Today, mobile wireless computing seems to be expanding quickly beyond the domain of the professional business class; it's being adopted by computer users of all kinds, from geeks to grandmothers. The number of laptop computers in use relative to desktops continues to rise, and the modern laptop supports both wired and wireless Ethernet. A lot of us are addicted to staying connected when away from the home or office-especially when traveling. We seek out places where we can connect to check e-mail, monitor the status of ongoing projects, and take care of various business details. When booking hotel accommodations for either business or pleasure, a key feature I look for is the availability of highspeed Internet access. In an era where the entire service industry seems to be Web-based, it's becoming increasingly inconvenient to be disconnected. Yet, public wireless connectivity isn't pervasive at all. And it isn't usually free.
As I travel, I find most hotspots cost about $10 a day. Typically, hotels, convention centers, coffee shops, and some airports offer fee-based service. But, overall, connectivity options are sparse, with setup procedures inconvenient and expensive. We're far from the era when wireless Internet access will be as ubiquitous and convenient as cell phone coverage.
The current environment where interest in inexpensive wireless connectivity far exceeds supply provides opportunities for organizations to attract the public by offering free and convenient hotspots. Consider Starbucks'and Panera Bread's different approaches to providing wireless hotspots in the coffee shop arena: Starbucks adopted wireless early and offers hotspots through a fee-based service; Panera, another national bakery and coffee shop chain, now offers free wireless. While the Starbucks scenario views wireless like an additional menu item that customers pay for, the Panera plan uses wireless to attract more business. Libraries can use wireless to the same advantage-draw in the hotspot-hungry public, and then impress them with an attractive menu of additional services that will help them become satisfied library users and supporters.
Libraries have evolved to consider the provision of Internet access through library-owned computers as part of their core offerings, and it won't be long until wireless achieves the same level of expectation. If this is the future, then what are some of the issues that librarians need to think about as they plan for and deploy wireless access for their patrons?
First, a note on terminology. Several terms, including Wireless Local Area Networks, WLAN, Wireless LANs, and Wi-Fi, refer to the same thing. An industry group called the Wi-Fi Alliance promotes this technology and runs a certification program to ensure compatibility between equipment produced by the various manufacturers.
An Array of Flavors
There are multiple flavors of Wi-Fi available today, each part of the 802.11 family of network protocols. The version that first gained wide adoption was 802.11b, which operates at 2.4 GHz, delivering a maximum 11 MB/sec. of bandwidth. 802.11b continues to be, by far, the flavor of wireless with the largest installed base. However, none of the wireless technologies operate at full efficiency. In the real world, users see half of the theoretical maximum at best. The throughput depends on the distance between the computer and the access point, the density of obstacles in between, and interference of other devices that share the same part of the spectrum. Microwave ovens and cordless phones are among the appliances that share the 2.4 GHz band used by 802.11b.
Faster versions of wireless have emerged in the last few years and are gaining ground. 802.11a and 802.11g both offer up to 54 MB/sec. capacity. Even at half the theoretical maximum, they both offer a significant performance boost over 802.11b. 802.11a operates on the less-polluted 5 GHz band, but supports much shorter distances between devices. Since it lives on a different part of the radio frequency spectrum, backward compatibility with the large installed base of 802.11b networks isn't possible. 802.11g uses the same 2.4 GHz frequency as 802.11b, making it easy to achieve backward compatibility. Not surprisingly, 802.11g has emerged as the dominant flavor of faster Wi-Fi. More than half of the wireless networking equipment sold now supports 802.11g. Compatibility among 802.11b and 802.11g equipment has proven to be quite good. Computers equipped with 802.11g wireless cards can communicate on networks based on either 802.11b or 802.11g wireless access points, and 802.11g access points step down to 802.11b when needed. Recently, I bought an 802.11g wireless card for my laptop and have had equal success connecting to both 802.11b and 802.11g networks. So far, however, most of the networks I come across are still the slower 802.11b variety.
When I teach workshops on wireless networks, I'm frequently asked what version to buy. Today, I'd strongly recommend 802.11g, given its faster performance and its flexibility in supporting existing 802.11b equipment. The costs for 802.11g equipment seem to be about the same as the costs for 802.11b equipment last year. You can find a lot of cheap 802.11b equipment now, but given its place on the downward slope toward obsolescence, it's probably not a great value. Generally, I don't steer libraries toward 802.11a. While this flavor enjoys some technical merits over the others, it plays mostly to a niche market.
