Posted by: bluesyemre | November 16, 2021

Hotspot in a cold climate: the Melbourne library that transformed lockdown for struggling families

Coralie Kouvelas free wifi hotspots for students and families who had no access to internet during lockdown.
Photograph: Alana Holmberg/Oculi for The Guardian

How a librarian’s trip to the car park planted the seed for a project to help people who can’t afford wifi

It was during Melbourne’s sixth lockdown that Coralie Kouvelas started noticing the cars.

The Thomastown library branch manager was one of the few staff working on site – arriving early, leaving late, and always seeing the same vehicles in the car park. Then one day, she saw children sitting in them.

“I thought, this is really unusual,” Kouvelas says. So she said hello to the people in one of the cars and found out they were there so the children could do their homework – using the library’s wireless internet.

“They mentioned they did not have wifi at home. One family had four kids from the ages of 19 right down to eight or nine. They were a migrant family and they were quite fearful, but more than anything they were incredibly embarrassed that they were sitting in the car park,” Kouvelas says.

According to the 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, 92% of Australians earning less than $52,000 a year would have to pay more than 5% of their household income to access a quality, reliable internet connectionand 14% would need to pay more than 10%.

Kouvelas had been thinking about statistics like these as she got to know the families in the car park, and those relationships planted the seed for a project to assist families across the City of Whittlesea, which covers outer northern suburbs of Melbourne.

In the midst of lockdown, Yarra Plenty Regional Library allocated $50,000 for a pilot program to give wifi dongles with 60GB per month of data to 100 families for a year. Drawing lessons from similar schemes in the United States and Europe, the library partnered with a not-for-profit support service, Whittlesea Community Connections, to help identify families in need, and Vodafone, who supplied a suitable product.

Lani Silva, who lost her job due to the pandemic, was one of the first community members to sign up. She lives with her two daughters, Celina and Cindy (aged five and 10) and her sister, and has been struggling to make ends meet while she searches for work.

Silva had turned the internet off to cut expenses, but homeschooling in lockdown without it was next to impossible. While she had 4GB of data on her phone plan, sometimes her children would miss out on classes because the connection was so bad. The family would keep their spirits up by getting outdoors on their bikes and having picnics in the backyard, but that didn’t make up for lost schooling. So when Silva heard about the hotspot program, she put her name down straight away.

“It’s made a lot of difference,” Silva says. “My goodness, it’s a lot. It takes a weight from my shoulders.

“I have no income at the moment other than Centrelink. My internet was $60 a month but I am trying to go back to work and I need to pay for things like a police [working with children] check. The money I’m saving from the internet bills, I’m using for that.”

The savings may also help her afford to send her children to swimming lessons, she says, “which are essential in this country, not for pleasure, but for their needs”.

Many of the households accessing the hotspot program are migrant families without strong English skills, or people living in insecure housing, Kouvelas says.

“We’ve had some schools who have taken the hotspot on board for people who are in domestic violence situations. It’s providing a simple service and it’s vital,” she says.

The hotspot pilot is currently operating out of Lalor and Thomastown libraries, but the chief executive of Yarra Plenty Regional Library, Jane Cowell, says she hopes to expand the program to other parts of the region the library services, which takes in the City of Whittlesea, Banyule City council and Nillumbik Shire.

“We knew there was an issue of affordability in internet access,” Cowell says.

“Tech access and digital literacy is integral for contemporary public libraries, but it’s also integral for every community member to participate in society. You’re really left out if you don’t have that access. More and more government services can only be accessed on the internet.”

Cowell says it should be standard for public libraries to reconsider the nature of their collections and how they deliver them.

“I see the hotspot as a collections item,” she says. “Content only used to come in a book but now it comes from access to the internet. How do you make that accessible for all members of the community?”

Kouvelas says she is “extremely passionate” about having the best library service possible – “finding out what is needed and co-designing programs with the community”.

“As a public library service we never say no to the community. Anyone can come in and use the space, and have a voice in the space, and they don’t have to pay. We are the last frontier, really.”

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