to succeed where former Mayor Richard M. Daley failed by leveraging his plan to rebuild Chicago’s crumbling water and sewer system and by dividing the city into 15 commercial corridors with a separate competition in each zone.

At the time, the mayor recalled the recent conversation he had with Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman.

“I was talking to him about our investment in our water infrastructure. I told him that we’re replacing 900 miles of water pipe, 650 miles of sewer, 160,000 catch basins. He said it’s a unique opportunity, given the fact that you’re actually gonna be ripping up the roads, to lay the broadband and the dark fiber throughout the city,” he said.

At the time, Emanuel was asked whether he was prepared to give winning bidders free access to unused fiber and other city assets and the go-ahead to charge a nominal fee.

“If we have to charge, we may look at that, but I’m not gonna pre-judge” the competition, he said.

The 15 designated areas included the Loop; West Loop; River North; Bucktown/Wicker Park; McCormick Place/Cermak; the Ravenswood Industrial Corridor; Loyola University; DePaul; the Illinois Medical District; the Illinois Institute of Technology; the University of Illinois at Chicago; Roosevelt University and Columbia College; the University of Chicago, and the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Also included was the former Michael Reese Hospital, which Daley purchased for an Olympic Village, then wanted to turn into a technology park.

Daley unveiled a similarly ambitious plan to build a wireless Internet access system attached to streetlights and lamp poles.

The city’s initial goal was to create an alternative broadband service that could compete with cable, DSL and cellphone-based wireless service and drives down costs.

In exchange for paying Chicago a sizeable monthly fee and possibly a share of revenues, a technology company or group would have installed, maintained and upgraded roughly 7,500 small antennas on streetlight poles every one or two blocks, at a cost of roughly $18.5 million.

That system would have given Chicago a sorely needed revenue stream — and carried benefits far beyond the tens of millions it would have raised.

Instead of racing over to Starbucks to get wireless access from your laptop or paying a monthly fee to the phone company to get it at home, the Internet would have been available almost anywhere.

Rising costs, declining demand and increased competition from private Internet providers killed that plan, prompting Daley to settle for a far less ambitious plan to bridge the “digital divide.”

Daley declared four impoverished neighborhoods — Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Pilsen — “digital excellence demonstration communities” to be flooded with technology to demonstrate the Internet’s “transformative power.”