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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Browsing in the stacks

For all of you laptop-toting Burlingtonians looking for free Internet access downtown, the Fletcher Free Library has just made its entire building into a wi-fi hotspot.
This is really cool, because there aren't many institutions within easy walking distance of City Hall that offer free wireless. There are, of course, several cafés and eateries downtown that offer it for patrons, and I'm usually happy to support businesses that have it, but being able to surf sans the obligation to buy something certainly has its merits.

Actually, you don't have to live within city limits to use the 12 desktop machines in the Fletcher Free's Computer Center — you just need to apply for a free Computer Center User card, which lets you log on but doesn't include the ability to check out library materials. No word on whether you need one of these dealies to actually get on the wireless network, but the press release seems to indicate that anyone who has a wireless-enabled laptop is welcome. You just need to establish a free account with your e-mail address and a password of your choosing. One thing to be aware of, though, is that unlike the hardwired terminals, which are monitored visually by reference librarians, the wireless network is subject to a filter program. For details, see the Fletcher Free's wi-fi access agreement and its general policy on Internet use.

Adelphia donated the library's internet connection. I wonder how much heat, if any, they're feeling from Burlington Telecom's launch?

UPDATE: Jessamyn noted that the wi-fi network's been up for a while, so I called Systems Librarian Robert Coleburn to get details. He said they've actually had it up and running for about 3 months, but after taking some time to work out bugs, etc. (hopefully including some of the filter issues Jessamyn mentioned in her comment), they're just now getting around to really promoting it. Hence the press release.

February 21, 2006 at 02:05 PM in Wi-fi/Broadband in VT | Permalink


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Is this new? I think they've been doing this for quite some time now. When I was there I found the wifi network very difficult to use (it would log me out when I was reading a site for a long period of time) and the filtering was pretty dramatic -- I couldn't search Google, only Yahoo, possibly something to do with their query strings?

I can understand the library not wanting to be a target for people doing all sorts of illegal things with the wifi network, I just wish their filtering system was a little easier to understand and/or turn off. It's possible that they've changed it to be a bit more user-friendly, but with so many other places to get online with wifi in Burlington, I'd put the library way at the bottom of my list if I were in Burlington.

Posted by: jessamyn | Feb 21, 2006 3:00:21 PM

That's a good point, Jessamyn — I'll call and find out exactly how long it's been available, then post an update.

Not being able to search Google would be really rough. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Posted by: Meghan | Feb 21, 2006 3:25:06 PM

Adelphia is required by the state to offer free internet service to every school and library in the areas they serve. I'm sure they're feeling heat from BT in the city of Burlington, but the free internet has nothing to do with that. I think that BT, having also obtained a certificate of public good from the public service board, will also be required to give free internet to schools and libraries.

The idea of protecting yourself from illegal activity on the open network you provide seems weird to me. I mean, what steps does the library take to protect itself from illegal activity that occurs in the areas that are illuminated by the libraries outside lights? If somebody somebody looks at printed child porn under the library's lights, is the library responsible? Why is a network any different?

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Feb 21, 2006 3:49:08 PM

Provided the porn was not provided by the library, it wouldn't be (or shoudn't be)liable. Just because someone used it's lights to look at something they snuck in under their overcoat, doesn't mean the library did anything wrong.

By extension, people using their own computers on the library's network should be responsible for their own actions. The library is a public place. It's like the sidewalk, with a roof, if you will.

I imagine they must have had some assurance of indemnity before going forward with this.

Posted by: Haik Bedrosian | Feb 22, 2006 9:03:00 AM

Haik, actually my questions were mostly rhetorical. The idea that the library could be held accountable for illegal activity that happens under the glow of the library's lights is absurd. Likewise, illegal activity that happens under the glow of the libray's wifi transmission should seem equally absurd. I agree that it makes sense that the library would be indemnified against liability in thise cases, so the real (non-rhetorical) question is: Why doesn't the library just have an open network with no restrictions or filters?

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Feb 22, 2006 7:25:22 PM

That's great they're wireless - but do they have places to plug in? That's my new pet peeve - places that offer free wireless but no juice.

Posted by: Yankunian | Feb 23, 2006 11:59:49 AM

Thanks for the comments on the Fletcher Free Library's wireless service. Yes, I admit, there are a couple of "issues" with our wireless that I will attempt to workout over the next month or so.

1) The content filter is too strong. Customizing the filter requires knowledge of Linux (not my strong suit!). But I will dive into it soon.

2) The "I got logged off after 10 minutes" problem. Users need to disable their pop up blocker when logging into our wireless network. When you login our Wi-Fi system starts a second window (a pop-up) that communicates with our wireless gateway every 10 minutes to verify that you are still connected. You can minimize the pop-up but it needs to be open so the system can tell you are still using the session. Not sure what the solution is here, but I will look into it.

3) Not sure what the problem was with Jessamyn's Google search, unless it got blocked by our robust filter. I justed opened a wireless session and my Google search on "ultimate frisbee" worked, but my "breast cancer" search was blocked (not good!).

