One of the stumbling blocks to bringing affordable Internet access to underserved people in Waukegan is soon made easier by ConnectWaukegan and one of its community partners, the Waukegan Public Library.
After receiving a $360,000 grant last year to purchase 450 electronic devices under the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure act of 2021, the library and ConnectWaukegan are working together to get them into their hands to give to qualified persons.
While ConnectWaukegan helps people gain access to the Internet, Elizabeth Ramirez, a digital navigator for the organization, said helping those people get an electronic device to navigate cyberspace is a separate challenge.
Ramirez said few people in the area can use the $100 credit provided by the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) to buy a device, despite being entitled to low-cost or potentially free internet service. You are legally entitled to a monthly credit of $30.
“It’s a big step,” Ramirez said. “Affordable service plays a big part, but it goes beyond that. If they need a device, they must purchase it from their ISP to use the $100 credit. Most of the people we help use AT&T or Xfinity and they don’t take credit for it.”
New ACP participants in Waukegan can now purchase one of the free devices after working with a ConnectWaukegan representative to contract for Internet access to help them with education, healthcare, job seeking, or a variety of other uses.
Tiffany Verzani, executive director of the library, said the mix of devices includes 150 Chromebooks, 150 tablets and 150 laptops that are being prepared for use by the library’s technology staff. She expects them to be ready in the next few weeks.
Verzani said the library will keep 60 for library cardholders to check out for a three-week period. You can also take one of the library’s hotspots home to get on the internet. The rest of the computers are sold through ConnectWaukegan.
“This is a great opportunity to help one of our agency partners bring these devices to the community,” said Verzani. “This will help support our education department to support the community.”
Isaac Salgado, the library’s IT manager, said his department is preparing the 60 devices that the library will be lending so people can start borrowing them. Unlike books, films, and other items that the library borrows, Verzani said the equipment borrower must be at least 18 years old.
Those wishing to use the ACP with or without the free device can first visit Ramirez or other ConnectWaukegan staff during the regular hours they have at the library. You will find out if they are eligible and how to participate.
Ramirez said anyone receiving any form of government assistance — like Medicaid, Social Security through a disability, food assistance; or has a student on a free school lunch program or is below 200% of the federal poverty line – may qualify. All families in Waukegan Community Unit School District 60 participate in the free lunch program.
An individual with an annual income of less than $27,180, a couple with an annual income of less than $36,626, or a family of four with an annual income of $55,500 are eligible. Ramirez begins by speaking to each person to familiarize them with the process. She also lets them know how access can make their daily lives easier.
“We will assess their need for the device through the ACP,” she said. “We fill out the ACP application and find the provider of your choice. We help them through the whole process and help them communicate with the provider.”
While Ramirez said she doesn’t know at this point if 390 devices will be enough to meet the community’s needs, ConnectWaukegan will evaluate the program as it develops and determine what may still need to be done.
ConnectWaukegan has a representative in the library on Mondays from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. On Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., someone from the organization is also there
Verzani said the library also offers free classes to help people develop their digital skills.