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WIRELESS NETWORKS

By Deborah Liddle and Stuart Smitton, Walsall Libraries, Learning and Archive Services on behalf of EARL, the Library Association and UKOLN

An issue paper from the Networked Services Policy Taskgroup Series editor: Penny Garrod (UKOLN)

Introduction

Wireless connectivity is the new buzz word in computer networks. It involves connecting laptops, mobile libraries and even fridges [1] to computer networks, without physical wire connections. Wireless connectivity means that individuals can potentially access the Internet, CD-ROM networks and office networks from anywhere and at any time. This issue paper highlights the key elements in wireless connectivity and its potential for libraries.

What is a wireless network?

A wireless network is like any other computer network. It connects computers to computer networks but without the need for physical wire connections. A wireless network can provide network access to computers, databases, the Internet and OPACs, both within and between buildings [2]. The lack of a physical connection means that users are able to roam or work wherever they wish and still have access to the computer network. There are three main types of wireless network:

  • Wide Area Networks (WANs)
  • Local Area Networks (LANs)
  • Personal Area Networks (PANs)

WIRELESS WANS

A Wide Area Network is a computer network that spans a relatively large geographical area. WANs typically allow multi-site organisations like universities to connect to the same network. Computers using a traditional WAN are connected via leased lines or the telephone system. A Wireless WAN (WWAN) connects geographically disparate sites using satellite or radio transmitters. Roof antennas are installed on buildings that allow the site to connect to a central network. WWANs can have a range of up to 38 kilometres and are already being used across campuses and towns in the USA. They can be much cheaper than a traditional network, more flexible and easier to install. Vail School District in Arizona, for example, maintains a wireless network over several schools and administration offices at a cost of 50% less than a traditional wired network [3].

DELTA - Derbyshire Learning & Technology Access

Derbyshire Library Service [4] has developed wireless connectivity in three mobile libraries using Wolfson funding. The mobiles offer access to the catalogue, borrower records, the Internet and networked CD-ROMs. The mobile parks outside buildings equipped with a network connection via an ISDN line. The mobile then links to the ISDN via an on-board aerial and an antenna on the building, which is within line of sight from the vehicle.

Although the necessary equipment cost over 100,000 to purchase and install, running costs are low: 85 per quarter for ISDN line rental, plus call charges, 120 for connection charges and an annual maintenance charge from Breezecom [5], the equipment supplier, of 1,020.

The service has been well received by staff and users. It is accessed by 100 to 120 users per month, per vehicle. Only minor configuration problems were encountered and connection speed times are acceptable and consistent.

WIRELESS LANS

A Local Area Network allows computers at one geographical location to share information and devices such as printers. With a traditional LAN each computer physically connects to the network via wires and a network port. A Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) provides the same services but without the need for physical connections between the computers and the network. A WLAN typically uses radio waves which allow network PC cards plugged into a PC/laptop to connect to a traditional Ethernet LAN. WLANs can usually support data rates of 11 Mbps (megabits per second), and have a range of 30-300 metres, with signals being able to pass through walls.

A similar set-up can exist from buildings to vehicles, this allows computers on the vehicle to connect to the network via a transmitter in the laptop, to the receiver/aerial on the building. Such technology is used on mobile libraries and mobile hospital units. Wireless LANs offer many advantages over traditional wired networks, such as mobility, flexibility, scalability and speed, simplicity and reduced cost of installation. Wireless technology can also provide a simple solution when installing networks in listed buildings that cannot, for architectural reasons, have a physical network installed. In many US libraries wireless LANs have already proved very successful. Portage County Public Library in Wisconsin has had wireless access to the Internet since 1997 [6]. The William F. Laman Public Library [7] opted for a wireless network - it cost much less than trying to overcome problems of installing a traditional LAN because of the construction of the building. Both of these libraries allow users to access the library network from anywhere in the building.

WIRELESS PANS

A PAN is a Personal Area Network. This is a network which allows electronic devices within a few metres of each other to communicate and synchronise information. The leading force in PANs is Bluetooth [8], a short-range radio technology which simplifies communication between different devices. It is based on the idea that a single chip fitted into electronic devices and buildings allows communication between them without wires. Already computer devices are being sold with Bluetooth preinstalled. This means that someone using a Bluetooth enabled laptop will be able to walk into a Bluetooth enabled building and immediately pick up access to its computer network. Some American airports [9] are already experimenting with Bluetooth to provide laptop users in the departure lounge with access to the Internet. The only drawbacks to Bluetooth, compared with a wireless LAN, are its slower data rate and a range of only 10 metres - however, there are plans to extend this to a range of 100 metres. Although Bluetooth is an emerging technology, it already has a rival called WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) [10] offering a data rate of 11 Mbps, which is slightly higher than a conventional LAN.

