But New York libraries will loan hundreds of them to residents. The catch? They're free with unlimited data as long as the borrower is enrolled in a library program, from citizenship classes to adult literacy. (Each of the three New York City library branches -- New York City, Brooklyn, and Queens -- will have slightly different rules for the program.)
The program, called "Check Out The Internet," is part of an ambitious plan to get more New Yorkers online and close the digital divide. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a plan to turn city pay phones into WiFi hotspots and he has worked to push Verizon to expand its FiOS service.
Libraries across the country are already popular destinations for people with Internet access at home. They have stepped in where other institutions, whether they're government or telecom providers, have not yet managed to spread broadband access.
In 2011, nearly 30 percent of households in New York City were not subscribed to broadband at home, according to 2011 Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany-SUNY. And a survey by the New York Public Library found that more than half of those who use the computers and Internet at their branches don't have broadband Internet access at their homes.
"Too many Brooklyn residents are on the wrong side of the digital divide," said Linda E. Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Brooklyn Public Library said in a statement. "Free Wi-Fi at local BPL branches is a vital resource, but it can't make up for the lack of internet access in the home — access that helps children succeed in school, and provides parents with critical information on health, employment, education, and more."
The hotspots, made by Netgear, are (cover your ears, librarians) about the size of a dime-store romance novel. That raises the possibility that they could let lost in a stack of books. But if users don't return them, they get turned off -- something that NYPL president and chief executive officer Tony Marx recently pointed out, you can't do with paper books. If they fail to return the devices, there could be a $100 fine.
Asked about theft of the devices, Marx says now, "The library lends books, and we get them back. We lend out laptops worth well over a thousand dollars for use in the branches in the poorest neighborhoods in New York. There's no security guard at the door, and we have almost no loss rate."
Marx added that the the hotspot itself is "essentially worthless once it comes out of the package. The value is in the subscription."
The program, which includes 10,000 devices and will cost $2.5 million, is being helped by a $1 million grant from Google and $500,000 from the Knight News Challenge. As part of the program, Google is also donating 500 WiFi enabled Chromebook laptops for teens and children in library after-school programs.
The New York City Public Library isn't stopping at the bounds of the five boroughs. It is also testing its model with state library systems in Kansas and Maine.
Says Marx, "Our primary responsibility is to the citizens of New York. But we understood from our friends in Washington" -- that is, the Federal Communications Commission and the White House, says Marx -- "that if we were going to demonstrate that we can produce a national solution to the digital divide, we needed to show that this approach could work outside urban New York City."
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