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.

Tom Belford

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14 Comments

  1. Hang on. Doesn’t the council provide free access to education sites, employment, research,government and news sites? That’s fantastic! Good on you HDC. I’m all for that but I would question providing free access to the rest of the social media crap on the internet at a cost to the general ratepayer. And in competition with legitimate internet cafe businesses. As for the computer literacy argument that just doesn’t hold up these days. I would suggest that computer literacy levels have improved markedly at the cost of numerical and reading literacy, particularly in areas like Flaxmere.

  2. It seems that the $1 charge is not a deterrent as the numbers have gone up – if through necessity it shows there is a demand. Couldn’t the revenue raised go towards installing more computers in library’s which by all accounts are a COST to Council.
    A $1 for use is affordable to all – even Maori in Flaxmere – who by the way do not always appreciate being relegated to the free/hand-out/can’t help themselves basket!
    What would be interesting would be to see what is being accessed on the Internet by everyone using the library’s computers. That would go a long way to knowing what the real demand is. Research possibly, social sites probably, downloading information of all types, and so on. I doubt its for reading books online.
    I understand most library’s run at a loss & if we want to hold onto these assets and bastions of knowledge we need to be realistic. Use the funds to provide more computers & continue to charge this low rate to cover, maintenance, upgrades etc.

  3. A good point to consider. However before HDC is asked to provide more and extra in the community provision sector work should be done in ensuring a fairer method of funding for the the services provided.

  4. Yeah I don’t like censorship either.
    I would like to finish my comments before I am accused of duplicating an earlier comment. Taking a pause is not a bad thing when writing. It usually means that you are still thinking on the topic. Something to be promoted I would have thought.
    Back to the earlier discussion. Many would be better off not paying for the library or any other community service and going to a user pays system.

  5. Wow. The picture is actually so much bigger than free internet access at our public libraries. The real issue is that the digital and technological world is fast evolving and we must keep up or we will get left behind in the dust.

    Digital technology is a major factor in economic and social growth. Internet, within this, affects so many spheres of society. Other cities in NZ and over the world have recognised this and are all over it. Digital Industry Forums have been established in other regions that bring together major industry players and experts with the aim of collaborating, networking, sharing knowledge and ideas and resources in order to transform and accelerate the region’s digital industry over the longer term. I’m unaware of one of these for our district, but perhaps I could be wrong. If not then we need one, and fast. Such forum will help us keep abreast with digital issues and their impact upon people and region in a fast paced industry.

    We are missing out on opportunities. Restricted access and capability does not cut it today. For a region that struggles with employment and business statistics in the offline world we should be encouraging online initiatives. Look at the success of online auction Trademe and online Bookstore Fishpond as but two examples of probably millions of online businesses worldwide. With the internet we’re not restricted by geographical boundaries. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars has been thrown in the past at marketing our region to toursits and visitors. What’s the point though if when they get here they’re left with a bad taste in their mouth because we charge them astronomical amounts for internet use at a hotel to email their friends and family back home and charge also at our libraries when this service is provided free all around other places in NZ. Not to mention the opportunities for individual everyday users, like isolated senior citizens who find a whole new world of interaction and friendship, like certain disabled and disadvantaged who find solace online, and like our thousands of youth that need more than half an hour on internet access a day for daily homwork requirements that often stretch up to 3 hours a night. The examples could go on and on. We must support this industry.

    In the meantime I’m seeking free internet access at our libraries which in my opinion should have been instituted yesterday and is an extremely important foundation stepping stone for our community. 120 other libraries around NZ think so and have already jumped on board with 75% of the costs being provided by a supportive central government. Other cities are taking up the governments offer of this fund paid by all tax payers for the benefit of their respective communities and people. Hastings is invited to join. The cost contribution would be around $16k for 2011 after subsidy to ensure that all people in our district have access to what so many view as an ever increasing necessity to function adequately in today’s world. In relation to what is spent on other superfluous things in our district as well as the benefits, the price is tiny – ridiculously almost. I mean c’mon, as I believe there’s around $15,000 in this budget to spend on CBD decorational fairy lights!

    p.s – this is not just a Flaxmere issue (free internet). I speak for this need across the district. According to Statistics NZ 2009 figures, 45% of Hawkes Bay homes do not have internet access. On average that equates to around 31,500 people in the Hastings District. Flaxmere only has around 10,000 people, therefore even if all homes out here had no net that would still leave 20,000+ or the vast majority of internetless people as coming from Hastings, Havelock North and other peripheries.

