Singing With Wireless

Wireless – What Is It

When Leigh Harline and Ned Washington wrote the lyrics to I’ve Got No Strings, they weren’t referring to wireless communication. But Roanoke County’s library system is singing the Disney tune for just that reason. The wireless net has settled over county libraries in a way that staff members never envisioned.

So what is wireless, and why is it one of the hottest tunes IT departments are singing? Simply put, wireless gives laptop users the freedom to access the Internet and/or an organization’s network without wires or cables. With the simple insertion of a wireless card, laptop users can access the Internet and networks virtually anywhere within an organization’s wireless net.

Why All the Buzz

On average, 700 citizens access the Internet daily over the public computers Roanoke County libraries make available. While numerous computers are available for citizen use, often there’s a wait. Citizens are also limited to the amount of time they may use a library computer to ensure equitable access for everyone. Now visualize citizens coming into the library with their own laptops. With the use of their own wireless card a citizen is free to sit anywhere in the library to access the Internet and conduct their business without interruption.

And conduct business is exactly what they do. A large number of business people visit Roanoke County libraries on a daily basis to access the Internet for mail or research. With the library’s wireless net, business people access the web using their personal laptops and computer settings. Not only business people utilize the wireless net. When the county schools started its program of issuing all ninth grade students laptops, the libraries saw an increase in the number of student visitors. Huddled in cluster groups throughout the library, students worked with peers on school projects, but they found it difficult to access the Internet for research purposes. Now, with the installation of a wireless net, students can work together anywhere in the library and access the Internet.

How It Happened

As with all things, local governments must prioritize their spending; this sometimes leaves various departments with little or no increase in annual funding. Within the Roanoke County library system, book purchases must come first, along with other media, then there’s the expense of maintaining the technology already implemented throughout six library branches. That doesn’t leave much left for installing new technology.

According to Roanoke County’s Director of Libraries, Diana Rosapepe, “…the impetus came from Mr. Hodge (Elmer C. Hodge, County Administrator) to create a wireless network in each of the county’s library branches.”  Another compelling incentive to install wireless was the number of visitors to the county’s six libraries, which averages about 2000 per day. About 25 percent of those visitors utilize the public computers.

With the backing of the County Administrator, IT was able to help move the wireless project forward. The overall time span for planning, installation and setup was less than five months, and the first test site designated was the county’s main library. To ensure the security of the county’s main network, technicians installed a separate TI line for use in the library. They then hardwired the building from each wireless receiver back

to the dedicated T1 connection. The county’s technical staff accomplished this rigorous task in three days. In August 2003, IT turned on the wireless net for the county’s main library. With testing complete, scheduling has been set for remaining county libraries to have wireless access by the end of June 2004.

Benefits and Lessons Learned

In the county’s continuous efforts to improve citizen services, there are always problems that need to be resolved. Anticipating those problems is half the battle when it comes to the success of a new project. In this undertaking, staff members predicted more problems than they actually experienced. “We thought the public would need more help, but our users were much more tech savvy than we expected,” Rosapepe said. “Never underestimate the public’s ability to adapt.”

With the install at the county’s main library complete, citizens now have the ability to access the county’s catalog system via the Internet from anywhere in the building. The wireless system also serves as a backup to the county’s main network. If for any reason the main network is unavailable, library employees have access to the wireless network to continue providing help to visitors. Additionally, based on demand and available funding, the county envisions the possibility of wireless cards being available for checkout to citizens, which will help free up more computers for public use.

Wireless has definitely sent Roanoke County libraries in a new direction. “We’re headed in a very positive direction,” says Elaine Carver, Director of Information Technology. “There’s an increasing demand for these types of technology services, and Roanoke County is raising the bar on providing services that benefit our citizens.”  So, while the county continues to stretch itself and expand its technology offerings, it’s also continuing to hum that familiar Disney tune, because they really don’t have any strings holding them down.

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04/03/2004
Roanoke County Information Technology
Kathi B. Scearce, PR Manager