of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 27, No. 5              June / July 2001

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Wireless Technology in the Library: The RIT Experience: Technical Considerations

by Michael Robertson

The technical background of the Wireless Project in the RIT Library begins in the spring of 1999 when we met and talked with several vendors, including Bay Networks, Symbol Technologies, Apple and Lucent Technologies. We talked with Apple at length about their Airport technology because we found it very interesting. We finally decided on Lucent in part because they were already supplying voice on campus. Our Apple representative was incredible; he really helped us tremendously to get this off the ground even though we had selected Lucent. Lucent loaned us an access point to use in the library. The Apple representative had a PowerBook that he equipped with a Lucent card, and he agreed to help us do the site survey, which saved us a great deal money.

The site survey was the hardest part of the project. I remember Chuck Bartell saying that Educause was doing a site survey of its building and that finding out where to put access points was more of an art than a science. We had to take the access point and move it around to various points in the library and use the metering software in the Mac to determine how strong the signal was in different locations. That worked out really well even though it was very challenging.

The second hardest thing involved with the project was getting our physical plant people and network people to put in the drops for us. From my point of view, as someone who was responsible for making this happen, it seemed very expensive and slow. One nice surprise we discovered after the installation was that our signal goes beyond our walls into some places we hadn't anticipated.

In terms of specs for the project, at the time Lucent was using 802.11 at 2mbps. We were interested in the possibility of upgrading to 802.11b. Fortunately, by the time we had finished meeting with various vendors, and we went to place our order, the 802.11b standard had passed. We were ready to start the installation at the beginning of 2000. When students returned in January, we started promoting the wireless access. We had articles in the student newspaper, and we put an article in the staff newspaper as well as the library newsletter. We worked hard to do get a great deal of publicity for this new service.

We were happy we selected Lucent because they can support expansion. If necessary, one could put a second access card in [the access point]. Initially, we didn't have to worry about expansion, but we were concerned when we were selecting a system that it be expandable and upgradable, in addition to affordable. The price is about the same on all the manufacturer's units. Lucent was right out there and ready when the 802.11b standard was approved. One of the reasons we didn't involve Cisco in our project is because they didn't have a viable option at the time summer 1999.

The staff of Information Technology Services, our campus-networking group, was our partner in the project. We all worked very well together. Because we explained to them that we were really concerned about security, it was agreed that they would bolt the access point to the steel beams in the ceiling. The ceiling tiles hide those beams. All that can be seen is the Lucent external antenna.

The system was integrated with the campus DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server, which also offers a degree of security. We don't have a secure network yet; there is no encryption. We have experienced some problems with security on the network. There is some filtering happening on the router end of the network drop, which adds some more security. We know the only people who are going to be able to use our wireless network are people who've registered their MAC (media access) addresses for their wireless cards with the DHCP server. I encourage people to purchase their own wireless cards through the campus bookstore where they can receive a discount. We provide instruction to people who come into the library with their own wireless card.

When we were setting up our circulating laptops we installed the wireless cards ourselves. It was a fairly simple process. We installed network printer software, as we wanted to provide our pay-for-print service from each laptop. We also installed a disk drive for data storage. Additionally, we have a common public disk drive in the computer lab area of the library where people can save their data to pick up in the lab.

We launched the network with three iBooks and three Toshiba laptops. The Toshiba laptops have by far been the most popular in terms of circulation. When they are unavailable, some people grumble, but they also use the iBooks. The irony is that the iBooks get much better reception than the Toshibas. Apple had worked with Lucent and designed some of the electronics into the iBook. The most valuable feature about the iBook is the antenna, which is buried in the lid of the laptop so it gets much more antenna exposure. When I would go around the library and compare the Toshiba and the iBook I would sometimes have a very weak or dead signal on the Toshiba in the same spots where I was still getting a decent signal with the iBook. Dell and IBM are planning to have the wireless technology built into their laptops, so they will work as well as the iBooks.

You may wonder how we maintain these circulating wireless laptops. When the laptops are returned to the circulation desk, staff members check them in. They verify that the network is still intact by making sure they can get connections to the Internet. They also do memory checks to make sure no memory has been stolen. We created a ghost CD to reformat the hard drive after each circulation; this process takes about 10 minutes. Setting up the first ghost CD was very difficult, but because we reformat the hard drive we avoid any problems that may occur because of what was installed or downloaded onto the laptop when it was out circulating. The only problem we encountered with these laptops was a battery issue with the Toshiba; it was not recharging properly. We purchased extra batteries for the laptops and created a battery recharge station.

The exceptional support we received from our local Lucent reseller made a tremendous difference when we implemented this project. In the library there is a computer lab on the second floor. All of the computer lab assistants have received instruction on what to do when an issue comes up with wireless laptop use. If users bring in their own wireless network cards, the lab assistants will show them how to register their cards with the DHCP server. The lab assistants will also show users how to store data and retrieve it from the public disk drive. Additionally, they help users with printing issues.

Future issues to consider: competing standards like Bluetooth, HomeRF, 802.15 high rate, whether we are going to have more home and office wireless networks, and what standard will be approved for use. It raises some concerns since people may purchase laptops and configure them with a particular wireless card for a home network and possibly experience incompatibility issues in the library. It is going to be interesting to see what kind of impact emerging wireless networks will have on future initiatives and current projects underway at RIT.

Glossary of Wireless Terms

Michael Robertson is a Library Software Specialist. He can be reached at Rochester Institute of Technology, 90 Lomb Memorial Drive, Rochester, NY 14623; phone: 716/475-2562; e-mail: marwm1@rit.edu

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