Checking out tech: Library will lend out laptops, mobile hotspots – San Francisco Chronicle

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The wireless network was started in 2013 with a $600,000 donation from Google, which Supervisor Mark Farrell helped broker. The money bought equipment and funded two years’ worth of maintenance. But residents and city officials say the piecemeal approach isn’t enough to bridge the digital divide, which has left low-income families with little to no access.

“It’s a valuable project and a step in the right direction,” Farrell said. “It is not surprising to me that the numbers are increasing all the time in San Francisco. The Internet is becoming an ubiquitous part of life, from daily emails to Internet research.”

As the push for a citywide broadband network grinds forward at City Hall — a goal dating back to former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s tenure — the San Francisco Public Library has fast-tracked a six-month pilot program that would let residents check out laptops and Internet hotspots.

Tech’d Out, a sleekly marketed program beginning in late June, is a $120,000 project modeled after programs at the New York, San Mateo County and Chicago public libraries. Thirty-two electronic bundles — consisting of an HP laptop and mobile hotspot — will be available for check-out at the Main Library and the Oceanview, Bayview and Visitacion Valley branches. The locations were chosen because of their proximity to underserved populations, library officials said.

“More and more people have their own personal electronic devices,” said Bill Kolb, the library manager overseeing the project. “What they lack is the ability to pay monthly for the data that makes those things especially useful in their lives. The city’s efforts are progressing, but not as fast as people need. We thought we could try a pilot program to bridge that gap.

“It’s our way of trying to reach out to areas in the city where that coverage hasn’t saturated yet,” he added.

At the Main Library and its 28 branches, 5,638 people access the Wi-Fi network daily. Patrons logged 306,186 hours at its public computers over the past six months. The service has become a lifeline for some teenagers, who spend hours in coffee shops, branch libraries and parks every day finishing homework and applying for college.

Erica Watkins, a 19-year-old who lives in the Tenderloin and wants to major in English, said she spends three to four hours at the Main Library daily during the school year. She’s enrolled in City College of San Francisco’s high school diploma program at the John Adams and Mission campuses.

“I didn’t realize immediately that it wasn’t normal,” she said. “I was around 14 when I stopped being able to do most of my homework at home. My parents couldn’t afford the monthly bill, and I hated having to explain that to people. I never wanted to use it as an excuse to not turn my assignments in.”

Chazorae Bell, 17, who just graduated from a charter school on Treasure Island, echoed the sentiment. He is enrolled in City College’s library tech program beginning this fall and said being able to take a laptop or mobile hotspot home would have be a godsend.

“Not having Wi-Fi at home, you have a disadvantage from the start,” Bell said. “I use my phone to the best of my abilities. But there are certain things you have to do using a computer and Wi-Fi. If I didn’t have access to that for free, I would probably be screwed.”

Lizzie Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: ljohnson@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LizzieJohnsonnn


Free Wi-Fi in city parks

How many thousands of unique devices tapped into the city’s free Wi-Fi at public parks and recreation centers during December:

Source: Department of Technology

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