Friday, July 16, 2004

Wi Fi? Why Not?

Wayne State's libraries are adding wi-fi this summer.  Some campus libraries are already on line.  In anticipation of the arrival at Purdy/Kresge, I was curious what other hotspots were in Southeast Michigan.  I looked at several directories of hotspots (none of which was comprehensive) and came to the following preliminary conclusions.
  • There is a crying need for a more searchable, comprehensive list of hotspots.
  • Commercial hotspots far outnumber non-commercial ones.  Whole chains of commercial establishments (e.g., Starbucks, Panera, Borders, Kinko's and lots of hotel chains) routinely include hotspots, usually for a fee.
  • Most commercial hotspots cost money to access.  Panera (free) may be the exception for now; it currently costs $2.99 to access T-mobile in Starbucks for 1 hour, $9.99 for a day, or $29.99 for a month (that's a lot of lattes).
  • Very few listed hotspots are in libraries.  One wi-fi directory, JiWire, lists 15, 342 hotspots in the United States, of which 256 are in Michigan.  Of these, only 466 of the U.S. entries were libraries, 9 in Michigan (none were listed for Wayne State).  Two possible interpretations of these library statistics:  1) libraries that have hotspots aren't getting the word out to wi-fi directories (e.g., Wayne State?); 2) not many libraries offer wi-fi.  While publicizing/advertising is something libraries generally don't like to do (or are not good at), people looking for a hotspot are not going to automatically sniff out the library's connection (or appreciate its purist intentions).
  • Most libraries that were listed offered free access (no surprise there).  Wi-Fi-Freespot specializes in listing free hotspots, of all kinds.

Given the consumer economics of the wi-fi-hotspot, it appears libraries may be missing an opportunity to reach a vital segment of the populace, at least vital to the economic health of libraries.  The logic goes something like this:

  • Wi-fi hotspots are accessed by people with portable, wi-fi enabled devices.
  • Wi-fi devices are relatively expensive (i.e., not everyone can afford them yet).
  • Wi-fi commercial access is expensive to the consumer.
  • Wi-fi library access is (usually) free to the consumer.
  • Consumers prefer to pay less.
  • Hence, consumers with wireless devices would prefer free access, like that offered in libraries.

Hang on, here's the kicker...

  • Offering wi-fi access would attract users of wi-fi devices. (If you build it, they will come).
  • These users presumably are more well-off than the average patron (by virtue of owning relatively expensive devices).
  • Therefore, libraries would attract more well-off patrons, while still providing services to the rest of the patron base.  These new patrons may be important constituencies for future millage increases, fund raising and political support.  And just like the commercial enterprises offering wi-fi, libraries may reasonably hope to "sell" these new patrons other services, once they're (literally) in the building.
  • CONCLUSIONWi-fi is good for libraries and patrons.

I don't have hard evidence for all these points, but I don't think the argument is at all far-fetched.  Creating an information environment that is valued by all segments of the community can only serve to strengthen the library's standing in its community.  And hopefully help fill its purse.