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Red Hook, New York
Local living | Politics/Government | Tech
14 November 2020 09:04PM
Emily Sachar

Red Hook’s first public access point for free Internet service launched today. Now, visitors can answer work email while their kids enjoy the playground, take an online class at a picnic table or from a car, or listen to a podcast without drawing down a device’s data plan.

The new network, “Red Hook Rec Park Wifi,” extends outward from the snack bar to the north and south. It’s an unsecure network, meaning there’s no password required. Rather, users are asked to agree to terms on a landing page when their device connects.

The project, jointly funded by the Red Hook Rotary Club, the Red Hook Public Library, and the Town of Red Hook, cost roughly $8,000 and is the culmination of several months’ work. This access point, it is hoped, will be the first of several throughout the village and town.

ADDRESSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Indeed, the Rec Park wifi project is one of a series of initiatives the library is developing to address the digital divide that exists in Red Hook and that separates those with access to the Internet and those without it.

“Access to knowledge and information is a public library’s reason for existing,” said Amy K. Smith, Red Hook Library Head of Programs & Youth Services. “Our job is to democratize information. In the long run, it won’t be libraries that run wi-fi networks throughout communities. But right now, when there are so many demands on public institutions, this is part of our mission.”

When the library was forced to close due to the Covid pandemic, from March 17 through June 15, Library Director Dawn Jardine answered the library’s phones from home, providing tech support to community members every day. Jardine and Smith started to consider how they could expand the library’s existing technology programs and collections to better meet the needs of Red Hook families, with Covid top of mind.

In 2018, Red Hook Public Library began circulating two hotspots, small devices that use cellular service to create a password-protected Wifi network. Library cardholders could borrow the hot spots for free for a week at a time. The devices proved extremely popular, Jardine said, and soon the library expanded to have 10 in circulation. Each hot spot costs the library $15 plus $120 a year for an unlimited service plan through a discount program available to schools and public libraries.

OTHER LIBRARY INITIATIVES
In the spring of 2019, the library piloted a program of long-term loans for cardholders that paired a laptop computer and a hotspot. Grant funding provided for three such paired sets, one of which was borrowed out of the library and two of which were housed at the Red Hook High School library for ease of access by students.

Facing the Covid pandemic and closure in March, Jardine and library staff also placed every computer device available in the library into circulation in hopes of helping as many families and residents as possible to gain some internet access during Cuomo’s mandated Pause NY.

REASONS FOR THE DIVIDE
Based on their prior experience circulating devices and providing tech support, Jardine and Smith continued their research on the sources of the digital divide in Red Hook and recognized that there are three primary reasons. For some Red Hook residents, the costs of devices and/or internet service are prohibitive. For others, the location of their homes draw a weak signal for cellular service and/or there is no infrastructure from Spectrum for cable internet access. Finally, some people have trouble because they simply haven’t learned how to properly and efficiently access and utilize Internet tools and Web sites.

The library’s collection of circulating hotspots, laptops and the addition of four Chromebooks help those who can’t afford devices. New software called TeamViewer enables the library to provide safe, remote tech support and instruction on residents’ home computers, tablets or devices borrowed from the library.

And now, the WiFi access point in the Rec Park is an example of the type of creative solution needed to address more comprehensively Red Hook’s digital divide. Jardine and Smith continue to apply for grant funding to expand both the circulating device collection and to develop more public access Internet service points.

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Photos courtesy of Amy K. Smith
1) Library Director Dawn Jardine shows off the working network.

2) Jardine and Amy Smith, Red Hook Library Head of Programs & Youth Services, proudly test the new WiFi access point at the Rec Park.

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