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Public Internet Access

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There are many reasons for providing public Internet access. Usually this access is provided for the convenience of visitors, or for local community members who can't access high speed Internet at home. Public Internet access is also an important part of Digital Literacy initiatives, giving people an opportunity to practice their computer skills before starting their own Internet subscription.

Looking to expand public Internet access in your town? The information below outlines different models of how other Vermont communities have done it:

Looking for a public Internet access point in your town? Check this page on Finding Internet Access.

Libraries

Libraries are often the first place to look for public Internet access. If you want to know the technology available at your local library, check for their website in this statewide list or check the annual library statistics, which include data on available technology.

Below is more information on how public libraries are opening up Internet access for their communities.

Through e-Vermont, the Vermont Department of Libraries helped 25 public libraries improve their Internet access services, as well as their online offerings.

You can find more information on the Internet Intern Program, which was continued through the Vermont Digital Economy Project, here, and more stories about the interns' work and digital literacy, here.

Stories from e-Vermont libraries include:

The Regional Consultants at the Department of Libraries were instrumental in these projects.

WebJunction.org, a national site, is a commonly used resource for learning about public access at libraries. Visit the "Explore Topics" section to find links to critical topics for those working in the library profession today.

Libraries are often also locations for hotspots and anchor institutions in wireless Internet zones. To find out more about the one-on-one assistance e-Vermont libraries provided through the Vermont State Colleges' Internet Interns program click here.

Community Computers

Public libraries are the most common places for finding computers with Internet access in Vermont communities, although not every library has this option, their network of almost 200 locations across the state makes it likely a library near you will offer Internet access. Two other statewide systems to check out are adult education centers and adult technical education centers.

Below are some additional projects that bring public Internet access to communities.

e-Vermont Community Projects:

In e-Vermont communities, Middlesex provided a computer to use at their town hall hotspot and also opened their elementary school computer lab to community members. Click here for more school information, including a sample use policy.

Bristol, Jay/Westfield and Fairfield all developed mobile computer labs. In Bristol and Fairfield these labs were associated with the public library, in Jay and Westfield the lab was shared between two community centers. Click here for more information on mobile labs.

Many e-Vermont communities have opened up Internet access, but without providing equipment, through hotspots and wireless Internet zones. Other sections of this toolkit detail that process.

Vermont State Programs:

When the Agency of Human Services launched their modernization initiative, they invited organizations to become "Community Assisters." These asssisters are locations where community members can get online to access benefits information and applications. For more information on Community Assisters, click here.

The Vermont Department of Labor provides computers at its resource centers for area residents to use in job searches. See the list of resource center locations here.

National Programs:

For examples of a range of solutions to providing public Internet access in a community, browse through the list of national Public Computing Center award recipients from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Project or the Community Connect grant program through USDA. Another federal program, Neighborhood Networks, previously funded a computing center project with the Burlington Housing Authority.

Community Internet Access at Schools

Many schools have computer labs that receive little use outside of school hours. Some schools have explored opening labs up to community members during these off hours. It's not technically difficult to set up one of these programs. Below are some of the questions to answer when first exploring a program for community use of school labs:

  • What hours can the school be open to the community?
    Often these hours coincide with times when the custodial staff have the doors unlocked.
  • How can the open doors be configured to make sure that visitors only use the computer lab?
  • Who will serve as lab monitor while the lab is open?
  • What skills does the lab monitor need?
    Some towns will want to simply have someone onhand to supervise, others might want someone with technical skills to troubleshoot computer problems or teaching skills to assist with learning computer basics.
  • What filters does the school apply on web surfing? Will these filters interfere with general community use?
    It's important for most schools to match filters with the requirements for e-rate funding (a government program that reduces Internet costs). There are different ways to set the filters, acceptable website lists, and use policies to comply - just check the rules first.
  • What is the policy for using other computer lab equipment, such as the printer?
  • What happens if there is a computer problem? Who do you call or notify the next school day?
  • How will the community know that the lab is available?
  • Are there ways that students and teachers can use labs after hours to expand learning opportunities?

