The pandemic has been hard for Alison Velez Lane.
Her parents’ passing and the resulting family confusion left the 59-year-old, not-currently-practicing attorney without broadband internet or a laptop throughout the pandemic. But for three months, she was able to get connected through the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s long-term digital literacy and laptop loan program, called the Chromebook Cohort.
Lane’s is among the 96,000 households in Baltimore that, according to an Abell Foundation report, lack a wired internet connection. When she’s not using the resources of the Baltimore public library system, her mobile phone or tablet is her primary device, and a data plan through T-Mobile is her primary internet provider.
The Enoch Pratt Free Library offered a stopgap, providing the opportunity to use a laptop and have internet with more consistent speeds.
The Chromebook Cohort provides eligible library-goers with three-month Chromebook loans, Wi-Fi hotspots, and a peer group led by a library staff that offer digital literacy skills training to help members reach their career or education goals.
“It doesn’t just give you the device, it gives you ways to use the device,” Lane said of the program. “Most people I know, they need training on how to use a device, training on how to use the programs. It’s more than just getting a device. You also need advice.”
When Lane’s parents passed, she was living with her siblings as they settled the estate, and the decision was made that internet wasn’t needed for the household — it was an unnecessary expense.
The rationale is common.
According to the Abell Foundation report, 66.2% of low-income Baltimoreans (those whose annual household incomes are less than $25,000) don’t have home wireline service. Before the pandemic, the internet was something that families chose to do without if costs had to be cut.
Today, internet is a necessity, with the rise of remote work causing a trickle down effect of fewer service jobs, telehealth becoming a primary method for checkups, and schools increasingly using technology as an integral part of the learning experience.
“We see how many people show up to our branches that specifically need the access to computers,” Meghan McCorkell, director of marketing and communications for the library system. “And more than that, they need the one-on-one support of someone that can walk them through whether they need help with social services, making an email address, how to log in into social media.”
The program doubles as a pilot for the digital navigators position pitched in the library system’s recently-submitted proposal for American Rescue Plan Act funds. This planned initative aims to turn the digital skills support professional role in the cohort into a dedicated position at all Enoch Pratt branches, and in turn make this resource available to all library-goers.
"It's more than just getting a device. You also need advice."
Such positions could help provide information, as well as connectivity. Before our conversation, Lane was unaware that Comcast’s Internet Essentials was available for $9.95 a month. She was aware of the federal government’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, but wasn’t sure what it entailed or how to apply. This reporter did what a future digital navigator at Enoch Pratt would do, and made her aware of resources like PCs for People to get a laptop and how the Emergency Broadband Benefit can help pay for a device and internet service.
Lane’s time with the Chromebook Cohort was for three months, from March until July of 2021. She still regularly checks out hotspots from the library, which were recently upgraded to unlimited data. As a stroke survivor, she does her physical therapy and manages her doctors’ appointments online while also trying to jumpstart her own political consultancy business, The Campaign Train Group.
“I manage a lot of my life through my phone,” said Lane. “I’ve had to figure out a lot of different strategies for doing things and figure out a lot of platforms. Since I like it, it’s easy for me, but I can imagine how frustrating it is for other people.”
One of Lane’s main strategies is booking a hotel for a stable internet connection. When she was being inducted into The Daily Record’s 2021 Top 100 Women awards, the large Zoom call meant the bandwidth was too much for a cell phone data plan connection. She kept dropping out of the call during the awards ceremony. In frustration, she booked a hotel room.
The Chromebook Cohort was a place of consistent support, and offered long term access to a laptop as she tried to navigate the new ways technology intersects with her life.
It speaks to the overarching goal of the program: “To try and help even more people not just with access to technology but with their education and knowledge around that technology,” McCorkell said. “We really feel the Pratt library is the community anchor for digital equity.”
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.