e-Vermont worked in towns that had already received near-complete, or complete, coverage of high speed Internet available to households. However, even with basic infrastructure in place,communities still sought public Internet access:
- For any remaining households without high speed Internet options, public access points could help bridge the gap while construction projects continued to create universal broadband coverage.
- For community members who could not afford household Internet subscriptions and did not have work-based options, free public Internet connected them with vital communications and services.
- Public options for getting online support digital literacy efforts. They give beginners virtual practice space and create known points of connection – such as a library– where towns can make instructional materials and tutors available.
- The Digital Wish 1:1 computer initiative focused on a school-to-home connection for students receiving Netbooks. Offering convenient places to get online expanded learning opportunities for both the students and their families.
- Although many travelers use mobile technology to stay connected, some tasks are simply more convenient to do on a computer with a wireless connection. Projects like downtown Wi-Fi zones and hotspots provide a useful amenity to visitors.
Details on public Internet access models developed during e-Vermont and information on where to find existing public Internet access are available from our online toolkit.
Overview of Community Work
The public library is the most common starting point for getting online. As part of e-Vermont, the Vermont Department of Libraries directed funds to purchase computer equipment, and expand online services, in public libraries. Over the course of two years, we allocated $96,000 to 27 libraries. In spring of 2012, Google matched this amount with 100 donated computers.
Some towns offered computers with Internet connections outside of the public library, often during hours the library wasn't open. Middlesex and Bristol both experimented with opening up school computer labs for access by the community. Middlesex also established a computer at their town offices.
A partnership with Comcast allowed some non-profit organizations to receive complimentary Internet subscriptions, which many turned into public access points. Bridgewater, for example, put their Grange connection from Comcast to work organizing relief efforts after Tropical Storm Irene and shared their experience at the e-Vermont regional conference.
Towns also made creative use of hot spots. In Bristol, senior lunch sites were conversted into hot spots, to which the public library sent a mobile computer lab and Internet Interns to help seniors get online. Fairfield’s library built a mobile lab to send to farms for workers’ use. Jay and Westfield shared a mobile computer lab between their two community centers, which also became hotspots.
Six e-Vermont communities built wireless Internet zones, modeled on the Wireless Woodstock project. A guide to creating wireless Internet zones is available as part of our Public Internet Access toolkit.
Public access to high speed Internet is a crucial part of overcoming the digital divide. These points help citizens waiting for improved speeds at home, provide a place for beginners to learn the new technology, and bring a service to households that can't afford high speed Internet.
While e-Vermont provides a guide to increasing public Internet access across Vermont, we also found some barriers that require additional consideration:
As applications for social services, employment and healthcare go online, it becomes important to offer privacy to patrons entering their personal information into online forms. Unfortunately, public access points such as libraries often lack the space for this privacy.
Providing public Internet access opens the question of what services go along with it, for example technical troubleshooting, answering specific computer questions, and / or basic digital literacy instruction. Organizations that can't offer these additional services are often reluctant to advertise public Internet access. On the other hand, many would like to have the capacity to provide more help than simply an Internet connection.
Equipment donations are often needed, as many patrons who don’t have Internet access elsewhere will not have their own computer equipment. However, collecting donations that are sufficiently up to date, configuring them for their new home, delivering them, and then installing the network once they arrive all requires planning, modest funding, and multiple people’s time.
In the May 8th, 2012, Conference on Vermont's Digital Future, participants chose public Internet access hubs as a priority for connecting community members, overcoming the digital divide, and engaging citizens in local goverment. More details on the recommendations associated with that priority are found in the conference report.