Thanks for the feedback.

Robert Coleburn
Systems Librarian
Fletcher Free Library

Posted by: Robert Coleburn | Feb 23, 2006 2:46:06 PM

Thanks for commenting on this Robert. My question is a serious one though. Why have any filters at all? Why not just have an open network (ala the Radio Bean)? What are the real security issues?

Posted by: bill simmon | Feb 24, 2006 1:30:10 AM

Bill, I'll reply in full this weekend - when I've got more time.

In the meantime (it's a bit off topic) but have you seen this:


Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
"Canadian College Curbs Wi-Fi Due to Health Risks
A small Canadian university has ruled out campus-wide wireless Internet access because its president fears the system's electromagnetic forces could pose a risk to students' health"

Posted by: Robert Coleburn | Feb 24, 2006 9:11:49 AM

"Canadian College Curbs Wi-Fi Due to Health Risks
A small Canadian university has ruled out campus-wide wireless Internet access because its president fears the system's electromagnetic forces could pose a risk to students' health"

Yes, I saw that! Is that weird or what? What about microwaves? Or cell phones? Or the Earth itself for that matter? All of these things generate "electromagnetic forces" too. Perhaps we should ban them as well. :)

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Feb 24, 2006 9:59:07 AM

Content filtering serves two purposes: prevents end-users from viewing inappropriate content that could offend other library users. Prevents end-users from using a large portion of our bandwidth to download things like music and movies.

We can probably have a healthy debate about whether there is a need to block porn sites on our wireless network. In many ways we are basing this decision on the behavior we see in our public access computer center. While we don’t see a lot of porn viewing in the computer center, we see it enough to be concerned about it on our wireless network.

The other issue concerning our wireless network is the fact that we use a donated Internet connection from Adelphia Communications. This is very convenient for us (for security reasons) because it is a completely separate service from the library’s regular Internet provider, Burlington Telecom. Adelphia has a very nice program where they donate an Internet connection to any Vermont library that requests one. When I asked them if I could use our connection for a wireless service, they replied that that would be fine as long as we exercised some control over the connection. In other words, please don’t just hang an access point and provide completely open and unfettered access to the Net.

This is when I got the idea to deploy the wireless gateway product called ZoneCD (see www.publicip.net). This open source gateway product lets me set up rules for the use of our wireless network. For example, our wi-fi service is only “open” from 8am – 10pm, and I can limit bandwidth to 300 – 400 kbs per user. It also has some nice statistical and branding features, for example, it forces a redirect to our homepage at login.

This solution is not perfect. As I noted in a previous post, I need to tweak some things to make it a better user experience. In the end, my hope, and our goal is to provide a good wireless experience for our users.

Posted by: Robert Coleburn | Feb 26, 2006 3:19:17 PM

Interesting. The same PSB rule that forces Adelphia to provide free internet to libraries and schools also forces them to provide access to the PEG access centers, including the one where I work. We run an open network there (at VCAM) with no problems at all. I realize that the libraray gets a lot more computer-using traffic than we do at VCAM, but Adelphia has never put stipulations on how we use the free service, and I'd honsetly be surprised if they are allowed to. They are required to provide that service for free in their CPG. Unless limitations are written into the CPG with it, I doubt Adelphia has any teeth to back up their request to excercise "Some control over the system." It was nice of you to comply and all, but don't feel too much pressure from them. As long as you're not re-selling the service, you should be able to use it in any way you see fit.

As far as the other issues go, why not wait and see if there's a problem before implementing restrictions? Lot's of spots (including public libraries) offer free, unrestricted wifi around the country and they don't seem too concerned about bandwidth hogs and porn-viewers (I'm inferring this from the fact of so many open networks existing out there, not from actual research into the matter). Have you spoken to other public libraries around the country with open networks and asked how they deal with those issues?

Anyway, thanks for responding. I hope you eventually find your way toward offering an unrestricted service. /my2c.

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Feb 26, 2006 6:58:09 PM

Speaking of all of this, I'm presently sitting in the JetBlue terminal of Southwest Florida International Airport and I popped open the Powerbook and found what appears to be a totally open network--not even a redirect to the JetBlue home page like in the JFK terminal. I have not tried accessing porn here so I don't knoow if that kind of content filtering is on, but I've had no trouble getting to any of the sites I frequent. Not sure if I have a point, except that if an open (or at least seemless and unobtrusive) netwok can exist in an airport--an institution that is arguably more concerned with security than libraries--then why not at the FFL? I know, apples and oranges, still though...

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Feb 27, 2006 12:11:25 PM

The library has decided to temporarily disable the content filter on its wireless network. It will remain disabled until I can figure out how to configure it to be less obtrusive.

To put it simply, the filter was blocking too many legitimate sites.

Again, I appreciate the comments and feedback from the group.

Robert Coleburn
Systems Librarian
Fletcher Free Library

Posted by: Robert Coleburn | Mar 1, 2006 9:25:52 AM

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