Public libraries top public Wi-Fi spot for African Americans, Latinos

A first-of-its-kind survey (pdf) finds that public libraries are the most common public Wi-Fi access point for African Americans and Latinos—with roughly one-third of these communities using public library Wi-Fi. This is true for 23 percent of white people, who list school as their top public Wi-Fi spot.

The study of Wi-Fi usage patterns by John Horrigan and Jason Llorenz for WifiForward also finds that communities of color are more likely to use Wi-Fi networks in public places, use them more often, and report greater positive impacts of Internet use than their white counterparts. A majority of all online users have at some point used Wi-Fi networks in public places.

The new report also shows that Wi-Fi boosts how people view the Internet’s benefits. Across all racial and ethnic categories, users of public Wi-Fi networks reported higher levels of satisfaction with how the Internet impacts their lives. African Americans and Latinos are more likely to report that the Internet—in general—has a beneficial impact on education, saving time and searching for jobs. This pattern holds when examining Wi-Fi users.

Clearly, library Wi-Fi is no longer ‘nice to have.’ It is essential to support The E’s of Libraries™—Education, Employment, Entrepreneurship, Empowerment and Engagement—in cities and towns nationwide. In fact, the latest data from the Digital Inclusion Survey finds that virtually all (98%) public libraries now offer Wi-Fi, up from 18 percent a decade ago. By offering free public access to the Internet via wireless connections, libraries serve as community technology hubs that enable digital opportunity and full participation in the nation’s economy.

The survey finds there is strong support for investing in wireless networks. Two-thirds of people, for instance, think improving Wi-Fi at libraries and schools would be a good thing. The overwhelmingly highest response, though, to a question about what stakeholders could do to improve the internet was to make it easier to make sure their personal information is secure. Both findings have relevance for libraries as new funding is now available through the E-rate program to improve library and school Wi-Fi access, and digital literacy training clearly demands attention to data privacy and security concerns.

Patrons using Wi-Fi at the MLK Digital Commons in Washington D.C.

Patrons using Wi-Fi at the MLK Digital Commons in Washington D.C.

The findings highlight the importance of improving the environment for wireless internet use, including making more Wi-Fi spectrum available—and sharing what we already have—at low, medium and high spectrum bands because each band offers different opportunities for Wi-Fi. As a founding member of WiFiForward, ALA actively advocates for ensuring adequate unlicensed spectrum to support the next-generation of technologies needed for our libraries and communities. Wi-Fi contributes close to $100 billion each year to the U.S. economy, and libraries depend on unlicensed spectrum to support everything from self-checkout and circulation systems to mobile learning labs.

Library broadband and Wi-Fi access are clearly part of the solution in narrowing the Digital Divide that still exists for many people and for supporting the full range of modern library services. We’d love to hear how your library Wi-Fi is making a difference in your community or on your campus, if you’d like share in the comments section.

About Larra Clark

As Deputy Director of the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP), Larra’s responsibilities include overall management of OITP’s telecommunications portfolio and day-to-day management of America’s Libraries for the 21st Century (AL21C) projects and those in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Previously, she served as the project manager in the ALA Office for Research & Statistics for three years.


  1. And many in our communities still depend on library desktop computers for access to the internet.

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