Internet, computer access limited for some Las Vegas residents

The West Las Vegas Library is filled with customers Thursday night, but there’s hardly a printed page turning.

Most eyes in the building are focused on glowing screens. The phenomenon stretches from near the library’s entrance, where eight adults at a single square table are hunched over laptops and cellphones, back to the youth center, where children are using computers to tackle online homework, watch YouTube and play video games.

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Free high-speed internet and computer access are among the library’s most popular services, computer center department head Lisa Gibson said. Last month alone, more than 4,000 people logged in to the facility’s computers, rivaling the number of books customers checked out.

“From the minute we open until the minute we close, people are walking in and connecting,” Gibson said. “You’ll see people attached to four or five devices while they do their homework. It’s expected.”

While the West Las Vegas Library’s computers are not the most frequently used in the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, newly released federal data show that they are among the most needed.

Residents of the Las Vegas Valley’s urban core are more likely than suburbanites not to have a computer or an internet subscription at home, according to estimates documented in the U.S. Census Bureau’s five-year American Community Survey.

The census estimates that about 1 in 10 households in Clark County doesn’t have a computer or smartphone, and about 1 in 5 households has no internet subscription. Those rates double, and even triple, in the Historic Westside and adjoining downtown neighborhoods.

By and large, the census tracts that make up this urban core have a higher percentage of black residents and lower median household incomes than the county average, according to the census data. Aging houses, apartments and public housing complexes line neighborhood streets.

Residents there risk being left behind in the digital age without regular access to computers and the internet, a tool that many take for granted but is used for everything from job hunting to banking to viewing of government meetings.

On Thursday, 13-year-old public housing resident Christian Bannister relied on a nonprofit tutor’s laptop to write an essay for one of his classes at West Preparatory Academy. The eighth-grader’s family has internet but no computer at home, and Bannister said completing and submitting homework is difficult on his smartphone.

“The keyboard is much smaller, so you’ll make more mistakes,” he said. “The computer is way more accessible.”

And while smartphones mean that families like Bannister’s no longer need a laptop to access the information superhighway, UNLV computer science professor Andreas Stefik said there are undeniable benefits to getting children comfortable using laptops.

“What they’re doing is learning how to manipulate machines, and that’s a skill you can use later in life,” he said.

Margarita Gonzalez used to travel an hour by bus to use the internet.

The single, stay-at-home mom spent years relying on their local library because she could not afford Wi-Fi.

She’s not alone. Census data show that in Clark County there is a strong correlation between household income and whether a family has an internet subscription.

More than 40 percent of households with less than $20,000 in annual income did not have an internet subscription, but that share shrank to 8 percent of households that made $75,000 or more a year.

For Gonzalez, things changed in May 2013, when her family became the first in Las Vegas to sign up for Cox Communications’ Connect2Compete. The program offers at-home internet access for about $10 a month to qualifying families receiving government benefits.

Gonzalez said she’s used the internet to manage Social Security benefits, apply for a housing choice voucher and access her family’s medical records. Cox also gave her a laptop in 2016, and now her son Michael is using web-based software to try his hand at animation.

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“We work with what we have, but having internet is like having everything you didn’t have before,” Gonzalez said. “Having internet is not a luxury anymore. It’s a necessity, like a car and a phone.”

The Connect2Compete program is just one local effort to bridge the digital divide.

In addition to providing on-site access, the West Las Vegas Library began checking out mobile hot spots this year. The Boys &Girls Clubs of Southern Nevada has computer labs for children in all 13 of its clubhouses.

Earlier this month, 80 families living in public housing in the Historic Westside received Wi-Fi and tablets pre-loaded with education and employment apps. Las Vegas city officials, working in partnership with T-Mobile and the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority, plan to distribute 220 more tablets next year. Each family will have the services for two years.

“We learned about 70 percent of residents did not have access to (computer and internet) technology in their homes,” said Lisa Morris Hibbler, director of the city’s youth development and social innovation department. “We see a lot of people with cellphones, but not everyone that has a cellphone has a data plan. I think that gives the misperception that everyone is connected.”

The Clark County School District is loaning laptops to more than 17,000 middle school students and teachers.

Part of the Nevada Ready 21 statewide learning initiative, the program is intended to encourage students to develop modern skills they can carry beyond the classroom and into their careers.

Brian Mitchell, the director of the Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation and Technology, said it’s critical for children to become proficient in computer science.

“The jobs of the future aren’t going to be manual-labor jobs. They’ll be jobs that require workers to interact with machines,” Mitchell said. “It’s absolutely imperative for us to work in education and workforce policy to not leave these communities behind.”

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Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.

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