Bandwidth, Broadband, and Planning for Public Access

By Blowers, Helene | Computers in Libraries, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Bandwidth, Broadband, and Planning for Public Access


Blowers, Helene, Computers in Libraries


IT'S IMPERATIVE TO USE GOOD BANDWIDTH MANAGEMENT PRACTICES TO ENSURE YOUR LIBRARY IS NOT ONLY OPTIMIZING CURRENT BANDWIDTH CAPABILITIES BUT IS POISED TO SUPPORT FUTURE DEMAND FOR VITAL LIBRARY SERVICES AS WELL

The subject of public access wireless networks and broadband capacity has been a hot topic recently on a listserv that I follow. How much bandwidth should you allocate for wireless users? What benchmarks do you use to guide decision making? Should you require users to authenticate themselves before gaining access to the wireless network? All these questions have been posed, and rightly so. They are all important questions for libraries to consider.

There's no doubt that broadband and public internet access are critical elements of technology planning that libraries need to pay attention to and continually address. Not only has the demand for public internet access increased dramatically in the past few years, the rise of social media and user-generated content has quadrupled bandwidth requirements on networks. A decade ago, most public library internet traffic was primarily a "retrieve" or "pull" action, such as accessing an informational webpage or searching an electronic database. Today, average library customers are often using the library's public access computers to post their photos and comment on Facebook while streaming music to their earbuds and downloading videos on YouTube.

According to the "Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2011-2012," nearly all (99.3%) U.S. public libraries now offer free public internet access and 90% also provide access via Wi-Fi. For many communities (64.5%), the public library is the only free provider of internet access within their entire vicinity. With the economic challenges of the past few years, demand for use has also grown, with 60% of libraries reporting increased usage of their public access workstations. And with the rising prevalence of tablets and mobile devices, demand for wireless access has skyrocketed. Additionally, the study also found that 45% of public library usage was centered on technology access to the internet. With trends like this in play, libraries need to pay closer attention than ever to the primary internet conduit, bandwidth.

Factors Affecting Bandwidth

Broadband and bandwidth allocation is an essential technology planning activity that libraries should address on a continual basis. While a little more than half of public libraries (58.3%) report that their current broadband connection meets their customers' needs, many feel unprepared and report connection speeds that are far less than adequate. A full 23% of libraries report access speeds of less than 1.5 mbps, which is significantly less than today's standard 5-, 10-, and, in some areas, 50-mbps access speeds offered commercially by home internet access providers.

There are a number of factors that can affect the availability and speed bandwidth. Just because the library has a T3 line providing access to the internet for its customers does not necessarily guarantee a fast connection.

There are five key factors that will impact your network's performance:

Infrastructure. Routers, hubs, and firewalls are all part of the technology communication system that manages traffic on the network. The capabilities and configuration of these "traffic cop" devices play a vital role in the health of the network and utilization of available bandwidth.

Network load. Knowing your network's capacity is important. In many libraries it is not uncommon for staff and the public workstations to share the same connection. Public access wireless and other services, such as VoIP, are also commonly overlaid on top of networks, adding to increased demand. Continually monitoring your network load is an important part to managing bandwidth.

Workstation performance. Older PC workstations with low-end processors, not enough memory, and slow video cards can also affect the end user's experience. …

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