Reading a contract from the phone company or a bill from an Internet service provider (ISP) can cause experienced techies to shake their heads in confusion and frustration. Even by the standards of the technology sector, telecommunications professionals use a lot of acronyms and jargon. Moreover, the technology, terminology, services and prices all change frequently. Our intent is to introduce a few concepts that stay relatively stable and consistent. We’ll also be suggesting some criteria that you can use the next time you’re shopping for high-speed data lines.
The focus here is mainly on Internet access; however, in practice, you should plan your voice, video and data needs simultaneously. More and more, the same companies provide all three services and transmit them over the same wires. Phone calls, movies and Web pages can all be translated into digital form and transmitted over the same circuits. Similarly, we discuss wide area networking in the next topic, but in practice, you’ll often get these WAN links from the same company that provides your Internet connection. Wide area networking refers to the connectivity between branches in a multibranch library system.
In the U.S., the major providers of Internet access are phone companies, cable companies and government entities. Minor players include satellite Internet providers and small ISPs who rent equipment and services from larger companies.
Why Should You Plan Carefully when Shopping for Internet Access?
- Software and storage space are moving into the cloud. “The cloud” is just another way of referring to the Internet and the massive amounts of computing power it contains. Almost all of the software and services that run on local servers and PCs are now available online in one form or another. You can write documents online, edit photos, create databases, use accounting software and project management software and on and on. And more and more of us are using the Internet as our primary or secondary storage location for files, photos, videos, etc. Think of sites like Flickr, Box.net, YouTube, Mozy and thousands more. All this creates a constantly increasing demand for bandwidth.
- Video and audio. The quality of online video is improving, and the file sizes are increasing. A few years ago, short, grainy YouTube videos were a novelty. Soon we’ll be downloading three-hour-long, high-definition movies from Amazon or Netflix. As patrons get used to this quality at home and at work, they’ll ask for it in the library as well.
- Spending wisely. Internet connections and wide area network links are a huge expense. A single T-1 line (1.5 Mbps) usually costs more than $1000 per month, and many mid-sized libraries are transitioning to multiple T-1s, T-3s and other high-capacity lines. Make sure you’re getting the best deal, buying what you actually need and getting your money’s worth. Also, you may have more leverage than you think, even if there’s only a single ISP in your town. Libraries are a high-profile, high-volume customer, but you can’t get better service if you don’t know what you need and you don’t know what to ask for.
- Service to patrons and staff. Your Internet connection has a huge impact on staff and patrons. Staff can’t do their jobs without the Internet, and many patrons rely on the library for access to health information, financial institutions, schools, friends, relatives, etc.
- Don’t do it all yourself. Shopping for broadband and assessing different Internet access plans is complicated and time-consuming. Paying the monthly bill is even more painful. Look for ways to share the work, share best practices and share costs.
- Investigate local partnerships. If you issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for Internet access in concert with your local school district, a nearby community college or your city government, you can easily save thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. With increased size comes increased leverage and negotiating power. Furthermore, in a cooperative arrangement, the burden of understanding the different technologies and managing them are distributed across the group. You can turn to your partners for advice and share the cost of hiring network administrators.
- Explore regional library cooperatives. In a regional library co-op (RLC), multiple libraries and library systems in the same area pool their resources to pay for the acquisition, support and maintenance of Internet access, wide area networks, a shared ILS, server, desktop machines, software and other equipment and services as needed. In a lot of states, RLCs already exist. If there isn’t an RLC you can join, the logistical and political hurdles to building one from the ground up are significant but not insurmountable. Regional Library Cooperatives and the Future of Broadband from ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy (OITP) has some advice and a discussion of the benefits.
- Is there a statewide network? If your state administers a statewide high-speed network for schools, colleges and libraries, you’re probably aware of it already. These networks often provide amazing discounts on high-speed lines, as well as help with e-rate applications, advice about technology and other services.
