Library helping residents bridge the digital divide

Get inexpensive technology, internet through WPLD partnership
Pam Monson

    These days, you need internet access for everything, says Maria Meachum, director of the Wilmington Public Library District, which is connecting residents — particularly those in low income households or in areas not serviced by mainstream internet providers — to online services.
    The district’s 4G LTE internet hotspot loan program has been wildly popular and growing by leaps and bounds — because service is not available everywhere and not affordable for everyone. Starting with a grant to purchase 10 units in mid-2016, the library district now has 26 wi-fi hotspots that are on the go just as much as its patrons.
    “We’ve had a lot of people tell us our hotspots are better than their home internet service,” Meachum said.
    But as the program expands, the district is challenged with fairly managing and financing it. Meachum said a lot of patrons piggyback, they reserve a hotspot in each family member’s name so that they can continually borrow a hotspot to have uninterrupted service. But that ties up a hotspot indefinitely. Then there’s the monthly service fee the district pays for each hotspot.
    So the district has found a way for people to get their own hotspots and inexpensive — but fast and unlimited — internet service of their own; the same service the library district offers.
    “We want to get people online and ‘bridge the gap,’” said the library director, who notes that applications for employment, public aid, Social Security services and more are accessible online, and in some cases, only online.
    Meachum was preparing to give a presentation on the topic at the Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia in March and asked PCs for People, which works with library districts like Wilmington to help them sustain and manage their hotspot lending programs,  for handout materials. That’s where she learned about Bridging the Gap, a partnership between PCs for People and Mobile Beacon, a non-profit dedicated to providing affordable, mobile high-speed internet access to schools, libraries and nonprofits.
    Through Bridging the Gap residents can obtain affordable technology that they don’t have to return when their loan period is up. Those who qualify to participate can purchase low cost computers and internet service.
    Desktop and laptop computers and internet hotspots can be ordered online with free standard shipping. Eligible participants can search what’s available from the library’s portal,, which was launched last week. Desktop computers start at $50 and laptops at $100.
    Internet hotspots are $80 and provide unlimited 4G LTE access for up to 10 devices through Mobile Beacon. There are no data caps or throttling, although customers who use more than 23 GB of data during a billing cycle may be deprioritized during times and places where the network is constrained.
    Internet service can be purchased in three-, six- and 12-month subscriptions at $40, $75 and $120 respectively.
    Those who don’t have a credit card can make cash payments at the library.
    To participate in the program and receive Bridging the Gap pricing for hardware and service, PCs for People has to verify that participants meet the eligibility requirements. Meachum says many in the district will qualify because the threshold is relatively high at 200 percent of poverty level — that’s $24,280 for a single-person household, and $50,200 for a family of four.
    New clients and those renewing a plan that was good for one year will have to upload proof of income to complete the sale. The library staff can help with that. Participation is usually approved the same day.    
    To qualify under income guidelines, an income tax return; a statement of benefits from Social Security, a pension, the Veterans Administration, unemployment or workmen’s compensation; a federal notice of participation in General Assistance; a divorce decree, child support or other official document can serve as proof of eligibility. All documents have to be dated within the previous six months, except for annual documents such as a tax return, and include the recipient’s name.
    Those who are currently enrolled in an income-based government assistance program such as LIHEAP, food support, Medicaid, the National School Lunch Program, Section 8 public housing assistance, Social Security disability and Supplemental Security Income will also qualify under non-income guidelines.
    The program is open to anyone in the Free Press Newspapers readership area, you don’t have to be a resident of Wilmington Public Library District to participate. The equipment can be used anywhere, and the hotspot is portable.
    “This is a very good opportunity for the people,” Meachum concluded.