A Concern for security
For good reasons, many organizations fear uncontrolled access to their systems via wireless networks. Out of this concern, technology has evolved to ensure that wireless can be used with relative safety. While the WEP (wired equivalency privacy) security that was built into the initial wireless offerings proved inadequate, recent security protocols designed to shore up wireless networks, such as WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) and the emerging 802.11i standard, will help increase the corporate world's confidence that wireless networks can be deployed safely.
The security issues for deploying wireless networks in a library differ considerably from those of other environments. Libraries have long been in the business of providing Internet-connected computers for the general public's use. In my view, wireless networks pose no greater security risk for libraries than the public Internet computers that we manage already. The key strategy for both involves treating them as an essentially untrusted computer environment and completely isolating their traffic from the rest of the library's network. Placing a firewall between the open networks, such as the wireless LAN or the public Internet computers, and the staff side of the network generally provides an effective level of security. I don't recommend using the wireless network for staff functions such as circulation unless that traffic is encrypted through VPN (virtual private network).
Another question that many librarians face as they plan their wireless networks is whether they should limit user access in any way or use a login or authentication process. While most libraries do not choose to require a login, some have policies demanding them. A library, for example, may choose to provide wireless access only to registered users or require that users click through an "appropriate use" policy. Any of these approaches are technically feasible; there are products available that provide these capabilities.
Many library automation vendors offer products or services related to wireless networking. Most wireless networks in libraries are created from off-the-shelf components. If your library's wireless service is relatively small-scale, doesn't require authentication, and can be securely segmented from the rest of your network, then implementation should be straightforward. But if you need to authenticate users against your patron database, or plan a complex large-scale wireless deployment, or if your library exists within an organization with strong security needs, then you may benefit from the products and services offered by one of the ILS vendors. Here are some of the ones that I'm aware of:
- Innovative Interfaces introduced a product called the AirPAC back in June 2001 when wireless devices were just starting to become popular. This software allows the library running the Millennium ILS to offer a version of its OPAC tailored for small devices, such as PDAs and cell phones, that connect via wireless networks. The AirPAC software delivers the online catalog in the form of compact Web pages specifically designed to fit on small displays with minimal use of graphics, while still offering most of the features seen in the full-sized OPAC. Though most libraries aren't seeing a high level of use of their OPACs through hand-held devices, I would anticipate increased interest in the next few years. To me, having a version of the OPAC for the small screen seems like a great idea for the library that wants to stay in tune with the trend toward mobile computing.
- In January 2004, GIS Information Systems announced a product called the Wireless Access Manager that helps a library manage its wireless network. For libraries that want to restrict access to their wireless LANs, this product can present a login screen that prompts for the user's library card number and checks it against the patron database. The software works with the Polaris Integrated Library System or any other ILS that supports the SIP2 protocol. To address security concerns, the Wireless Access Manager includes a built-in network firewall that provides a safe barrier between the wireless LAN and the rest of the library's network. The product produces statistical reports on the use of the wireless network.
- The Library Corporation recently announced two products that assist people in establishing wireless networks. The base product, Wireless.Solution, sets up a wireless LAN separated from its network through a firewall, with up to 10 encrypted VPN connections for staff use. Wireless.Solution Pro adds features such as the ability to control bandwidth per user and to provide feebased wireless access.
- Dynix is also interested in helping libraries implement wireless networks. The company recently announced a product called the Horizon Wireless Gateway, which consists of a standard wireless infrastructure plus added features such as the ability to control the allocation of bandwidth, patron authentication, and data encryption. Dynix has a business partnership with Blue-socket, Inc. as part of its strategy to support wireless networking.
- So far, Sirsi Corp. has two avenues of interest in wireless technologies. First, as part of its set of consulting services related to library network infrastructure, Sirsi will help librarians deploy wireless hotspots and help integrate them into their existing networks. Sirsi has business relationships with Cisco Systems, Global Solutions Group, and Bluesocket, Inc.-all major technology firms. Sirsi can rely on the products, expertise, and services of these companies as it works with libraries to implement wireless networks. Recently, Sirsi also announced a product called PocketCirc-software that runs on a PDA that allows library staff to perform circulation tasks in any part of the library with wireless connectivity. I think that libraries will benefit from this type of flexibility.
Mobility Demands Wireless
Wireless networking stands poised to help libraries offer services to an increasingly mobile and continuously connected society. In the same way that cell phones have become pervasive, wirelessly connected computing devices soon will be the norm. I think that libraries risk marginalization if they ignore this key trend toward mobile computing and wireless networks. At the same time, librarians can create opportunities to draw in the public by embracing wireless technologies and offering creative, new services. Wireless, like any other technology, isn't an end in itself, but can be used to help an organization work more effectively to accomplish its goals. To the degree that librarians have interests in helping their users connect to information, wireless networking is a technology that can't be ignored.