COLUMBIA, SC — The recent King Day holiday gave Anita Johnson a chance to complete a 10-page research paper for an online business class.
But Johnson doesn’t have internet service at home, and the library was closed.
So to do her research, she parked along Main Street in Eastover with a laptop, taking advantage of the free wi-fi service that extends beyond the walls of the town’s branch of Richland Library.
“Everything’s online for me, so I need access to the internet,” said Johnson, who cancelled the data plan on her phone long ago because she said her bill had reached $300 a month.
Once Richland County’s library system began providing free internet access, librarians noticed patrons using the service before and after business hours – while sitting outside on patios or huddled inside their cars.
“The demand was incredible,” library spokeswoman Padgett Mozingo said. “Three or four years ago, there wasn’t much free wireless anywhere.”
While the phenomenon might be expected in less-served rural areas, it’s been happening downtown and in suburban areas, too.
Now, the library is working to expand the wireless information system that, for many, has become an essential part of daily life – though it’s one many cannot afford in their homes.
Already, the Richland Library sends its signal to the plaza outside the nearby Columbia Museum of Art, where downtown residents and workers on break can tap in to free internet to check email, look up information – even check library services, if they’d like.
Access to the internet is a logical service for the library to provide, Mozingo said.
“We know people come to the libraries for computers,” she said, “and we know there’s still a huge digital divide in our community.”
State government supplies public libraries with internet service, and the main library downtown can use its wireless connections to funnel the service to other sites, which include its 10 branches and the museum plaza. Mozingo said there are plans to expand free wi-fi access to other sites, though she would not discuss locations other than to say, “We want to be where people are.”
Meanwhile, a new group called Connect S.C. is beginning a campaign to educate residents about the benefits of internet service.
“What we find in South Carolina is there are a lot of folks who don’t see relevancy in the internet,” state program manager Heather Jones said. “They don’t see why there’s a benefit to them personally and to their family to pay for that service.”
But so much of today’s world is moving toward an electronic format, Jones said, that internet access has become critical to educating children, staying involved in civic life, connecting with job opportunities – even getting medical care and paying monthly bills.
While some remain unconvinced that internet service is necessary, others can’t afford it or find service lacking, especially in rural areas.
Time Warner Cable has a broadband system available to roughly 85 percent of households in Richland County, spokesman Scott Przwansky said. Internet service also is available through satellite, cell phone plans and prepaid wi-fi cards, which serve as personal, mobile hot spots.
Considering all methods, 99 percent of South Carolinians have access to the internet, according to Connected Nation, the national group that oversees Connect S.C. It’s just a matter of whether they want to pay for it.
Home internet service costs an average of $50.49 a month in Richland County, slightly more than the state average of $47.93, according to numbers provided by Connected Nation.
The organization has established programs for the poor, who are eligible for low-cost internet service and refurbished computers.
As it stands, Jones said, it’s pretty common for people to access the internet through what she calls “community anchor institutions” like schools, libraries and government buildings.
Dee Robinson, manager of the Eastover Library, said she gets lots of questions about internet service.
“When people move into the area, they visit the library and that’s one of the first questions they ask is, how can they get internet service; who is the provider?” she said. “Time Warner is here, but not covering the entire area. There is a satellite service, but it’s spotty as well.”
Charles Carter, who lives in Gadsden and is producing a quarterly journal on small towns, has internet access at home using a wi-fi card. It doesn’t respond quickly. He sees a big improvement when he logs on at the library.
Carter said he’s interested in forming a group to press for better service in Lower Richland.
“It’s very slow, the internet where we are. They say it’s the trees around us. I don’t know what it is.”
While internet cost, speed and access are issues in rural areas, library patrons in the suburbs and in downtown Columbia find the free wi-fi outside their local libraries just as attractive.
“The covered parking area here is the coveted after-hours wi-fi spot because it’s shielded from the rain and the sun, and it’s close to the building so you can get a good signal,” said Sarah Maner, who manages the Southeast Library.
“It’s kind of a popular lunch spot,” she continued. “People will sit in their car and eat a sandwich” while checking email or using the internet.
In Shandon, people walk outside the Wheatley branch when the library closes in the evenings. They may sit on a bench just outside to continue their internet work on a phone or laptop, said manager Heather Green.
The same thing happens at other branches, from Ballentine to Forest Acres.
“I’ve seen people sit in the pitch-black dark out there and use it,” Green said.
Access for low-income residents
The internet advocacy group Connected Nation is promoting efforts to expand access to low-income Americans, who may be eligible for low monthly internet charges or refurbished computers.
For more information, call (800) 887-3162 or see these websites:
How common is internet service at home?
Sixty-six percent of South Carolinians have broadband service at home, compared with 70 percent of Americans.
Among South Carolinians, the total includes:
36 percent of low-income households
45 percent of low-income households with children
56 percent of rural households
50 percent of African-American households
68 percent of Hispanic households
41 percent of senior citizens
49 percent of disabled residents
SOURCES: Connected Nation, www.connectsc.org
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.