During the 2003 and 2005 sessions of the UN-based World Summit on the Information Society, representatives from 175 countries charted a roadmap towards a digital society which would be open and accessible to all. A series of documents – the Geneva Plan of Action, WSIS Action Lines, the Tunis Commitment and Agenda – lay out the agreements and measures to overcome the digital divide between and within countries.
One of the key WSIS targets was connecting all public libraries with ICTs: as repositories of crucial information, public internet access points and learning hubs, libraries were among the actors that could help build the information society WSIS envisioned. This year marks the WSIS+15 milestone: an opportunity to take stock and reflect on what public access in libraries means today.
Over the years, public libraries have brought many new users online – with millions having accessed the internet for the very first time in a library. However, public access can sometimes be seen as a stepping stone towards individual use and subscription/device ownership – a transitional measure on the way to a more universally available home access.
But is that the case? What value can public access solutions offer as a complement to individual home or mobile access, rather than a temporary substitute? What shapes could they take in a post-COVID world, as we work to overcome the persistent digital divides?
Digital skills learning opportunities
For libraries and similar facilities, an important part of the public internet offer has long been the digital skills learning opportunities and on-site support for their users. A lack of digital skills can prevent people from going online even if access is available.
But the need for ICT skills goes beyond the connected/unconnected binary: once a person becomes an internet user (which could, of course, entail getting an individual subscription and device), their digital skills continue to impact both how they make use of connectivity and what outcomes they can achieve.
A safety net
Even when home and individual access is prioritised, public access facilities can be highly valuable – and valued – when such access is temporarily unavailable (on an individual level – e.g. among people experiencing homelessness; or community level – e.g. anchor institutions offering internet connectivity and electricity during emergency or disaster situations).
It is also worth considering whether, as some of the societal adaptations from analog to digital may be here to stay; and a UN/DESA brief points out that governments and economies may want to speed up the adoption of digital innovations to boost future resilience. This could mean that the cost of staying offline – as more and more public and economic activities go digital – may continue to rise, and so the need for alternatives to assuming private access grows.
The complement: keeping the costs down
Globally, mobile-only internet use is on the rise, and new subscriptions for mobile broadband are growing at a significantly faster rate than fixed broadband. While mobile broadband subscriptions and access devices may be comparatively more affordable, many mobile broadband users remain cost-conscious and limit their data use to keep the costs down. As a 2019 Alliance for Affordable Internet report points out, in such cases users can combine public and individual internet access, relying on the former for most of the data-intensive tasks.
And of course, while at the moment some Internet Service Providers are lifting data caps or postponing price raises, once these temporary measures are lifted public internet access can offer a free/low-cost alternative in case future price raises make individual access less affordable – especially in light of potential poverty and unemployment rises – as well as providing a back-stop that prevents private providers from over-charging.
A robust individual network
There may also be benefits to having the opportunity to access the Internet from several locations. Reisdorf et al (2020), for example, suggest that a broader range of internet access modes (home, mobile, library, work, etc) may be able to support a broader range of online activities, because different types of access more easily lend themselves to different tasks and activities. Fernandez et al (2019) also mention that breadth of internet access points could be particularly important for vulnerable communities, where a single point may become restricted or temporarily unavailable.
The COVID pandemic also pushes us to further consider our online privacy and data security, and what could be the role of public internet access in a post-COVID world – especially in libraries, places dedicated to upholding the privacy of their users. It could offer a connection and workstation that can help separate your data from pervasive advertisement tracking, profiling and data collection – and learning opportunities on how to protect your security and privacy online.
Helping deliver end-user connections
Finally, some libraries have been able to use their connectivity to deliver internet access to patrons’ homes or other in-demand locations, bringing their experience closer to that of individual connectivity. From offering Wi-Fi through bookmobiles (or even parking bookmobiles in areas with known connectivity issues), to mobile hotspot loans, to using TV WhiteSpace to set up remote hotspots for their communities.
These are just a few ways that public access in libraries can complement and add to private and individual subscriptions. Over the last few weeks, the challenges of the digital divide have been amplified manifold by the ongoing pandemic as work, study and socialising all moved online – and many who lack reliable home access have been further isolated. We have seen examples of libraries working to adapt and continue offering internet access whenever possible: for example, through WiFi in their parking lots, or even by offering access to library workstations with a strict safety protocol.
The social distancing measures in some areas begin to gradually soften, but we still don’t know how and for how long it will continue to affect the world. However, the pandemic has already shown us in no uncertain terms the full urgency to overcome the digital divides as soon as possible. All tools need to be mobilised to help bring the remaining billions online – and public internet access is part of a comprehensive approach to ensure inclusion.