On Tuesday the Hastings District Council re-considered its policy of charging for internet use at Hastings public libraries.
Currently the policy is to charge $1 per 15 minutes, unless the user is undertaking education-related work, research, job searches, or accessing government or news sites … these uses are free. ‘Free’ specifically excludes use of email, social net sites like Facebook, TradeMe and general surfing.
This system generated $51,324 in revenue for Hastings libraries in 2009/10, up from $8,133 in 2004/05.
With a veritable money machine at hand, HDC seems reluctant to give up the income, as opposed to — as championed by Councillor Jacoby Poulain — providing universal free access in order to help promote a computer/internet literate and empowered community. Of course Poulain’s main concern is facilitating internet access for low income members of the community, who simply cannot afford computers or broadband monthly fees (which, from Telecom, start at $78/month).
Attesting to the demand for internet access amongst lower income residents, it noteworthy that by far the greatest growth in HDC’s internet fee revenue has come from the Flaxmere Library, this revenue has increased thirty times since 2004/05. Flaxmere accounts for 25% of HDC’s internet revenue, as compared to, say, Havelock North’s 12%.
If there were ever an investment in social well-being for Hastings residents that was worth its weight in gold, providing free internet access at libraries would seem to be a leading contender. Today, 120 public libraries around NZ participate in a national program through which they do provide free internet access.
One might argue that information in library books is provided to the community for free … why not information provided online (which indeed probably costs HDC less to deliver)? Float the idea of charging rental fees for books (excluding research and self-help books, of course), and see how far that concept flies!
But the issue was too philosophically and operationally vexing for Councillors to deal with. So, you guessed it, they voted to retain the status quo and to consider any possible changes in policy at a future workshop (i.e., behind closed doors). Given the level of debate that occurred in open session, one can only be terrified thinking about the arguments against such a ‘subsidy’ that will be made in private discussion!
The chief argument against liberalising access was pretty much this: The great unwashed (and let’s be frank, speakers had Flaxmere Maori in mind) make their own lifestyle choices, and if this includes buying Sky TV rather than computers and internet access, that’s their choice to make. HDC doesn’t subsidise my Sky TV, said one Councillor, why should it subsidise someone else’s internet access?
WOW … I don’t know where to begin with that one! Recall: a few days ago we were told (to justify fluoridation) these same people couldn’t afford toothpaste. How could they afford computers and broadband?
No wonder some people argue that public decisions having any future consequence beyond next week should NOT be made by elected officials over age 40!
No wonder it fell to 26-year-old Jacoby Poulain to make the case for free internet access all by her lonesome!
More than any other Councillor, she appreciates that, for upcoming generations, computer literacy and wide-open internet access are as vital to survival as air. But of course they don’t have the ear of HDC. [And, in this instance, bear in mind the complicating factor that most of the over-40 Councillors are ‘technologically challenged’ in the first place!]
Clearly it’s not just the young who use the library service. As I’m usually out and about, I often drop into the Hastings Library during the day to check my email, and the available computers are usually fully utilized, frequently by 2-3 persons huddled around each station … mostly Maori. I suspect that, unlike me, they’re not at a library computer as a matter of convenience in the moment; they’re there as a matter of necessity.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about $51,324 possibly foregone, out of a $3.1 million operating and capital budget for Hastings libraries. The sports park or road crew can blow through 50 grand in a nano-second.
Would that cost grow if access were liberalised (i.e., more computer stations, more free Wi-fi hotspots, reduced or no fees)? I would hope so. Especially if there were evidence of increased usage by young people from low income homes.
This issue needs to be fully ventilated as the next Long Term Plan is developed. And as Mayor Yule noted during the debate, the issue should be examined as much more than library access. Rather, what is the full range of measures that should be considered to help make one of the lowest income regions in New Zealand competitive when it comes to all of its citizens having access to the benefits of communication technology?
Only because the matter does deserve to be examined in this widest context is the Council on reasonable ground in deferring discussion to the LTP process. But that discussion needs to be public when it happens. And some under-40s need to be invited.