    For more info on topic:
    http://www.conference.co.nz/lgnz11/programme/guest_speakers#hamiltoncity

    http://www.aotearoapeoplesnetwork.org/

  6. An excellent article BayBuzz. Come on Hastings how are we going to encourage computer literacy in the community with this sort of attitude. It seems such a small price to pay to provide everyone access to the benefits of communication technology. Like it or not it's here to stay and if we don't help our community to use it it'll not only stifle their opportunity but the region's too.

  7. There are a number of forward thinking towns across the States and Europe who have included free high-speed internet access within the basic municipal charges (rates) which has resulted in many of these smaller towns reversing the trend of populations moving to larger cities.

    As there appears to be a significant move of people leaving Hawke's Bay at present (just count the "owner leaving" captions in the property press) and the medium term prognosis of the region having an old and declining population I would think that anything that changes the game locally to make life easier and more empowering for our citizens would be a good start.

    Lawrence Yule is right – it is bigger than free access at a library – it is part of what it takes to compete and thrive in an internet age!

  8. "HDC doesn’t subsidise my Sky TV, said one Councillor, why should it subsidise someone else’s internet access?"

    Every book, every magazine, every newspaper in the libraries is subsidising someone … if you are foolish enough to think in those terms.

    Are they subsidising motorcyclists, pilots, photographers, gardeners, genealogists, etc with their special interest magazines and books?

    There are even Born-again Christian pornographic violent comics, ostensibly to encourage the reading habits of … well I shudder to think, but they're there (… oh alright … ISBN's 1401218318, 1401213014, 1401210651, & 1401214940 … if you really must go and check).

    Why the hypocrisy of tagging them for 'mature readers' is beyond me, incidentally, as they are obviously aimed at teenagers and, being comics, can hardly be for those who have been reading for a considerable time … but I digress.

    But while I am on the topic of 'subsidising', why is it not appropriate to 'subsidise poor people' with ‘free internet’ at the library, while 100m away it is ok to 'subsidise the rich people' who can afford a motorhome, by giving them a free overnight camping ground in the council car park opposite the old Court House. Was any Resource Consent required or given when the Council designated the car park a 'camping ground'?

    Could it be that a councillor is an active motor-homer and wanted to help his mates out … while the Council camp ground business was sold off to private enterprise because the Council couldn't make it pay?

    McDonalds have free WiFi in their establishments (which might make a bit of a dent in the Havelock Nth Library's internet income when the new one there opens).

    McDonalds may be all sorts of things, but they are not stupid. A 'BigMac' is even used as reliable unit of international exchange by 'The Economist' ( http://www.economist.com/markets/Bigmac/Index.cfm )

    If McDonalds use free WiFi to get 'bums on seats' we can be fairly sure it works.

    I guess it all comes back to whether the councillors see libraries as a tiresome PR exercise to express their notional concern for 'the poor people', or whether they actually understand what a library is and want to ‘get more bums on seats’.

    I tend towards the 'lack of understanding' model myself. I can't think of any other reason why the Council hierarchy imposed on the libraries those huge great expensive flat screen TV's exactly where no one can watch them. The librarians certainly didn't want them.

    Before the councillors debate again on this topic I'd like to set them each a little task to determine whether they have the skills and experience to qualify them for the task.

    Can they each go onto the internet, access their library account, and come back here to this debate and inform us how many books they have borrowed from the library in the past five years.

    If they can't do that one can but infer "… they do not understand either what they are talking about or the things about which they speak so confidently".

    But they can have a consolation 'research brownie point' if they can source the above quote … Googling it should do it… you know …. Googling ….?