How do they work?

All wireless technologies use standard technology saddled over a wireless medium - airwaves. The major advantage of this type of technology is that there is no cable between network access points [11]. Wireless networks require: a wireless access point, a wireless PC card, a wireless PC adaptor and a network connection for the access point. The important factor is that only the one access point needs a network connection, rather than each computer. If the wireless connection is over a WAN then the additional hardware would include antennas to boost the signal. The limiting factor of wireless networking is the distance versus bandwidth issue, because the further the computer is from the access point the slower the speed of data rate transfer (megabits per second). Although wireless connection has the possibility of 11Mbps, this can be as low as 1Mbps as the distance increases. However, although 1 Mbps would be very slow for an Ethernet network connection, it is still almost 30 times faster than a 56k modem [12].

Mobile technology in wireless networks

Mobile phones can give users access to other types of network because of their wide area coverage - a wireless LAN used in an office could be accessed from a train via a mobile phone, for example. There are several different forms of mobile phone technology:

  • WAP - Wireless Application Protocol is a set of standards for providing interactive Internet services to wireless communication devices. A WAP enabled mobile phone will allow you to view Web pages written in WML (Wireless Mark-up Language)
  • GPRS - General Packet Radio Services is ideal for Internet access and connection can take place through a laptop with a data card or mobile phone attached to it. It has a faster transfer rate than WAP and a higher success rate for connection.
  • UMTS - Universal Mobile Telecommunications is a new rival to GPRS and promises to deliver faster connections and video images.
  • Palmtops/PDAs - Palmtops/PDAs are small handheld computers such as Visors, Palms and Pocket PCs. Some palmtops have built-in mobile phones and unlimited wireless Internet access. Others come with modems which can be used with a mobile phone. These are highly portable devices which are increasingly being used to read e-mail, surf the Internet and act as electronic filofaxes. They are likely to become ubiquitous and be the main technology used to connect without the aid of wires to computer networks.

Library Link - Walsall Library Service

A Library Link vehicle provides online access to people living in residential homes and sheltered accommodation at 56 sites. Online access is provided via mobile phone technology. This was the only solution that provided online capability without fixed connection points. The service uses three Nokia 6090 handsets, cardphones and aerials. The vehicle is installed with Pentium III PCs with flat screen VDUs.

The service works by dialling into the library network via mobile handsets. Although the speed of data transfer is slower than an ISDN line it has the advantage of flexibility within good reception areas. Reliability and consistency of connection is good with only minor problems encountered with system configuration.

By providing online access to the library's management system from remote sites the library has improved its housekeeping procedures (such as stock tracking and the generation of issue figures) and users have immediate access to the library catalogue. The capital costs for Library Link were 13,000 and annual running costs are 2,750 [13].

Wireless networks and libraries

Wireless connectivity gives libraries the opportunity to introduce new services and extend current services to more users.

Richmond Libraries

Richmond Libraries has installed wireless LANs in three branch libraries at a cost of around 12,000 which includes wireless access points, installation, configuration, PC cards and maintenance costs. The wireless LAN complements the existing cabled LAN. This enables the local college to run IT awareness courses using laptops when the libraries are closed. It has been very successful with few problems and will be extended to other libraries within the year [14].

WIRELESS NETWORKS IN LIBRARY BUILDINGS

Wireless connectivity may be the cheapest way to network library buildings, especially smaller local libraries. Such networks will provide flexibility in services, allowing users to sit where they wish when accessing the Internet or library OPAC. Users can either access the wireless LAN using their own PCs (having borrowed or purchased a wireless network card from the library), or libraries could loan out networked enabled laptops for use within the library [15]. Wireless networking also provides the opportunity to offer access to library services in alternative locations. Laptops could be taken to village halls, schools or housebound users, for example, where wireless connections could be used to access the Internet, CD-ROMs or networked training packages.

MOBILE LIBRARIES/HOME LIBRARY SERVICES

Traditionally, mobile libraries and home library services have been the last section within public library services to benefit from computer technology. Although laptops or palmtops are increasingly being used in remote locations to issue and discharge media, these are unlikely to be online, meaning that users do not have access to the same services as visitors to a static library. Wireless connectivity could change this, with users having full access to the online catalogue, networked CD-ROMs, databases and the Internet.

Developing services

As well as installing wireless networks, libraries may consider developing current services, or introducing new and innovative services for the public to utilise through the wireless environment. Mobile messaging or SMS, for example, could be introduced for sending information to users. Collecting users' mobile phone numbers upon registration would allow library staff to send text messages regarding requested items, notify them of events, or issue reminders of overdue items. Some libraries are already developing WAP enabled library Web sites. Both Shropshire [16] and Hampshire Libraries [17], for example, have developed WAP pages that contain basic library information such as opening times.

