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The Internet remains difficult to access for many Orange County residents, including students in low-income neighborhoods – but a new, controversial initiative could be a small step towards bridging that digital divide.
Residents could soon have more free internet hotspots to be able to check out at county-run libraries, after OC supervisors accepted a donation over the objections of public commenters who raised concerns about the group that would be providing the service.
In many neighborhoods of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Westminster and Buena Park, more than 15 percent of households have no internet access at all, according to Census data mapped out in the county’s new OC Equity Map.
Under the internet initiative, each of the county’s 32 libraries will receive one to four extra hotspots, on top of their existing hotspots – for a total of 6 to 11 hotspots available for checkout at each library, library officials said in response to Voice of OC’s questions.
On top of those 100 hotspots, another 150 hotspots will be split between two mobile library vehicles that go out into the community, said David Lopez, a spokesman for the county library system, known as OC Public Libraries.
“All hotspots will be available to anyone with an [OC Public Libraries] card on a first come, first served basis,” Lopez said.
The mobile libraries will also be getting 10 Chromebooks each for check-out to county library card holders, he added.
“We are still awaiting delivery of the devices, but plan to have them out by August 2nd,” Lopez said.
Controversy surrounded the hotspot donation when it came up for approval earlier this month, with several residents questioning the service provider’s alleged political ties to left-leaning groups.
All nine speakers on the item raised concerns about Voqal, which oversees the nonprofit group that would provide the hotspot data service. It would be funded by federal CARES Act coronavirus recovery dollars.
“Go look at the company that is being funded by left extremist groups that want to destroy our society. Every single one of them has a worldwide agenda,” one speaker said.
“You’re going to take an app that definitely restricts conservative thought, you’re going to embed that at a library where I hang out,” said another.
County officials say the donors will have no say over what people can and can’t see through the hotspots.
“The funding agency has no control or influence over the content hotspot users will be able to access while they use the device,” Lopez told Voice of OC.
No one answered Voqal’s main phone number when a reporter called last week, and there was no option to leave a voicemail.
Voqal spokesman Jered Weber didn’t return a phone call and message left on his direct phone number.
“These hotspots are desperately needed in some of our disadvantaged neighborhoods, so that students can get tutoring and they can do their homework.”Supervisor Katrina Foley said when the item came up for approval this month
Dylan Wright, who oversees the library system, said there is no app associated with the hotspots.
“The [internet access] will be subject to the library’s internet policies, Children’s Internet Protection Act, and Library Services Technology Act,” Wright said.
Another supervisor questioned if staff have been doing enough vetting of donors, and that the speakers raised a legitimate issue.
“There is a different issue that was raised by the commentators … [a] legitimate issue, with respect to funding [from] an organization who in one sense provides a service, in the other sense has a political agenda that is out of step with certain members of our community,” said Supervisor Don Wagner.
He questioned if the county should be doing business with such a group and if county staff properly vetted the group.
County staff said they did not check the political affiliations of the service provider.
“We looked at their ability to provide WiFi according to our rules. And we did not look at their political background,” said County Librarian Julie Quillman.
Wagner asked his fellow supervisors to delay the item to their July 27 meeting to do more due diligence, but didn’t have enough support on it.
The contracts were approved on a 3-to-2 vote, with Wagner and Supervisor Lisa Bartlett opposing.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.