Chicago Public Libraries Go Wireless

By Naomi Graychase

December 07, 2004

The first phase of the city's MAN-plan is turning the library system into a series of hotspots using equipment from switch-vendor Airespace.

After carefully rolling it out over the course of two months, the City of Chicago officially unveiled its free wireless network in the city's libraries today. Now any Chicago resident with a valid Public Library card can access all of the city's digital library resources wirelessly while on-site at any of the 79 branches.

The city chose San Jose, California-based Airespace to handle the deployment of its centrally managed 802.11b WLAN. The network utilizes Airespace 4000 WLAN Switches and Airespace 1200 access points. All 79 sites are centrally managed from the library's IT headquarters at the Harold Washington Library Center using Airespace Control System (ACS) software. Airespace, which created a similar but smaller network for the Seattle public library, is also working with the city of Chicago on a more extensive city-wide metropolitan area network (MAN), the full details of which have not yet been announced.

The Chicago Public Library's hotspot network is good news for all patrons, both with and without wireless-enabled devices. Wi-Fi users can now employ their own laptops to tap into the card catalog and all of the library's research databases without having to wait in line for an available computer terminal, which in turn frees up more space for patrons without their own wireless devices.

"Our users are delighted with it," says Mary Dempsey, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library System. "Our staff is delighted, too. For those who live in Chicago and have a wireless laptop, it's a great resource—and this network frees up that many more land-based computers to the public. It doubles our reach in that respect."

The network, which partially utilized existing Ethernet network infrastructure, cost only $81,000 to deploy and is only expected to cost the city an additional $14,000 per year to maintain. It was created, says Dempsey, in response to user demand and as a result of Chicago mayor Richard Daley's drive to bring more library resources to his public.

"We have a dynamic mayor who is an enormous supporter of the library. He believes in moving the city forward using technology. The digital divide is critical for us to bridge if we're going to have a good quality of life and an educated work force," says Dempsey.

Anticipated yearly maintenance costs have been kept down primarily because of the ACS software, which allows the library's few IT staff members to manage the entire system from one central location, and to create and provision consistent security policies across the network. Airespace's software also provides accurate location tracking which enables rapid fault isolation and problem resolution for each site.

"Management is by far the biggest asset Airespace brought to this project," says Jeff Aaron, senior manager of Product Marketing at Airespace. "We provide the ability to scale a large network and have it centrally managed and have all the tools in place to easily troubleshoot. With a large-scale network, that is very important. Along with that, the ability to handle load through RF management is an asset. Our software can detect changes in load and dynamically adjust itself making it easy to do balancing across access points. It has to run flawlessly with 10 or 150 users on the network at any given site. RF management enabled this to happen automatically."

In addition to free, public Wi-Fi, the Airespace WLAN system provides a secure channel for the city's field workers, Chicago police, and public safety personnel to access.

"Within the library, a certain part of the network is dedicated to police and other city employees. It extends out into the parking lot so that they can pull in and get wireless access without having to leave their vehicles," says Aaron.

In the coming months, expect to see more announcements from the city of Chicago as it deploys the next phases of its overall MAN plan.

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