DALLAS — On a hot September morning, Victor Moreno and his girlfriend, Cameron Dahlia, drove about 2 miles to the Pleasant Grove Branch Library. The two waited in the parking lot for the building's 10 a.m. opening, to catch some time on the library's internet in the hour and a half of free time they had carved out before work.
The Dallas Morning News reports a couple times a month, Moreno — a full-time construction worker — visits the library to apply for jobs, check his email and peruse college classes. While he pays for internet at his mother's house for his 14-year-old brother, Moreno didn't set up broadband at his own apartment. It was too expensive for him to pay for both.
They weren't alone. Some sat on the benches near the front doors, using the Wi-Fi on their phones without entering the library space. One woman, 28-year-old Nataly Del Toro, said she visits the branch at least three times a week to print out homework materials for her two kids.
Dallas officials have been grappling with the lack of access to internet service in many neighborhoods for years. But to address the disparity, city officials hope to start with libraries. A pilot program set to launch by January would provide hundreds of mobile hot spots that can be checked out like a book or DVD. Patrons with library cards can check out a mobile hot spot device for up to a month.
Dallas would be among a growing number of cities to use public funds to expand internet access. Cities that already offer mobile hot spots through their libraries include Fort Worth, as well as New York City, Chicago and Seattle. The Dallas Independent School District also will provide hot spots to families who don't have internet.
About 45% of households in the Pleasant Grove neighborhood don't have internet access, according to most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Few pockets in Dallas showed higher percentages: The majority of households in areas around Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Lancaster-Kiest didn't have internet. West Dallas estimates were above 45%.
But when city officials planned to set aside $137,000 for Wi-Fi hot spots to be checked out of certain branch libraries, Pleasant Grove was not one of them. City Council member Jaime Resendez wants to change that.
City officials planned for hot spots to be distributed evenly among three libraries: Martin Luther King Jr., Highland Hills and Dallas West. And while Resendez acknowledged lack of internet access in those neighborhoods as well, he said he also thought: "God, they keep overlooking southeast Dallas."
The city used census estimates that reported the households without internet access to research the need and plan out the branch libraries that would receive hot spots. Areas of the city with the largest percentage of households without internet were largely concentrated in West Dallas and southern Dallas, with the largest spot in the southeast.
"There's a huge need. When you look at the map, it's all dark," Resendez said. "It's ridiculous to me."
The District 5 council member this month proposed a change to the city manager's budget that would add $238,000 to the pilot program — which would triple the number of hot spots from around 300 to an estimated 900 devices available to residents.
Jo Giudice, Dallas Public Library director, said plans initially included devices to be distributed evenly in branch libraries that had strong partnerships with community centers, which can help train patrons how to use internet resources.
If council members approve the expansion in the final budget vote on Sept. 18, Giudice said city officials will come together to determine which additional libraries will receive the devices.
"It's going to be some tough decisions," Giudice said. "We want to be as fair and equitable as possible and make sure we're serving the residents with the most need."
The city plans to open the bidding process for the hot spots in October and to roll out the devices by January. The devices will have unlimited data, with certain filters that would block certain content, such as pornography.
City officials said they also needed to balance the wide-ranging need with the goal to keep wait lists short; the fewer devices a library has, the longer the wait list grows — and the less likely someone is to sign up. That's why they planned to have 100 devices per library, Assistant City Manager Joey Zapata said.
"The other libraries that are doing this, as long as you put them out there, they're gone," Zapata said.
For Denisha Moore, news that hot spots could soon come to Highland Hills was welcome. The 29-year-old said she recently quit her job as a social worker because of her rising workload. In the past three weeks, she said she's applied to 200 jobs at the library.
"This is something that's needed," Moore said, adding that she believes the Highland Hills library doesn't receive its fair share of attention or funding compared to other libraries in the area.
Giudice quickly acknowledged the devices won't accomplish her "lofty aspiration" to provide equal access for every resident in the city.
"It's an easy get, but it's not going to solve the problem," Giudice said, pointing to internet providers who haven't built up the same connectivity throughout Dallas. AT&T, for example, provides faster, newer internet in areas with higher property values, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News. Giudice said she wants to test the devices in neighborhoods before rolling them out.
Resendez said he hopes the program will continue to grow if the pilot's successful. He said throughout the budget process, there's been more of a focus on homeowners who don't want to pay more in property taxes than "the people living in poverty who need services."
"Who's advocating for them?" Resendez said.
Moreno said he thinks the hot spots would open opportunities for him, and for others like him who need better internet access in the area. He said he hopes to soon attend some classes at Eastfield College in Pleasant Grove to switch to another industry, such as welding.
Del Toro said children such as her own need reliable access to high-speed internet for their schoolwork. She sees minorities in Pleasant Grove more often struggle to pay for basic services, including broadband internet.
"The kids, they need to have the same stuff and same opportunities," she said. "If you don't have internet, how can you learn at home?"