Local libraries help keep people connected online during pandemic

Libraries in Waterloo region and in Guelph have been adding more Wi-Fi hotspot devices for people to borrow in response demand and the need to keep more people connected online throughout the pandemic.

Several libraries have added more Wi-Fi hotspots to their inventory in response to growing need

The Guelph Public Library now has 52 wifi hotspot devices available for people to borrow. Library CEO, Steve Kraft, said they have also extended wifi connection to the parking lot to give people another option to connect online. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Libraries in Waterloo region and Guelph have been adding more Wi-Fi hotspot devices in response to a growing need in the community to stay connected to the internet.

The program allows for library patrons to borrow a device for a week or more. Once set up, the device allows people to access unlimited Wi-Fi from anywhere in the country.

The Guelph Public Library recently added 42 new devices, bringing the total to 52, after the library received a $15,000 grant from the Guelph Community Foundation in December.

"The demand was there for a long time," library CEO Steve Kraft said. "During better times, we see people come in and use our desktop stations. Various members of the community need technological connectivity for a variety of reasons."

Due to the current stay at home order, libraries have had to once again move online and offer curbside pick up only.

Kraft said the Guelph Public Library also extended its Wi-Fi to reach the library parking lot to give people another option if they need to connect to the internet.

"The role of the library is changing. We're becoming one of those essential nonessential services," he said.

Unreliable Wi-Fi connection in rural areas

Heather Woodley, technical supervisor for the Region of Waterloo Library, said staff added 15 more Wi-Fi devices last summer.

"In our rural areas, we often have people who either have no access to the internet or they have slower, unreliable access to the internet," she said, adding staff have noticed a shift in who is borrowing the devices.

"In the past, we often saw a lot of vacationers borrowing our hot-spots to take to the cottage, for example," she said. "During the pandemic we've really noticed a shift to people using them as a utility at home."

Woodley said the library has a total of 35 devices available and patrons can borrow them for a week at a time.

She said it's not uncommon for people to place a hold right away after returning the device, or for multiple people in a household who have a library card to place a hold on several devices in order to secure one.

Kimm Culkin knows the struggle of rural internet well. She and her family moved from Toronto to a small area north of Durham in the West Grey Region 11 years ago and has dealt with dozens of internet providers in the past.

She said she and her husband rely on the internet for work, in addition to her two children, who are currently living at home and accessing their university classes online.

Initially her children tried to find an apartment, "but those weren't available because of low supply. Ultimately they happened to luck upon a small office space that was available," she said.

"They are using that now when they really need to use internet of a reliable nature, but of course that's all coming out of pocket from student loans."

Culkin, who also works part-time at the West Grey Public Library, said she and other library staff are currently working on getting grants to be able to start a Wi-FI lending program in her community.

Kitchener Public Library users can borrow these Wi-Fi LTE hotspots for up to three weeks. The library was the first in Canada to offer the hotspots on loan. (Rogers)

Keeping up with demand

Mary Chevreau, CEO of the Kitchener Public Library (KPL), said the library's Wi-Fi hot-spot program was a first in Canada and has remained very popular since they introduced it in 2015.

KPL now has 80 devices available after adding another 10 in early January "just to meet demand," Chevreau said.

"Now we see that there are more holds than ever on these for sure," she said.

"Right now we have over 150 holds on them. As soon as one is back, it's cleaned and ready for circulation."

The library also extended the time people can borrow the devices, from two weeks to three weeks.

"We're definitely fulfilling a need. Particularly for new Canadians, new immigrants as well those who are more vulnerable due to their economic situation," she said.