Wireless Computing in JMU Libraries
by Reba Leiding
It happens throughout the semester, but often when the library is at its busiest: a student approaches the Public Services Desk, laptop in hand, and says, “I can’t get a wireless connection.”
Through reports such as this, and through comments submitted to last spring’s LibQual Library survey, we know that library users haven’t been satisfied with the wireless service in Carrier Library. Comments like these have led us to explore ways to make wireless service better.
The wireless network in JMU Libraries represents a partnership between JMU’s Information Technology unit and the libraries, with the wireless infrastructure in the libraries installed and maintained by IT. In early Fall semester 2009 IT installed 16 new wireless access points in order to improve service. According to David Lamm, Manager of Network Engineering, 16 new access points were added throughout Carrier Library. Six new access points were added in the basement, three on the first floor, on the second floor, and three to the third floor, for a total of 20 wireless access points in Carrier.
Even though in Carrier Library wireless nodes have increased by a factor of five, we know that wireless service still isn’t troublefree, especially during peak use periods. JMU’s IT department ran some data reports on wireless use during the week prior to last semester’s finals week—an extremely high use week in the libraries. Report results showed that several library wireless access points were completely “flooded” with connections, according to Bill Hartman, JMU Libraries Systems Administrator. While a wireless access point best handles a maximum of 20 to 25 simultaneous connections, individual access points in East Campus Library had as many as 40 to 50 connections. More than 30 connections were recorded on a single access point in Carrier Library. Hartman notes, “The heaviest Carrier traffic was in the Starbucks area and the large study area directly above Starbucks on the second floor.”
A wired connection travels at 100 megabits per second, while a wireless connection clocks in at 54 megabits per second, or about half the speed of a wired connection. When you consider that 20-30 people might be trying to send data on a connection that is already half the speed of a wired connection, you can see why wireless doesn’t perform as efficiently.
More Isn’t Necessarily Better: Numerous factors come into play to insure a good wireless connection. Network technicians note that adding further wireless access points may not be a solution. Too many access points too close together can cause them to interfere with one another.
Structural Issues: Carrier Library is an older structure, consisting of an original building plus a newer addition. What was once a thick exterior wall of the original building is now an interior wall in the building’s center that can interfere with the wireless signal. The larger number of books stacks in Carrier also has an impact: books are essentially blocks of cellulose, a dense substance that can impede signals. With their tight arrangement in shelves and stacks, books can impose a significant barrier.
Wireless is an “add-on feature” in Carrier, while wireless access was built into the design of the new East Campus Library. As a result, ECL has close to 100 percent coverage, according to Lamm. (But, as noted above, ECL’s access can still be saturated.)
If you look around a study area in the library and see many other people using their laptops, it may be useful to go to a less crowded part of the library. On the other hand, as Hartman explains, a wireless node has what could be termed a “sphere of connectivity” around it that can bleed through most floors and walls. That means there may be numbers of users you can’t see accessing that node on another floor or in an adjacent room.
Differences Among Laptops: Devices also interact with the access points in varying ways; some may be “smarter” at detecting and jumping to an access point that is less utilized. Many factors may account for this, says Dustin Kenny, JMU Libraries IT Support Specialist, including differing hardware and operating systems that can vary by manufacturer. Because of the numerous factors involved in wireless networking, this doesn’t mean that one brand or model of laptop works always works better than others.
The Streaming Factor: Bandwidth issues are yet another factor affecting wireless performance. Streaming audio and video use much more bandwidth than viewing a Google Doc, for example. As Hartman notes, “The wireless network will work better for everybody if high-bandwidth-consuming activities are kept to a minimum. Dispersing the activities between access points will also help a lot. But I’m not sure this is a message that would be well received or easy to promote, and I think it’s impossible to control.”
How Can We Improve Wireless Service: Carrier Library Public Services staff are exploring ways to assess wireless coverage. We have rearranged the furniture so that comfortable seating and study tables to distribute the use of wireless more evenly around the building. Carrier Public Services is considering posting signage so library users can know where is the most potential for obtaining a strong, reliable signal. IT continues to research wireless usage; they are exploring ways to adjust access point settings so they don’t “bottom out.” If possible, a few more access nodes may be installed.
The bottom line: Numerous factors can affect wireless performance, including the building structure, the device you are using, the number of people around you accessing wireless, and how much bandwidth those people are using. Demand will only increase, as more functions are now available with wireless, including the ability to print from your laptop (see JMU Computing’s Wireless and Remote Printing information page to find out more).
It is clear that people love wireless for its convenience and portability. We may not have jetpacks, but we can walk around with our computers. Maybe in the near future wireless technology can catch up with our demands.
For more information about wireless networking at JMU, see JMU Computing's Wireless web page.