  9. Good article Tom and some useful comments. I'm not entirely clear whether the cost to ratepayer would be $51,324 you mention or the 16K Jacoby Poulain mentions.

    In any case if 31,000 people in our district don't have internet access in their homes its aconcern, our councillors should be able to find 51K to pay for it…… or is it just not seen as a priority like;

    fairy lights,

    oversize new road signs ( eg, Tukituki Rd from Haumoana turn off to Raymond road)

    Roadside Water conservation signs… I'm not against H20 conservation but they're unreadible if you're driving.

    Enough criticism…… As Shaun Lines suggests above how about HDC investigates provision of Internet service with rates.

    I wrote in response to a Rod Drury thing you ran in 2009 ' ..there was an interesting story on the radio a couple of months ago. The council, in Hawera I think it was, are proposing to buy bulk and supply decent broadband to its ratepayers for something like $100 added to their rates….."

    Has HDC looked into the viability of this?

  10. For clarification, the 16k I refer to is the cost Hastings would need to contribute to ensure free internet access across the district in 2011 (this is if we partner with central government who provides the rest of the costs). The 51k Tom refers to is the amount of revenue that would be lost from charging for internet use. So arguably the real cost is the two combined, nevertheless still a small cost in my opinion compared to the social cost of not having the service which should be taken into account as well as in relation to other spending in our district.

  11. It's not clear from the debate so far whether the proposal is to make the currently available computers free to users, or to make available power-points (no, not 'PowerPoints' .. real ones … with electricity) and free WiFi, as is the case in other libraries such as the Christchurch libraries.

    If the free WiFi option were to be implemented and left on, then we could have library usage outside normal library hours.

    Students could sit outside on a nice day scanning library databases from their school laptops for projects with nary a wage bill. A sight to gladden the bureaucratic eye.

    As more grist to the 'subsidy' mill, my enquiries suggest that the 'income' from computer use probably covers the 'expense' of library purchase of newspapers and periodicals. Are the computer users 'subsidising' the newspaper readers?

    Interestingly, the figure for library purchase of newspapers is equal to the net HDC cost of free district wide internet Jacoby is quoting. Now who can argue about the desirability of libraries having newspapers. It's desirable, it's traditional even.

    But where in any of the HDC libraries can I see today's copy of The Guardian, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Der Spiegel, etc

    Or hear any of the live and podcast broadcasts available form BBC, Al Jazeera to note but two. I recently downloaded all 100 of the BBC's "History of the World in 100 Objects". It saved me setting the alarm clock for 3.30am and I can listen when I wish.

    It does raise the point that, given the ephemeral nature of periodicals, perhaps there is a case to review subscriptions to offset making similar but more recent information of a broader scope available online.

    So far no councillor has managed to complete to the 'library usage' challenge. Keep trying, people! SeniorNet is available to help you with the twiddly bits if needed.

    'You show me yours and I'll show you mine….. '

    Now, here’s my internet proposal, how about streaming HDC council meetings live online so that we who cannot physically be present can keep a weather eye on the group wisdom of our elected representatives.

    Expense could be minimal. I’d wager the technology is already in place. Maybe even a webcam or two so we can see who is sleeping.

    I’ll forgo the tea and biccie I can get if I show up in person in exchange for being able to tune in on line.

    Comments, Tom or Jacoby?

  12. As an afterthought, if the streamed broadcasts of HDC meetings were to be stored as podcasts they would be a valuable historical asset for posterity.

    In honour of the present incumbent I suggest this could be known as 'The Yule Log'.

    Rise to the challenge, Lawrence.

    Put this in place and I will supply the Mayoral Webcam as an expression of my civic commitment.

    Blimey, that sounds pompous. Maybe I should stand for council … No offense intended :)

  13. Hi Richard,

    I actually think that we will in the future see online meetings from Councils and other authorities around NZ and the world broadcast and archived – like "virtual" minutes.

    In regards to your first paragraph questions about whether the proposal involved the current computers and/or power points and Wi-Fi – it was in regards to the current PC's in particular though personally I believe all these issues need to be addressed in the future.

    Perhaps these progressions may be a tad premature for Hastings though, we'll see.

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