- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The recent King Day holiday gave Anita Johnson a chance to complete a 10-page research paper for an online business class.

But Johnson doesn’t have internet service at home, and the library was closed.

So to do her research, she parked along Main Street in Eastover with a laptop, taking advantage of the free wi-fi service that extends beyond the walls of the town’s branch of Richland Library.

“Everything’s online for me, so I need access to the internet,” said Johnson, who cancelled the data plan on her phone long ago because she said her bill had reached $300 a month.

Once Richland County’s library system began providing free internet access, librarians noticed patrons using the service before and after business hours - while sitting outside on patios or huddled inside their cars.

“The demand was incredible,” library spokeswoman Padgett Mozingo said. “Three or four years ago, there wasn’t much free wireless anywhere.”

While the phenomenon might be expected in less-served rural areas, it’s been happening downtown and in suburban areas, too.

Now, the library is working to expand the wireless information system that, for many, has become an essential part of daily life - though it’s one many cannot afford in their homes.

Already, the Richland Library sends its signal to the plaza outside the nearby Columbia Museum of Art, where downtown residents and workers on break can tap in to free internet to check email, look up information - even check library services, if they’d like.

Access to the internet is a logical service for the library to provide, Mozingo said.

“We know people come to the libraries for computers,” she said, “and we know there’s still a huge digital divide in our community.”

State government supplies public libraries with internet service, and the main library downtown can use its wireless connections to funnel the service to other sites, which include its 10 branches and the museum plaza. Mozingo said there are plans to expand free wi-fi access to other sites, though she would not discuss locations other than to say, “We want to be where people are.”

Meanwhile, a new group called Connect S.C. is beginning a campaign to educate residents about the benefits of internet service.

“What we find in South Carolina is there are a lot of folks who don’t see relevancy in the internet,” state program manager Heather Jones said. “They don’t see why there’s a benefit to them personally and to their family to pay for that service.”

But so much of today’s world is moving toward an electronic format, Jones said, that internet access has become critical to educating children, staying involved in civic life, connecting with job opportunities - even getting medical care and paying monthly bills.

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