City promises 29 publicly accessible, high-speed links in the Bronx by July
Only two public desktop computers remained available at 10:15 last Monday morning at the Hunts Point Library. Doors had opened just 15 minutes before. No more than 30 minutes later, all of the seats in front of the screens were occupied as people typed and surfed during their 45-minute session. Peak waiting times approached, and by 2:30 in the afternoon the library’s 11 laptops were loaned out. The wait for Internet and computer access in Hunts Point had begun.
“You should see it from 3 to 6,” said librarian Laura Marte. During those peak hours, patrons often have to wait one to two hours for an available computer. “The computers are really heavily used, and we see people that are here every day.”
Less than 60 percent of households have a broadband connection in community districts 1 and 2 in the Bronx, which includes Hunts Point, Longwood, Mott Haven and Melrose, according to the city comptroller’s 2015 Internet Inequality report. But other than the Wi-Fi at the Hunts Point Library and The Point, there are no spots indoors for residents to connect to the Internet, and even outdoors in parks and subways, options are limited.
The comptroller’s report calls Internet connection the “fourth utility,” a necessity for “education, employment, culture, and commerce.” And, it says, the city has to make sure that residents everywhere have access to the Internet in order to stay connected in today’s world.
“For me, the Internet is an integral part of life now,” said Longwood resident Andre Ena, 48, a substance abuse counselor. Ena needs Internet access for both work and personal use. He often uses the library’s computers since Internet access for his home is too costly and he can’t afford to run over on the data plan on his cell phone.
The city’s biggest initiative to bring Wi-Fi to local neighborhoods is through connected kiosks called Links, which would repurpose existing payphones to provide a free connection that is said to be 100 times faster than the Wi-Fi publicly available now. Each structure will allow hundreds of users to connect at the same time as well as charge phones, make calls, or surf the Internet on the tablet attached to the Link.
According to the city’s announcement, 510 Links will be built in the five boroughs by July 2016, with 29 of them in the Bronx. Their exact locations have yet to be announced. Over the next eight years, the goal is to have 736 Links in the Bronx, and a total of 7,500 in the city.
A 2015 Pew Research study found elevated levels of “smart-phone dependency” for Americans earning less than $30,000, meaning that smartphones are often the only way the internet is accessed for some families who do not own computers – leading to costly data usage charges.
For those with home computers, The New York Public Library launched a pilot program last year, with help from Google and other foundations, to confront the issue of home Internet access in neighborhoods like Hunts Point.
The Library HotSpot program loans out wireless hotspots, which can be connected to a home computer for up to one year with no cost. As of now, the 10,000 devices purchased for citywide borrowers have been loaned out. The library plans to continue loaning devices after the pilot ends, but details are still being worked out for a permanent Library HotSpot program.
In Longwood, Fox Playground has “limited” free Wi-Fi through the New York City Parks Department, meaning users get 30 minutes free per month, and after that must purchase day passes for $0.99. Free Wi-Fi is available at Hunts Point Riverside Park at the end of Lafayette Avenue, and at The Point on Garrison Avenue.
Park Wi-Fi is of course weather-dependent, as are the elevated subway stations. Near Hunts Point and Longwood, the 6 train has Wi-Fi from Third Avenue-138th Street north, until Hunts Point Avenue.
Julie Kelderman, 42, a professor at CUNY Hunter College, uses the subway Wi-Fi during her commute, but pays for Internet service at her home for reliable access. “I wish there were more places like a coffee shop or a nice restaurant where I could use Wi-Fi,” she said.
Back at the Hunts Point Library, the kids’ section on the second floor houses 13 desktop computers. These computers are designated for kids-use only, up to middle-school-age. Even when most kids are in school, like on this Monday morning, adults waiting to use the computers downstairs cannot use the kids-only devices, which have some filtering software installed. Librarians say there is never a wait for the kids’ computers.
The New York Public Library says that Hunts Point is one of five branches slated to receive major renovations. They say they will work with the community to identify what the branch needs to become more useful to residents.