Dozens of Long Island public libraries plan to keep or expand free Wi-Fi zones they set up during the pandemic to cover their parking lots and nearby parks.
In Nassau County, 25 libraries offer 24-hour high-speed access to anyone within 300 feet of their buildings through the Nassau Library System's Wi-Fi Whenever project. "There are people who need to be able to access the internet whenever they get off their shift or whenever public transportation happens to come by or whenever relatives in another time zone are available for a FaceTime call," said system director Caroline Ashby. There were more than 1,700 uses in June, she said.
Almost all 56 library districts in Suffolk offer similar coverage and some will apply for federal funding to move Wi-Fi further into their communities, said Kevin Verbesey, Suffolk Cooperative Library System director.
Expansion was relatively cheap. Henry Waldinger Memorial Library in Valley Stream, a Wi-Fi Whenever participant, paid $200 for an antenna, wiring and a license, said director Mamie Eng. Hampton Bays Public Library in Suffolk spent $1,600 on outdoor access points, said director Susan LaVista.
Most Long Island libraries have offered Wi-Fi inside their buildings for years. When buildings closed to the public last year, librarians said they saw people with phones or laptops huddling near their buildings to catch the signal from inside.
"We had vehicles parked facing the main entrance and also people on bikes, sitting on the steps of the library," LaVista said.
In those early days, LaVista met a woman who had been laid off and was searching for a job from her car. Eng met a mother who was downloading her children’s school assignments for remote learning.
At the Montauk Library, people who needed internet access "were setting up miniature offices with folding tables, parked in the corner of the library parking lot," said director Denise DiPaolo.
Basic high-speed internet costs $50 or more a month. A state law that requires service providers to offer $15 plans to low-income families went on hold last month after a federal judge ruled on a suit from industry groups.
Although high-speed internet was available to all Long Islanders in 2020, according to the Federal Communications Commission, Microsoft data from last year indicated that 85.4% of Suffolk residents and 87.4 % of Nassau residents used the internet at download speeds of 25 megabits per second or faster.
Census data suggests those countywide numbers conceal community disparities. For the period 2015-2019 in mostly white, affluent Garden City, 91.3% of households had a high-speed connection versus 80% in neighboring Hempstead Village, a majority-minority community with roughly a third of Garden City's median household income.
One recent afternoon in Hempstead village’s Harold Mason Jr. Memorial Playground, a leafy triangle about 150 feet from the library, Frankie Brundage, 47, a DJ, searched online for music using his phone.
He hadn’t known about Wi-Fi Whenever before a Newsday reporter asked him, but he liked the idea. "If you’re using Wi-Fi, you’re taking it easy on the data" and avoiding overage charges, he said. "You can sit right here in the park and you’re able to get work done."
Hempstead Library director Irene Duszkiewicz said the village lacked businesses like Starbucks that typically provide free Wi-Fi and that the census might understate the demand for connectivity she sees from library patrons. "I hear what they’re asking for and if they had the technology in their homes, they’d be using it," she said.
The library, once a repository of printed documents, now provides access to information and services — like job applications or health care portals — that are increasingly stored and communicated only online, Duszkiewicz said. "That is a reality that was only more reinforced by the events of the past year and a half," she said.