Wireless Access Point Tip Sheet for Museums

Summary write-up:
Wireless access points are locations where the public can access the internet through their own wireless devices, and there is evidence that visitors expect these access points to be available as part of their museum experience. If you have not yet installed wireless access in your museum and are considering doing so, this tip sheet will help you consider the various issues associated with your project. A glossary is provided at the end of the document.

Introduction

A 2014 study by J.D. Power & Associates, reveals that smartphone penetration in Canada is now at 73%, and this does not include tablets or other wireless devices. Further to this, correlates in the demographic profiles of smartphone owners and museum visitors suggest that penetration rates are significantly higher among those who walk through museum doors. The trend is towards full penetration, and telecommunications analyst Dvai Ghose is quoted by the Globe & Mail as stating that “consumers expect free WiFi” – which is hardly surprising; WiFi (meaning Wireless Fidelity, or more meaningfully, a trade name for a high speed brand of wireless internet access) provides internet access to those who don’t have a cell phone data plan, and it lowers costs for those who do. For those museums that have on-line content, wireless access for museum-goers can also be used to enrich the visitor’s experience; self-guided tours, social media sites, apps that draw content from the internet, and other online resources all become feasible with WiFi in place.

If your museum already has internet access through an unlimited data plan, the cost of basic wireless internet is marginal. The service might be provided simply by purchasing a router, drafting a policy, and taking some of the security measures discussed below. Before doing this however, consider the following issues, and the differences in how wireless access might be provided.

Direct Internet Access vs Captive Portals

Two basics types of wireless access are commonly offered:

1) Direct Internet Access

This form of access typically consists of a single wireless router connected to a high speed (cable or DSL) modem, and it is the same setup one might find at home. Often, the visitor’s device will automatically locate the wireless service and ask the visitor if the connection should be used. If the visitor accepts, he or she may be queried for a password, and once given, the user has full access to the internet.

The greatest advantage of this solution is simplicity; wireless routers are commonly available at home or office electronics shops and can be installed without technical knowledge. Access to such a service is typically managed by controlling who receives the password; for instance, by offering the password at the admissions desk, and by changing the password on a regular basis.  In addition, most routers come with network management software that can identify the wireless devices using the router, and bar them from the network if desired.

Disadvantages with this solution include: no automated means of billing the visitor for usage (this is not an problem if the service is offered for free, or if the password is provided with admission only), no means of obtaining the visitor’s consent online to terms of service (again not an issue if the visitor’s consent is obtained by other means), and no method of automatically directing the visitor’s device to museum content.

2) Captive Portal

This more sophisticated form of access is often associated with WiFi hotspots (a form of high speed wireless access) offered in large public spaces. Typically, the visitor’s device automatically locates the wireless service and asks the visitor if the connection should be used. If the visitor accepts, the device is immediately directed to a web-page that requires the user to accept terms of service or pay for use of the hotspot. In the case of a museum, a captive portal might also be used to direct the visitor to a guided tour, or other content.

To implement a captive portal, you will need a wireless router that is compatible with this technology (they are common and do not cost significantly more than other routers). You will also need a technician to install and configure the router. Several organisations offer portal services under various terms (try an internet search on “captive portal services”), and some use a profit sharing business model. So if your museum charges visitors for the service, there is no capital expenditure to your institution beyond the cost of a router and the skilled labour to set it up.

Wireless Hardware Architecture

In addition to the type of the wireless service provided, there are various hardware architectures that can be implemented. While some organisations have a combination of the following, there are three basic architectures: 

1) Single Router

This is the same hardware setup found in most homes; i.e. a single router which is connected to the internet via a high speed modem.
Advantages: It is simple to setup, and in fact may already exist in your museum.
Disadvantages: The range over which the router works can be limited. Also, if your museum’s own machines are using the same network, their access to the internet can be impeded by traffic from public devices, and more importantly, your office machines are vulnerable to hacking.

2) Single Router with Virtual LAN

These are business class wireless routers that offer a virtual LAN (local area network) which automatically keeps traffic between public and museum devices separate.
Advantages: Having a separate virtual LAN keeps office traffic invisible to public devices, and reduces the museum’s vulnerability to hacking.
Disadvantages: Office internet traffic can still be slowed by traffic from public devices.

