Free web access in doubt

Free internet access at the Blenheim and Picton libraries may end in a year.

The Government-funded Aotearoa People's Network Kaharoa (APNK) paid for 10 computers to be installed in the Marlborough District Council's Blenheim library and five in the Picton branch library in October last year.

Two years of guaranteed free internet access were provided as part of the deal, district libraries manager Glenn Webster said. At the end of that time, funding would be reviewed.

Mr Webster is also a member of the APNK governance group, which will meet next Thursday to talk about whether it could keep covering the costs of free internet in its 120 member libraries throughout New Zealand.

APNK tapped into the Government's digital strategy funding to support the two-year free access deal, Mr Webster said. Councils managing the libraries that signed up knew that funding was to be reviewed, he said.

So far, no APNK member libraries had been asked to pay for internet access. Whether this could change would be considered at the governance meeting next week.

The Nelson, Marlborough and Tasman libraries signed up to APNK as one package, Mr Webster said.

All their agreements would expire in October next year.

Foot traffic through Blenheim's library had risen 22 per cent since APNK paid for computers to be installed in October last year. In Picton, library use had risen 42 per cent.

Computers in Blenheim were used at least 90 per cent of the time and in Picton a little less, he said.

Free wireless internet use was also offered at the libraries. This was especially popular among backpackers, "who all seem to carry laptops nowadays", Mr Webster said.

Marlborough District councillor Jill Bunting said the Government had a habit of launching services such as APNK, then pulling funding and relying on local government to meet costs.

"A lot of great new initiatives come with fish-hooks," she said.

It was frustrating to hear politicians such as Rodney Hide saying local government should stick to core business and criticising councils for rate rises. Yet they loaded councils such as Marlborough with what had previously been Government services, she said. A keen library user, Ms Bunting said she had always been aware that APNK's free internet service was a two-year deal.

"But I don't think it would be on most councillors' radar."

She would be disappointed if the internet access stopped being free in Marlborough libraries.

While some "diehards" objected to overseas visitors accessing free internet here, she felt it was important for young travellers to keep in touch with their families and friends overseas and to look for jobs.

This week, Tasman district councillors were shocked to hear that they may have to pick up the cost of free internet access in the district's libraries.

The Marlborough Express