For any public computer, it is a good idea to have a clearly stated computer use policy. Click here for an example of a policy from Rumney Elementary School in Middlesex.

After planning for the open computer lab, there is still work to be done to get this resource into use. Here are some tips from the experience of Mt. Abraham High School in Bristol.

Mobile Computer Labs

Mobile computer labs let organizations bring Internet access and computers to specific locations in a community.  For example, Bristol’s Lawrence Memorial Library brings theirs to senior lunches, Jay and Westfield use theirs at Community Center events. 

Mobile labs are usually outfitted with laptop, tablet (e.g. iPad) or netbook computers.  Click here for longer descriptions of each piece of equipment.

To make the computers mobile, and to store and charge them, there are many different storage carts available to purchase. Units are designed to store conventional laptops, iPads or netbooks, but not all three in the same cart.  Carts may store as little as 6 or as many as 40 devices.

The places where mobile labs can be used are essentially anywhere with a high speed Internet connection and wireless router to create a hotspot or anywhere in a wireless Internet zone. The necessary speeds will vary depending on number of machines connected and the Internet applications you are using.  For example, concurrent downloads of video will require a fast connection and a robust router for acceptable performance while learning the basics of Internet searches will not need as fast a speed.

Finally, one of the most important things to plan ahead for is device maintenance and management, including software updates. For examples of technology maintenance plans, some of the best resources are for public libraries and schools. Here is one write up from an educators’ blog on iPads. Examples of library resources can be found in the public library section of this toolkit. Check online and with your mobile lab’s equipment supplier for the most current best practices.

Sample School Computer Use Policy

2011 MIDDLESEX PUBLIC COMPUTERS/WIFI PROJECT

RULES and PROTOCOL

Welcome to Rumney School. We are pleased to offer selected computers, as well as internet access, to Middlesex residents. Please follow the following guidelines while you are using this free service.

  • No unaccompanied children. Please leave K-6 kids at home if possible; if not, parents must maintain control over their children at all times.
  • No roaming the building. You are invited to use the Library space and the restrooms across the hall.
  • No food or drink near the computers.
  • Due to severe nut allergies, no food containing nuts is allowed in Rumney’s common spaces, including the library.
  • Sorry, you cannot print documents here.
  • Please clean up after yourself and be sure to put chairs, etc. back the way you found them when you leave.

Please check with the proctor on specific computer usage. Unless the proctor indicates otherwise:

  • Use the Acer netbooks, which do not need power cords. You may also use the desktop machines.
  • You will need to log on with the username “XXXXXXXXXX” and the password “XXXXXXX”
  • When you are done, please use the “OFF” icon in the Start menu to shut down.

Public Computer and Wifi Sites in Middlesex 2011 Schedule:

Rumney School: Thursday evenings, 6:00 pm-7:30 pm

Middlesex Town Hall: (M-Th, 8:30-noon and 1:00-4:30; Fri., 8:30-noon)

This project is organized by the e-Middlesex project and the Middlesex Solutions Committee. Questions, problems, or interested in helping? Please contact . . .

Wireless Hotspots

A wireless hotspot is one form of Local Area Network (LAN). The term LAN means that you are connecting multiple devices (e.g. computers) over a small area (e.g. a coffeeshop, airport, visitors center, etc).  Through a router, these devices can then connect to the Internet.

Creating a wireless hotspot requires simply an Internet subscription and a wireless router.

The Internet subscription can go through your local provider. Usually the provider requires a business level subscription if you are sharing the connection with multiple users.

Selecting the wireless router is a little more complicated. This link will take you to a more detailed description of considerations for the router.

A router provides the basic network security of password protection. There are also more advanced options for managing a hotspot, which are described here.

Note that a hotspot is not the same as a wireless zones. "Wireless Zone" generally refers to a much larger area that requires more equipment than a router to provide coverage. A wireless zone will also require permission from the Internet Service Provider to broadcast their signal further than the reach of a wireless router.