- Consider a hosted solution. You can pay an outside company to host your Web site or your OPAC or both on servers that they own and manage. Managing your own Web server or ILS server is complicated and expensive. You have to maintain the hardware and the software. You have to back up your data on a regular basis and test those backups to make sure they work. You may have to pay extra for a more reliable, higher-bandwidth, business-quality Internet connection. You’ll have security concerns and considerations that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Some libraries look at all these factors and they decide to outsource to a specialist. You can buy high-quality Web hosting for a few hundred dollars a year. For an excellent overview of Web hosting options, check out A Few Good Web Hosting Solutions at Idealware. Your ILS vendor might be able to host your OPAC on one of their servers (for a fee, of course). If you go this route, you still need to pay attention to the concerns mentioned (security, reliability, etc.), but you don’t need the same degree of expertise.
- Find a consultant. WAN networking is a complex, advanced topic, requiring years of study and practice to fully understand. You’ll be more comfortable with your choices in the long run if you get good advice up front.
- Look to the city and county IT departments, as well as the network administrators for your local schools, colleges and universities.
- Also, the other library systems in your area might have expertise in this area, or they might know of a reputable consultant. Regional library consortia and state libraries are also potential resources.
- If you're looking for consultants who specialize in working with social benefit organizations, check out TechFinder. The Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA) and the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses (NACCB) also provide searchable databases with member contact information.
- Ask questions at WebJunction or TechSoup. If you need advice about particular ISP’s or general networking topics, post a question in TechSoup’s Networks forum or WebJunction’s Networking Forum.
How Much Bandwidth Do You Need?
The following are a few tips on how to assess your current bandwidth usage and plan for your future needs.
- Know your end users. Think carefully about the applications and Web sites your staff and clients use today. What sorts of functionality do you think they’ll be asking for in three years or five years? This information has an impact on the amount of bandwidth you’ll need.
- Look at your technology plan. If you have a tech plan or a strategic plan, it probably has useful information about upcoming changes that will impact your bandwidth requirements. Are you planning to hire more staff? Are you rolling out new bandwidth intensive technologies? Do you plan to implement public access computers? These strategic changes will determine greatly the type of connection you need.
- Monitor your network traffic. How fast is demand for bandwidth growing in your organization? How much bandwidth did you use six months ago and how much are you using today? Bandwidth Management Techniques — Tips and Actions can help you track this information. If you’re hosting a Web site or other online services, Web analytics software can also help you forecast future bandwidth needs in your organization. For more information, see A Few Good Web Analytics Tools at Idealware.
Before You Select a Telecom Provider
Before you go looking for a Telecom provider, we recommend that you take a minute or so to download our Ten Factors to Consider When Shopping for a Telecom Provider tool.
Stories from the Field
Q: This is the first time I’ve heard of an ISP who is providing the technical service but donating part of it and also donating the Internet connection, because that’s a pretty big chunk of dough, right?
It is very big, and they’ve been doing it for ten years. [More than] ten years. Maybe closer to 15. We started out in a partnership. They used our electrical closet for their routers and the T1 line that was coming in, and it’s just kind of grown from there. One hundred percent of the cost of the Internet they pick up and give us great bandwidth service. They don’t have their equipment here anymore. They’ve moved up to DS3, but they still provide the service to the library. And our wireless service as well. So it’s been a big boon for the library.
Lewiston Public Library, MT
Traditionally, over the years, the library had always had its own Internet provider. So I started looking at how much we were spending. I think that the more you get together with other people, the more you increase your bargaining power. So we went in together with our main county IT, and we said, ‘How about we join together and try to go out to bid and see what we can get?’ And surprisingly we saved a lot of money because we put our resources together and our bargaining power then became bigger. Everybody was trying to get our business and so they offered us bandwidth that nobody had ever heard of. They were able to come up with certain combinations for us just so they could get our business. You will be amazed at what they can do when you show them the money and they see that they are about to lose a customer — especially one that is going to be a long-term customer. They come up with all kinds of combinations and all kinds of things. We ended up with a 45-Mbps pipe that was split between the two of us. We were paying $3,000 a month for 6-Mbps, and now I’m paying $3,000 a month for 22 Mbps. That’s how you save money. You just have to find other people and just try to leverage your bargaining power, and people will come running.
