The Houston Public Library has launched a program to help an estimated 200,000 Houstonians who lack home Internet access bridge that digital divide.

Library card holders can visit any of the 12 libraries participating in the pilot program to check out a wifi hotspot for up to three weeks at a time. The library system also plans to begin offering laptop computers for checkout in the coming months, spokeswoman Marjorie Gonzalez said.

“We’re in a very technology-driven, digitized society, and the reality is that we have a digital divide,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “What we’re attempting to do through the use of our libraries is to expand the reach of technology to as many people as possible, regardless of their socio-economic status.”

Library members can borrow any one of the 300 hotspot devices spread across the Carnegie, Central, Flores, HPL Express Southwest, Johnson, Jungman, Mancuso, Moody, Shepard-Acres Homes, Smith, Stimley-Blue Ridge and Young branches.

During the three months the program has been active, the 300 devices have been checked out more than 1,000 times, Gonzalez said, with “minimal” loss of materials.

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Library leaders now are planning to respond to patrons’ needs by adding laptops to the program, a move they hope to complete system-wide by next summer, Gonzalez said.

“HPL is dedicated to researching new and initiative methods and programs to help our customers achieve in all aspects of life, which includes helping to close the gap in digital access,” she said.
The pilot program did not need City Council’s approval to operate, but the council on Wednesday set fee schedules in the event materials are lost or turned in late.

Hotspots carry a $5-per-day late fee, up to a maximum of $40; the devices carry an $80 replacement value.

Notebooks computers, once available, will carry a $25-per-day late fee, up to a cap of $150, and will cost $300 to replace. Accessories, such as power cords, cost $10 to replace but carry no late fee.

The council on Wednesday also approved a nascent partnership between the city and Harris County library networks that will let card holders in either system check out materials and use online resources available at any city or county branch.

“Here’s another beautiful relationship the city and county are doing together with public libraries,” said Councilman Jack Christie. “We can continue that with roads, public safety, parks.”

Gonzalez said city and county officials plan to meet soon to iron out the logistics of plan, which will be enabled largely by a plan to ferry materials back and forth daily to meet citizens’ requests.