In a response to COVID-19, Berks County Public Libraries expanded WiFi access to patrons through the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center’s projectConnect — a nationwide initiative to provide free community WiFi installations to connect students and families to the Internet.
“Expanded WiFi access allows more people to safely access WiFi from their cars and stay socially distanced from others during COVID. It also helps patrons access WiFi during the hours the library is closed for cleaning, holds pick up only, etc.,” said Amy C. Resh, System Administrator for Berks County Public Libraries.
Resh explained that the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC) is a volunteer-driven nonprofit that was founded in 2008 to provide communities with the technical resources necessary to continue operations and begin recovery after a disaster. In response to COVID-19, ITDRC established a nationwide initiative, projectConnect, to provide free community WiFi installations at hundreds of sites across the country.
“Volunteers provide and install access points free of charge to community organizations to help students and families connect to the Internet,” said Resh. “Historically, students who do not have access to reliable Internet use public facilities like libraries or private businesses such as restaurants and coffee shops to get online to complete assignments.”
“ITDRC is working together with community groups to provide an outdoor access point with WiFi so that community members can access Internet resources, including distance learning curricula and employment resources, outside of these community facilities,” Resh continued.
Resh said that all of the libraries in the Berks County Public Library System provide free WiFi inside the library.
“That limits patrons, students, and the community to free WiFi only when the library is open, or convenient locations directly outside of buildings,” she said.
ProjectConnect installed WiFi access points outside several Berks County libraries so far with others waiting approval. These access points generally cover 30 to 50 yards from installation location, including the main library parking lots.
Two libraries, Bethel and Kutztown, have WiFi that already provides adequate reach outside.
“Both libraries mention seeing patrons sitting in the parking lot using the WiFi in their cars when they’re closed,” said Resh.
The libraries that have had access points installed so far are Exeter, Spring Township, West Lawn, Schuylkill Valley, Fleetwood, Hamburg, Morgantown, and Mifflin.
“Having our Free Wi-Fi expanded into the parking lot will give our community greater access to the tools they need to succeed, even when we are closed,” said Fleetwood Area Public Library Director Carin Mileshosky. “We have already had a few patrons come and sit outside when their home internet was down. This will be particularly helpful for families that are struggling to navigate virtual or hybrid learning. We hope to add outdoor seating outside for when the weather is nice so they don't have to sit in their cars.”
Schuylkill Valley Community Library Director Christie Brown said SVCL’s WiFi access point was installed about two weeks ago.
“My hope is that this resource will be utilized by community members who may be having trouble with their Internet service, cannot afford reliable service, or simply do not have access to reliable Internet service where they live,” said Brown.
Free internet connection is now available in the SVCL parking lot and surrounding areas (parts of the adjacent park and little league fields) to anyone who needs it, 24 hours a day. There is no password required and no limit on usage. Community users can remain in their cars or spread out in the grassy areas in order to comply with current social distancing guidelines, said Brown.
“We are always looking for ways to provide useful resources to the community we serve, and are so proud to be part of Project Connect,” said Brown. “The pandemic has affected everyone and as a local public library, we will continue looking for new ways to meet the needs of the people we serve and help our community through these difficult times.”
Lorraine Storms at Exeter Community Library said the WiFi access point was recently installed.
"Any step to offering a free technology resource is a step in the right direction," said Storms. "It enables people who may not otherwise have internet access to bring a device and use our internet even when we aren’t open to the public. An electronic device is a one-time purchase, but the internet is a monthly recurring fee, and yet the internet is so very important for keeping us connected during this time. It’s vital that the library is able to offer this free service, and we’re glad to be able to do so."
Storms said Exeter Library hopes patrons will come by to use the service, whether it’s to browse the catalog electronically or to surf the web on their own tablet, phone, or computer.
Two libraries will have WiFi access points installed at the end of October, Boyertown and Muhlenberg.
The libraries currently awaiting approval are Bernville, Boone, Sinking Spring, Wernersville and Womelsdorf.