Johnson County Library, KS
We combined the Bill and Melinda Gates program grant with the city capital improvement project, so we went from 11 to 30 computers, and the bandwidth was sufficient but it was starting to choke a bit because of the new usage. And then we expanded to 38 PCs, and it really started to slow down considerably. And IT at the time, told us, ‘Well, you could have up to 50 computers on this network and it shouldn’t slow down, [but] that was not the case. So, because we got the e-rate funding, we decided to upgrade the bandwidth to as far as we could put it at the time. We went from 1.5 Mbps to 6 Mbps and it’s a huge difference — a huge difference — because we have wireless Internet access and we have 38 public access computers. With all of them working at the same time, it was grinding to a halt. Now, with everything set up it’s really, really fast, which is nice.
Casa Grande Public Library, AZ
The city had gone through a process to upgrade their bandwidth at the same time we were looking at upgrading the library’s bandwidth, and the problem they ran into was that there are a lot of politics involved as far as who should get the contract. So instead of doing a bid, they’re like, ‘Oh, we should use a local company’ and then it should be just this person, and then it sort of all fell apart. Because of e-rate, we’re forced to pick a vendor on that list, which we don’t have any control over. We just have to pick one of the three or four people that can provide that in the area, so we ended up picking Qwest. It led us to get around that little problem by saying, ‘Oh, we can’t do anything about it. We have e-rate. We have to follow the guidelines.’ We were able to pick a company and upgrade our bandwidth, and the city is still struggling with theirs, so it’s kind of funny.
Casa Grande Public Library, AZ
I mean, the bottom line for me is you could never put enough money and resources into the backbone, because often it’s not the machines on the front that are causing you the problem. It is that you don’t have enough bandwidth to do what your customers want to be able to do on those machines.
Columbus Library, OH
We are experiencing some bandwidth issues. We’ve got kids in after school playing games. And what we discovered is that our ISP has a list of game sites, and when they see those coming through as traffic, they clamp down the bandwidth. So when we’ve got kids in here playing the games, our bandwidth actually gets smaller because it’s shared by the whole community. And I sort of found that out by accident. I had read about it somewhere and called the ISP and asked, and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ Because we thought it was sort of odd that even if we only had one kid playing, it seemed to really slow it down. So we’re sort of negotiating on that.
Lincoln Public Library, CA
E-rate is a pain. It’s time-consuming but for libraries like us, it’s what allows us to do what we do and that’s the biggest motivator right there. We would not be offering the high-speed DSL and the higher-speed bandwidth that we have and the wireless network that we have here in this library if it wasn’t for the reimbursements from e-rate. Our budget simply wouldn’t allow us to do that, and that’s been the case all through the years. E-rate was what allowed us to go from dial-up to Frame Relay because we knew that we were going to get back 80 percent of what we spent, and we tried to do it right from the very beginning as far as kind of following the rules and just plodding along with it, and it’s served us well. I honestly don’t know what we would do if they discontinue it.
Suwannee River System, FL
A number of years ago, when we replaced our network with DSL, we went from Frame Relay to DSL, we had to replace some equipment and we bought Cisco PIX boxes. We really didn’t feel that we wanted to delve into setting up virtual private networks (VPNs) for our library automation system. So we hired someone to set it up and show us how they did it. I called around to some of the other libraries in the area in Florida. We have a pretty good network. I think that I’m pretty well networked with most of the people around, and I got opinions from them. And then I would contact the person and see how I felt about them and how we meshed as far as time and money and so on, and we’ve been fortunate so far.
Suwannee River System, FL