Federal budget cuts could spell “Out of Order” signs for the Houston library’s public-access computers.
For now, librarian Toni McKilligan says the five public computers are working well. All are less than three years old, she said, and the library just updated their Microsoft Office software.
But since Industry Canada cancelled its public computer funding on March 31, those computers are at risk of breakdown.
“A few years ago, we lost all our technology funding from the province as well,” McKilligan said. “So if a computer or a printer or anything breaks down, we have to figure out where to get the money to fix it or replace it.”
Starting in 1995, Industry Canada funded public computers at libraries and community centres across Canada as a way to bring high-speed internet access to people living in rural areas or on low incomes.
On April 5, the federal agency said it was pulling the plug on its public computer because of a tight budget year and because the program “had successfully achieved its objectives.”
But McKilligan said the Houston library’s computers are still in demand, adding that it’s not uncommon to have a waiting list, especially just after school.
“Probably the largest group that is served by it is youth who don’t have computers at home,” she said.
Students often use the computers to do work-related tests or short courses, she said, such as the online Food Safe exam required for restaurant workers.
Many rural residents also use the computers to get the high-speed internet access they can’t get at home, said McKilligan. Other residents come in because their home computer isn’t hooked up to a printer.
Treena Decker, who works at Community Futures in Prince Rupert, was responsible for distributing about $100,000 in annual public computer funding from Industry Canada to 27 sites in northwest B.C. Seven of those sites are in public libraries, while the rest are in community centres or band council buildings.
“When you break it down to roughly $3,400 per site, that’s a lot of bang for the government buck,” said Decker.
A lot of the Industry Canada funding went directly to hardware and software, Decker said, “But a lot of times it was internet connectivity, which is a huge cost up here in the north.”
In Una River, a tiny coastal community, Decker said the funding was used to set up a public wi-fi network. Other sites used the funding to put up secondary radio towers to boost their internet speeds.
Decker said it’s too early to say whether other governments or funding bodies might step in to continue the program, but she noted that governments are facing tight budgets right now and public computers may not be their top priority.
Decker also said she hopes the federal government changes its mind about the cuts before the budget is finalized in June.
“If enough people say yes, this is important, the government may reconsider,” she said.
According to the latest Statistics Canada survey on internet use, 84 per cent of B.C. households had home internet access in 2010, a rate that is higher in major cities.
Among the roughly 20 per cent of Canadian households who do not have internet access at home, more than half said they had no need or interest in it.
The same survey showed that households with a combined income of $30,000 or less, just 54 per cent of people had home internet access.