3) Two routers (one private, one public).

This solution involves two completely separate routers running two different networks.
Advantages: Reduces vulnerability to hacking. If using separate internet services for each router, this architecture also ensures that traffic from public devices does not affect performance of the museum’s office network. There is also redundancy in such a system; if for instance, the office network were to drop, the museum would still have connectivity through the public network.
Disadvantages: This architecture is more complex, and more expensive.

Extending Network Range

In addition to the three basic architectures described above, there are hardware architectures that can be used to increase the range of the wireless network. These include:

1) Long Range Wireless Routers

These devices appear similar to a typical router, but with more and slightly larger antennas, and a larger price tag ($200-$300). Range varies with the environment, but it is typically two to three times the distance provided by a basic router.
Advantages: These routers are easy to install (requiring no technical knowledge), and are a comparatively affordable way of extending wireless range.
Disadvantages:  While this sort of router may serve a small museum space well, it may not suffice for larger areas with multiple rooms, concrete walls, or outdoor spaces.

2) Wireless Repeaters and Extenders

All versions of this technology involve a device that is placed at the edge of an existing router’s range. The repeater “listens” for a signal (either from the router or a device communicating with the router), then acts as an intermediary to amplify the signal by “repeating” it.
Advantages: These devices are easy to install, and they work well to increase a router’s range. They can also be used to overcome obstructions such as concrete walls, hills, etc...
Disadvantages: Repeaters will slow the traffic in your network. By repeating a signal on the same frequency these devices increase data collisions, which effectively cut bit rates in half - or more. There are some technologies that use multiple frequencies in mesh networks to overcome this (see below).

3) Wireless Mesh Networks

These local area (and sometimes larger area) networks involve the placement of a number of specialised “mesh” routers throughout a larger space, such as an airport, or a large outdoor facility. Each of these routers communicate with the other via wireless signals. A wireless device such as a phone or tablet connects to the network rather than to a single router, and that device’s communication session is managed transparently by the network.

Simpler versions of these networks use a single radio frequency to manage all traffic, whereas more complex versions use multiple radio frequencies (much like a multi-lane freeway) to better manage traffic.

Advantages: Mesh networks can provide the best range over the broadest number of conditions. If the network uses a multi-channel radio architecture, it can also manage a large number of devices without significant degradation to transmission rates.
Disadvantages: Wireless Mesh Networks are expensive relative to other solutions, and require specialists to install them. Many of these networks do not use multi-channel radio architecture, or do not use it effectively to manage traffic. If considering a mesh network technology, it is prudent to ask for examples of existing installations that can be tested, then test the upload and download rates on that installation by running multiple devices across that network. Be sure to use newer and older (slower) devices simultaneously to see how slower devices degrade the network’s performance.

Placement of equipment

Regardless of the solution chosen, some basic consideration should be given to where routers are placed. Some tips that can be tried to improve a router’s performance include:

  1. Place the router centrally (if using a single router).
  2. Place the router away from the modem and other electrical devices.
  3. Place the router so as to minimise shadows created by dense obstructions (concrete walls for instance).  Having a line of sight from the router to areas that are most likely to be frequented by device users is ideal.
  4. Do not settle on a single location – experiment.

Security

Basic consideration should also be given to the security of the network. Some simple steps include:

  1. Make sure wireless equipment is located in a physically secure area, so that it cannot be physically hacked; and
  2. For any office machines sharing a wireless network with public devices:
    • Turn off file sharing;
    • Turn off printer sharing; and
    • Ensure all accounts on personal computers have password protection.

Internet Traffic Monitoring and Filtering.

Your museum may choose to filter or monitor web traffic as part of its user policy. In the event that it does, a number of services are available.

Some captive portals services (if your museum is using a captive portal) have features that will perform content filtering for you. There are also online services similar to a captive portal that allow you to monitor or filter content according to criteria that you set. Finally, there is software that can be installed directly on a server in your museum if you wish to do this work in-house.  A web search for “content filtering services and software” will provide ample information about the options available. Here are some common ways in which filtering services work to help in your investigation:

Language and Heuristic Filters

These filters (similar to those used in Google’s “safe search” setting) detect language and other patterns in internet content to determine whether or not it should be filtered. As a user of these filters, you generally do not have direct control over what they do, but you can typically raise or lower the level of protection so that the filter becomes more, or less restrictive.

