No public WiFi at El Paso libraries
by Miguel Hernandez
Posted on August 20, 2009
Public access to WiFi, or wireless internet, is commonly becoming a basic part of civic infrastructure in cities throughout the country. Public libraries in particular are locations where such access is commonplace.
Yet of the 12 El Paso library branches, only two provide WiFi to its visitors. And of those two, access is provided peripherally and not directly by those libraries.
Those two are the Memorial Park branch, on 3200 Copper, and the Armijo branch, on 620 E. Seventh. The Memorial branch’s WiFi is provided by Le Squirrel café, which is inside the library building but operates independently. The Armijo branch is located within the service area of WiFi provided by Digital El Paso, a collaborative effort to provide free WiFi comprised of “City, County, Housing Authority and El Paso ISD as primary sponsors,” as stated in its website. Its current network covers the Downtown and South El Paso area, though access is spotty and has not worked well since it started.
“If someone tries to get a signal inside [the library] it’s unpredictable whether they’re going to get reception or not,” said branch manager Martha Andrade.
For the 10 other branches, internet can only be accessed through the public desktop computers.
Library branches in smaller counties throughout Texas have established WiFi networks. All six branches in Corpus Christi (pop. 286, 462) provide WiFi access through a free, city-provided WiFi service called “ConnectCC,” with additional wireless hotspots – or areas of connectivity – in parks, community centers, and sports complexes. One of four branches in Lubbock (pop. 220,483) provides it directly. Many other communities comparable in size to El Paso (pop. 613, 190) throughout the country , and peer cities in the Southwest, have WiFi networks in their public library system. All library branches in Stockton/San Joaquin, Calif., (pop. 672, 388) launched WiFi in August of last year. The larger libraries in Albuquerque, NM. (pop. 521, 999) have had it for several years, and last year the city completed implementing WiFi in all 17 of its branches. The one public library in Las Cruces (pop. 91, 865) provides it as well.
One reason for the limited availability in the Sun City has been the prohibitive cost. Funding for public library WiFi would be provided by the city, taxpayer money, but up to now has not been commissioned.
Southwestern Wireless, a local WiFi provider, quoted a $299.99 price tag per month for one router with capacity for up to 50 “light” users – those merely surfing and checking e-mail – and 30 “heavy” users – those downloading albums or videos. A smaller plan at $169.99 could handle 30 light / 20 heavy. Both plans require a $250 set up fee and a one-year contract. For one year, the first plan totals $3,838 without tax, $2,278 for the latter, though in providing access to a public library it’s likely an institutional rate could be negotiated.
The 17 Albuquerque branches pay a system-wide monthly fee for their broadband connection, and expanding to provide WiFi service did not increase the amount whatsoever, said Julia Clarke, director of the Albuquerque County Library System. However, Clarke did allow that their “WiFi service is not robust and best serves customers checking e- mail and doing basic web searches.”
“We have tried in the past,” says Jack Galindo, the Customer Relations and Marketing Coordinator for the El Paso libraries. “I think it’s a service that’s in demand throughout the city. It’s something that we would like to provide, but as of yet we don’t have the funding available.”
In addition to lack of funds, Galindo says the city’s IT division, which would oversee its implementation, believes it poses a security issue. “We want to protect the information of our users, protect their identity.” Galindo also cited flaws in security which would leave the potential wireless network vulnerable to hacking as another concern.
“When we do implement a system we want to make sure security is a top priority.”
There is an effort underway to procure WiFi for El Paso’s library system. Galindo cited federal stimulus funding that can be tapped to establish broadband infrastructure. A grant proposal written by the local library administration in conjunction with Digital El Paso was to be submitted by last week.
“Digital El Paso wants to expand their services from Downtown to throughout the city,” says Galindo, making it an initiative like that of Corpus Christi’s “ConnectCC.”
As for a timetable on when to expect wireless internet, implementation any time soon seems doubtful. The grant money will be awarded in November, but “we’re not sure at what point when they will provide us with the funds,” said Galindo. If the grant comes through, there would be a three-year period following in which said funds would have to be spent. “Because it’s a federal grant, we have to meet their requirements quite specifically.”
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