Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Free as a Bird: Wireless Networking Libraries
My first time was on a Gale bus. It was during the recent annual conference of the American Library Association, while traveling between the Georgia World Congress Center and my hotel. I was nervous and uncertain, but it turned out to be both easier than I thought and incredibly fulfilling. While the bus rolled through downtown Atlanta, I opened my laptop, connected to a wireless network, and sent and received e-mail. To this day, I do not know who owned the wireless access point I connected to. It is unlikely they knew that, for a minute or two, I borrowed a small portion of their network bandwidth. The result was that I was able to communicate when I needed to. I call this my 'wireless epiphany.' One definition of epiphany is 'a sudden intuitive leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence.' Now I understand the power and freedom that wireless makes possible. Wireless, however, is far from new to me; for two years I have used it at home. I have a Macintosh PowerBook with a wireless card and an Apple Airport base station connected to my DSL service. I can roam just about anywhere on my quarter-acre lot while happily surfing the net. But what I never experienced until Atlanta was the freedom of connecting out in the wide world, without paying a dime. 'Ah hah!' you say, 'he's trying to make a virtue out of stealing.' In that specific situation you may be right. But there are movements afoot to provide free and open wireless networks in a number of communities, including the San Francisco Bay area where I live. As I was enjoying the afterglow of my wireless epiphany in Atlanta, I wondered why libraries shouldn't be a part of this. The library potential What are libraries about if not open access to information? With the web and the Internet playing such large roles in how we access and use information today, providing open access to a major information resource would seem a logical step. Just think-whenever people with a wireless card are on the road, they could go to the local public library and jack in. The library wouldn't even have to be open; they could sit outside in the sun and connect. But while the idea of providing free bandwidth may still be a bit radical-especially for libraries struggling to pay for basic services-there are a number of libraries using this technology to serve their primary clientele better. It is no surprise, given the prevalence of portable computers among college students, that the early adopters are largely academic libraries. (For more information on libraries and wireless services, see 'The Pros and Cons of Wireless Networks ' in the Summer 2002 netConnect.) Early adopters It would be hard to find a more wireless-ready library than the University of California at San Diego. All its libraries offer wireless access, and some even circulate wireless network cards and/or laptops. Users of the wireless network are required to sign in, but frequent wireless users can register their wireless device so they never need to enter a user name and password. At the University of Texas Health Science Center Library, San Antonio, users must also register their wireless cards to access the network. Once that is completed, they can go anywhere in the library and be connected. With additional software, they can also send print jobs to a central printing facility for 10 cents per page. The help pages at the University of South Florida, Tampa, explain in great detail, complete with screen shots, how to configure computers to access the campus wireless network. The maps of wireless coverage are particularly instructive for those new to this technology, as they show the approximate boundary of coverage from the wireless access point on each floor. These maps basically tell wireless users where to sit to get the best signal or even any signal at all. Academic libraries, in a number of cases, are simply following their university's plans to roll out wireless access across campus, and libraries are the obvious place to start. EDUCAUSE, the higher education computing association, highlights a number of campus wireless initiatives in its Current Issues page on the Wireless Campus. Certainly wireless service makes great sense for these libraries, given the generally large number of laptop users on campuses. The list of libraries that offer wireless connections at the Wireless Librarian web site contains few public libraries. Since a wireless access point can be had for around $100, it seems like a cheap service for public libraries to provide. Security concerns Libraries of any type that want to offer this service need to address security issues, including people getting on the network who don't belong there and people listening in on those who are on the network. In the former instance, if you choose to offer an open service, you won't need to block the unauthorized user. If you do not want an open service, you will need to require authorization, as most academic libraries do. Security breaches of the latter type, however, affect us all. New standards are in the pipeline that will address these security issues. Wireless standards The standard that defines the wireless technology in wide use today is 802.11b, part of a family of 802.11 protocols. It is generically called 'Wi-Fi' in the popular press. The 802.11b standard offers indoor communication speeds of up to 11 Mbps (megabits per second) for several hundred feet from an access point; outdoor connectivity can extend to several miles. Factors such as barriers and certain kinds of materials can affect the signal distance and strength. The 802.11a standard will offer faster speeds (up to 54 Mbps) later this year but probably over shorter distances. Security is being addressed in the 802.11i standard, which is due to be ratified this summer, and we should see products that support 802.11i late in the fall. For more information on the standards, see the IEEE site (for the official documents) and 802.11b Networking News (for the talk on the street). Not global, only local At one time, there was a common vision of wireless Internet access being provided by satellites-thus ensuring a constantly available connection from just about anywhere on the planet. That vision has yet to come to fruition and may never happen. But the current situation of pools of connectivity provided by wireless access points is a good start. Libraries, as organizations focused on free and open access to information, have every reason to be at the forefront of this technology. __________________________________________________________________ Link List EDUCAUSE The Wireless Campus www.educause.edu /issues/wireless.html 802.11b Networking News 80211b.weblogger.com IEEE 802.11 Wireless Standard standards.ieee.org/ getieee802/802.11.html UCSD Wireless Connectivity libraries.ucsd.edu/ services/wireless.html Univ. of South Florida Map of Wireless Access help.acomp.usf.edu/ wireless/map.html Univ. of South Florida Wireless help.acomp.usf.edu/wireless Univ. of Texas Health Science Center Library Wireless www.library.uthscsa.edu/basics /FAQ.cfm?type=WirelessLAN Wireless Librarian people.morrisville.edu /~drewwe/wireless