Extending Your Library’s WiFi Reach

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Library parking lots were access points for WiFi even before social distancing requirements due to COVID-19 made them essential connection points for internet access. But with many libraries closed or operating on limited hours, boosting your library’s WiFi signal into your parking lot can mean the difference between a patron being able to apply for unemploymentt or not.  Let’s take a look at some relatively easy things you can do to expand access. 

How Much Speed Do People Need?

First, it’s useful to know just how much bandwidth (or the amount of data passing through network cables) is needed for specific types of activities and tools. Three different types of activities generally comprise how we work online: downloading, uploading, and streaming. 

  • Streaming is a type of data transfer that isn’t stored locally anywhere on your device; instead you just listen or view it as it streams continuously from another source. Streaming only uses as much bandwidth as is needed at the time; think of it more like a marathon — a slow pace (bandwidth consumption) but over a longer period of time, which can add up to a lot of data use overall.
  • Downloading transfers data from one place to another, usually permanently saving a copy on your device. Depending on your internet speed, this typically takes up more bandwidth over a shorter period of time; think of it more like a sprint than a marathon. 
  • Uploading is just transferring something you have locally to another data source. Everything from email attachments, uploading PDFs to school classroom platforms, posting pictures to social media, or sharing your own webcam in a video chat requires uploading data. 

The chart below shows the average estimated amount of bandwidth needed for each of these activities. 

Chart showing the amount of internet speed needed for different kinds of online activities. Activities such as email and advanced internet browsing require 1Mbps or less, while more bandwidth intensive activities such as streaming high definition video, online gaming, and video conferencing require 1.5 - 5 Mbps.
Different online activities require different amounts of bandwidth.

Things like email or simple web-browsing are normally low bandwidth, but even during browsing you might be searching websites that have image-heavy pages or come across auto-play videos which will increase your bandwidth needs. Activites like streaming videos or web-conferencing consistently require higher bandwidth.  Additionally, when there are groups of people multitasking between lots of different bandwidth intensive activities, each person will start to notice that their overall speed decreases. That’s why it’s important to have high enough broadband speeds from which your WiFi can assist users in your parking lot. 

How To Strengthen Your Signal

The first step to strengthening your signal is to figure out how strong it is in the first place. Take a smartphone, tablet, or laptop and connect it to your library’s WiFi network. Then, go to various parts of your library’s parking lot or outdoor areas where you are expecting people to use the network and run an internet speedtest.  Keep in mind social distancing policies according to your city or county guidelines when deciding where you’ll test.

An internet speedtest will tell you how much bandwidth you are currently providing to your community — and it’s helpful to know both download AND upload speeds as previously noted that to fully participate in online activities we use both. Here are two reputable sources for speedtests:

Repositioning or Purchasing Equipment

Based on your capacity and your library’s unique needs, follow the step below to boost your library’s WiFi signal.

Step 1: Contact your Internet Service Provider and determine the maximum Mbps your building receives under your current contract or agreement. During this crisis, many ISPs will temporarily offer free speed upgrades, waive overages, or offer other free promotions or services. Ask if anything is available to your library.

Step 2: If no additional funds can be spent: 

Take one of your library’s access points and move it close to a window nearest to your parking lot. The closer your access point is to where people will be using it, the better the signal.

Step 2: If additional funds can be spent
(for example, you have received a grant or donation):  Ensure your current equipment does not reduce your speed.

  • For example, your ISP contract may be for 140 Mbps but if your modem’s maximum rate is 100 Mbps you are losing speed. In this case you should use the first option below.

Step 3: Determine what equipment you need to bring your network to the parking lot or outdoor area. Three options:

  • Easiest solution: Replace your modem and router with upgraded models. If possible, choose a simultaneous dual-band or tri-band router which supports 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Ensure the devices work with your ISP. Daisy chain your old router to the new router and place it by a window facing the parking lot. 
  • Second easiest: Purchase a new wireless extender or multiple new wireless routers, either indoor or outdoor. An extender simply extends the reach of your wireless network. If possible, choose a simultaneous dual-band or tri-band device which supports 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Ensure the device works with your ISP. Install it near a window facing the parking lot or outdoors.
  • A little more legwork: Purchase a new wireless repeater, either indoor or outdoor. This device essentially creates a clone of your original network re-broadcasted to a second location and involves more complex setup. If possible, choose a dual-band or dual-radio device. Ensure the device works with your ISP. Install it near a window facing the parking lot or outdoors.

Need equipment recommendations?

Implementation even if you aren’t tech savvy:  

Reach out to your city or county IT department, a trusted volunteer, or even put out a call on social media for assistance and expertise. Generosity abounds when there are people in need. 

Additionally, if you do not have access to local IT support and are located in a rural area, the Fort Worth-based Information Technology Disaster Resource Center is providing technology assistance and connectivity to rural and underserved communities. As a library staff member, simply email them at projectConnect@itdrc.org to see if they can assist you. Their services are free of charge.

Curious to know more about broadband and WiFI networks? Enroll in our free online You Can Do  I.T curriculum that explains these concepts in further detail. 

Additional resources and references:

Many thanks to Liz Gabbitas and colleagues at the Utah State Library for their excellent guidelines on extending Library WiFi.

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