Routers for Hotspots

A router is a physical device that joins multiple wired or wireless networks together. There are literally hundreds of wireless routers to choose from. Common brands are Cisco/Linksys, Netgear, and Belkin. Reviews of routers are easy to find on tech blogs, online computing magazines, and technology review sites such as CNET or PC Magazine.

Here are some things to look for when you choose a router:

  • Wireless Network Standard or Protocol: The networking standards for wireless technologies are variations on the 802.11 standard - 802.11 a, b, g and n. The important thing for the consumer is that if you buy a new router, it will be backwards compatible with previous standards. However, if you get a used router that might have been designed to an older standard, you need to check the compatibility. 
  • Speed: Routers are rated by the speed (Mbps) at which they can transmit data. The faster the router, the faster devices within the local area network can transmit data between each other. In most cases, devices in a Wi-Fi hotspot aren't set up to transmit between each other, just to connect to the Internet. This means that speed will be determined by the speed of the Internet connection, not the speed of the router.
  • Single or Dual Band: Wireless routers may operate in two radio frequency bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Single band devices use 2.4GHz; dual band devices can use both. The advantage of dual band is that if the 2.4GHz range gets busy, the router can switch to 5GHz and reduce interference from other devices. The trade off is that the 5GHz band signal strength decreases more rapidly than 2.4GHz as you move away from the router, so the signal coverage area will be smaller. The dual band routers are also more expensive.
  • Signal Strength: As mentioned above, one way of getting a stronger signal that covers more area is to use a single band, instead of dual band, router. You can also check the marketing claims of different routers, and router reviews, for a sense of how each brand compares. The signal can be extended by purchasing a Wi-Fi range extender to install in your network. For covering an even larger area, see our pages on wireless Internet zones.
  • Security:A secure router enables you to encrypt any data that is sent over the network and allows access only to users who know the security key (unless you choose to have open access). This security level is baseline. If you want to add on more layers, additional information is available here.

Hotspot Management

The basic Internet-wireless router connection will let you make the Internet available to multiple devices at once, and give an option for making that connection open or password protected.

Many hotspot providers want and need additional controls to effectively manage their network.  One popular option is to exchange the software that is built into an off-the-shelf wireless router with firmware that gives you features and controls not available in a standard device. Examples of firmware include DD-WRT, OpenWRT or Tomato

Examples of features possible with firmware include:

  • Controls for bandwidth allocation
  • Viewable performance graphs and statistics that can be accessed remotely
  • Path to extending the network
  • Web portal, a page that everyone comes to when they connect through your hotspot
  • Advanced features for authenticating hotspot users and controlling how they can connect to the Internet 

Firmware can only be added to specific wireless router models, so be sure to review lists of compatible routers and detailed information about the firmware installation features. 

No matter what level of control you place on your hotspot, it's important that all users understand this connection is public and nothing guarantees its security.

If you want to learn more about security, privacy and liability in public Internet access, the American Library Association is a good resource. Some of their information is library-specific, much of it offers ideas that apply to any public access.

Finding Public Internet Access

Every town has different options for finding Internet access - particularly for those who don't have mobile devices. Here are some places to check for Internet near you:

  • Local Public Library - including both in-library access and hotspot coverage. If you don't know whether your local library has public computers, you can check the annual statistics from the Dept. of Libraries, which include available technology.
  • Adult Education Center - All adult education centers have computer laboratories and many have public access
  • Vermont Adult Technical Education - Check with your local tech center on whether there are public hours for Internet access
  • Community Assisters - The Agency of Human Services has identified community partners to assist with accessing online resources for community, social, & economic services.
  • Vermont Department of Labor Resource Centers - These resource centers provide computer connections for finding employment and / or accessing unemployment benefits and Department of Labor services.

Many private businesses provide wireless Internet connections for the convenience of their customers. The above list focuses on connections set up in the public's service, and so does not include customer service hotspots. 

For additional examples of ways that some communities make Internet access available - check out this link.

Do you want to subscribe to the Internet? Find out who offers service in your area at http://www.broadbandvt.org/