Issues

Wireless connectivity raises a number of issues for libraries:

  • Security: A recent survey highlighted that 25% of organisations not using wireless LANs were held back by security concerns [18]. No library wishes a user to walk into the building and gain access to the private staff network or circulation module of the library management system. Restrictions need to be made on who can access the network and from what access point or building. However, security provisions can be built into wireless LANs making them as secure as most standard LANs.
  • Costs: Although running costs can be comparable to traditional wired networks, wireless transmission and reception equipment is generally much more expensive than the cost of comparable wired components.
  • Resources: Wireless networks may provide libraries with the opportunity to introduce new services and increased access to networked materials. However, all these services need trained staff to develop and support them. With limited resources, development of such new services will need prioritising alongside existing services.
  • Developing technologies: Wireless technologies are constantly changing, which makes long-term planning difficult. For example, the take-up of WAP phones has been disappointing and the GPRS system may supersede it. Bluetooth looks like being a major influence in wireless networking and yet already has a challenger in WiFi. Libraries therefore need to be flexible when planning their wireless services and keep abreast of the latest developments.

Summary

The use of wireless connectivity in libraries offers the opportunity to provide the same standard of service to users regardless of location, as the examples from Derbyshire and Walsall show. Not only does a connection to the network and library management system benefit users, but staff can also manage stock and statistical information in a far more efficient way. In addition, wireless networking may offer libraries previously seen as too remote or expensive to network the opportunity for the same high-quality networked services as a central library. Unfortunately, there are few articles about libraries and wireless connectivity, but there is a wealth of information on wireless technology in general. Sharing knowledge with those that 'have been there, done that and have got the t-shirt' will therefore be invaluable. There may be a steep learning curve ahead of libraries who wish to make use of wireless connectivity, but the benefits of the services and, in particular, the increase in equality of service, will make the initial struggle worthwhile.

References


[1] Islam, Faisal. Pulling The Plug. The Observer. 3 December 2000
[2] PLA Technotes: Unplugged, and Play Some More
http://www.pla.org/technotes/wireless2001.html
[3] Breezecom Solutions - Vail School District
http://www.breezecom.com/solutions_10010.asp?fuf=14&type=item
[4] Derbyshire Libraries and Heritage
e-mail Robert.Gent@derbyshire.gov.uk
[5] Breezecom
http://www.breezecom.com
[6] Portage County Public Library
http://library.uwsp.edu/pcl/wireless.htm
[7] William F. Laman Public Library
http://www.pla.org/technotes/wireless2001.html
[8] Bluetooth
http://www.bluetooth.com/
[9] Bluetooth - Airport Connectivity
http://www.bluetooth.com/
[10] Islam, Faisal. Pulling The Plug. The Observer. 3 December 2000
[11] Williams, Robert. Wireless Community Networks. Texas State Library. 1999
http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/ld/pubs/wireless/contents.html
[12] Scholfield, Jack. Take Your Pliers to the Wires. The Guardian. 15 June 2000
[13] Walsall Libraries, Learning and Archive Service
e-mail: beardsmorej@walsall.gov.uk
[14] Richmond Libraries
e-mail: d.fernandes@richmond.gov.uk
[15] Handheld PCs On A Wireless LAN
http://www.lib.csufresno.edu/publications
[16] Shropshire Libraries Wap Web site
http://wappy.to/library
[17] Hampshire Libraries Wap Web site
http://www.hants.gov.uk/library/test/wap.html
[18] Angel, Jonathan. Look Ma No Cables. Network Magazine. 6 November 2000
http://www.networkmagazine.com/article/NMG20001106S0004

Other useful resources


Wireless LAN.com - http://www.wirelesslan.com/
Wireless Networking Industry's Information Source - http://www.wlana.com/

Network Services Policy Taskgroup Web site

The full text of this paper and links to further information on this topic are available at the following Web site:

http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/public/earl/issuepapers/

The Web site also provides an opportunity to comment on the paper and the issues it discusses.

Acknowledgements

This is one in a series of issue papers being produced by the Networked Services Policy Taskgroup. UKOLN, the Library Association and EARL member libraries participate in the taskgroup. Queries about the issue paper series should be addressed to UKOLN:

UKOLN
The University of Bath
Bath, BA2 7AY
E-mail: s.criddle@ukoln.ac.uk
Telephone: 01225 826250

UKOLN is funded by Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) of the Higher and Further Education Funding Councils, as well as by project funding from the JISC and the European Union. UKOLN also receives support from the University of Bath where it is based.

EARL: The Consortium for Public Library Networking The Library Association UKOLN