Boston Library System Provides Wi-Fi All Over

By Eric Griffith

June 05, 2003

The best hotspots in Beantown may be the free kind -- namely the public access provided by the 29 various branches of the city's public library.

Looking for wireless access in Boston? Arguably the most ubiquitous coverage doesn't come from any coffee or hotel chains, but in the 29 branch buildings of the Boston Public Library (BPL). And access is free. All you need is a library card.

The BPL, like most libraries, provides Internet access for its patrons. Librarians have been pushing for open access to the 'Net since its inception. As Carolyn Coulter, systems officer for the BPL puts it, "It's information and that's what we do."

When it came time to consider wireless access in addition to the library system's numerous wired terminals, "We felt we had to go forward with this, be on the cutting edge, if not the bleeding edge," says Coulter.

The BPL has made sure all the public areas in its branches, from downtown to Allston to South Boston, are setup with wireless access points, and a number of staff areas are being done over now to get Wi-Fi. Patrons have to provide their own client systems and NICs, and must set their NIC card to use DHCP to get an IP address from the access points. Plus, they have to manually enter an SSID, which is changed every few days. Directions are found on the BPL Web Site . The hardest part of the $195,000 deployment (most of which was paid for through the government eRate program) wasn't dealing with running cable through the old buildings such as the main branch in Copley Square (built in 1895). The hard part was protecting kids who might use the Wi-Fi connections.

"We have a mandate from the city and the federal government to filter pornography for kids under 18," says Coulter. "We've been using SurfControl as a proxy [on wired access systems], but we had to figure a way so that the vast majority of places where you could get straight connections, kids could also get on." Access points that are used by the kids broadcast the SSID, however their browsers must be set up with proxy server settings.

"It's the only thing we could find that would work," says Coulter.

The network is relatively simple. Each access point -- all are from Cisco -- is on its own subnet, so there's no seamless roaming. Authentication is done using access lists on a RADIUS server, which match up names with library card numbers which users log in with. The many branch offices throughout the area connect back to the main branch with T1 lines, and a frame relay backup. Dual T3 lines connect to the Internet backbone (only one is live; the other is also for backup).

Coulter says they've been looking into products such as BlueSocket gateways, which could parse users to the right subnets when identified as adult or child by the server, but they haven't made any purchase decisions yet.

So if you're in town, whether for a tradeshow like the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo or as a resident or tourist, stop by and try the BPL's network.

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