Pima County launches 70 free internet hot spots in Tucson area

The Pima County Public Library has partnered with Cox to activate 70 free hot spots across the county, the first of 120 internet access points planned to enhance connectivity across the region.

The first 70 hot spots were activated on June 27, and 50 more are set to launch by mid-July.

The new hot spots are part of the county’s digital access plan with short-term goals to provide readily-available internet service while addressing gaps in digital literacy and long-term plans to expand broadband infrastructure across the county.

The library hopes the free Wi-Fi service will decrease the digital divide by connecting people to other programs that provide more permanent internet services at home, such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounted broadband to low-income households.

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“We’re doing this to help reach those individuals that maybe don’t have a connection in their home and also don’t really know that they can come to the library and get internet,” said Michelle Simon, deputy director of support services for the county’s libraries. “The whole goal with this effort is not to give people free internet access for the rest of their lives. It is to help move them to have affordable internet access in their own homes.”

The library is paying for the program, called “Hotspots around Town,” with $720,448 to be reimbursed by the federal government’s Emergency Connectivity Fund, which came from the American Rescue Plan Act to provide subsidies to schools and libraries for remote learning during the COVID- 19 pandemic.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors approved the contract with Cox on April 5 to fund the hot spot program for three years. The first 70 hot spots already existed for Cox customers to access with their own membership log-ins. Now, anyone can access the internet access points by connecting to the library’s Wi-Fi called “PCPLonTheGo.”

The next 50 hot spots are destined for rural gathering centers such as Canoa Preserve Park in Green Valley and the Three Points Veterans Memorial Neighborhood Park.

Five Boys and Girls Club of Tucson locations will also get internet service, which CEO Denise Watters said will enhance the wide array of programs it provides to youth in addition to serving the surrounding communities.

“We love that we can provide the hot spot because our mission is to be in these neighborhoods where the kids need us the most, and the community and the families that come along with that,” Watters said. “It’s not just the club kids, it’s the families and the community around those clubs that need us as well.”

The county’s plan is to eventually conduct critical infrastructure projects backed by utilities and public safety agencies to expand broadband access across the county by 10% in each district.

For now, the library’s creating a PR campaign to alert community members to the new Wi-Fi services and eventually enable them to receive internet at home.

“(The hot spots) will lead to people engaging with the library where we can help them to connect to resources, the Affordable Connectivity Program, helping them to fill out those applications so that if they qualify for subsidies, not only do they qualify for subsidies for internet service, but potentially a device,” Simon said. “This thing is funded for three years, but we will figure out a way to make it sustainable.”

To view a map of available hot spots across the county, visit: bit.ly/3ae8iCt

Contact reporter Nicole Ludden at nludden@tucson.com

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