Blacklist Filtering

These filters consist of a list of URLs or IP addresses to which traffic cannot be sent or received. The black lists are typically maintained by the provider of the filter service, but there is often an option available for clients of the service to modify a copy of the blacklist. If you do not want users viewing YouTube videos over your low-bandwidth wireless access point for instance, a blacklist filter is an excellent option.

Whitelist Filtering

This filter consists of a list of URLs or IP addresses to which traffic can be sent or received.  No other portion of the internet is available from an access point that is blocked by a white list filter.  Whitelists are typically not used on public access points because they are too limiting.

User Policy

A web search on “Wireless user policy” will produce several examples, but whatever policy you produce, it should be kept simple; under one page. When designing this policy, consider the following:

  1. Your museum’s mandate (i.e. how the provision of wireless service falls within the mandate of your museum).
  2. Digital Strategy – if your museum has such a strategy, how does the provision of wireless fit within it?
  3. Your museum’s obligation to the internet service provider; you will have an obligation to make a reasonable effort to prevent visitors from using the wireless service for illegal purposes.
  4. Bandwidth limitations.

You may of course identify additional issues at a future point, and the policy that results from this need not be cast in stone. Consider having a test period to establish the degree to which the policy is suitable for your museum and if the policy is not working, change it.

Once a policy has been developed, it can be posted in various locations such as: the landing page of a captive portal for instance, or on a document that includes the wireless password which might be handed out with a receipt for admission, located at the admissions desk, or posted at the entrance of your building. This all depends on the nature of the service and how you wish to provide it.

Conclusion

Solutions to providing wireless service can be scaled to any organisation. The simplest solution for smaller museums is to provide visitors access to an existing wireless router, and by sharing the router password and usage policy at the admissions desk. If you do this, be sure your museum’s data plan offers unlimited data. Secure any office machines by requiring strong passwords for user login and by turning off drive and device sharing.

Expanding on this, the basic architecture of a wireless network can be improved by using longer range routers, virtual networks, multiple networks, or a mesh network. Captive portals and content filters can also be introduced. Once wireless service is introduced to your museum, it not only meets a demand that visitors are coming to expect, it opens your museum up to creating enriched user experiences by enabling self-guided tours, links to social media sites, applications that draw content from the internet, and other resources, that can all be accessed from users’ devices.

References

Glossary

Access Point
a device that allows wireless devices to connect to a wired network (be it a local area network, the internet, or anything in-between). A wireless router is an example of an access point.
Bit rate
the speed at which a digital signal travels across a network. It is measured in bits (but often expressed in Kilobits, Megabits, and Gigabits) per second.
Cable modem
a modem (modulator-demodulator) that connects a computer or router to a network (typically for connectivity to the internet) via the same cable that provides cable television service.
Captive Portal
a web page to which wireless network users may be directed (and often required to interact with) upon connecting to a wireless access point.
Download rate
the speed (or more accurately, the bit rate) at which information is transferred from a server or host machine that is part of a network, to a device connected to that network.
Data collision
a situation wherein two or more packets of electronic data are transmitted on the same medium at the same time resulting in no packet being correctly received.
DSL Modem
a modem (modulator-demodulator) that connects a computer or router to a network via a telephone line that provides a digital subscriber line (high-speed) service for connectivity to the internet.
Hotspot
a specific geographic location where an access point provides wireless high speed service to visitors’ mobile devices.
LAN
a local area network. A common example is an office environment in which printers and hard drives are shared by a number of machines.
Transmission rate
the speed at which electronic information can be transmitted from one device to another.
Transparency
In computer technology, this term refers to the hiding of operations or information that an end user need not be concerned with. It is a desirable feature in most hardware and software, as it allows the end-user to focus on the task they are performing, rather than the technology needed to complete that task.
Upload rate
the speed (or more accurately, the bit rate) at which information is transferred from a device connected to the network to a server or host machine that is part of that network.
Wifi
(Wireless Fidelity) a specific form of wireless communication trademarked under the IEEE 802.11 standard. This standard is noted for its ubiquity among wireless internet devices, and its high-speed communication rates.
Wireless Network
any one of multiple forms of communication between networked devices using radio frequency as a means of exchanging information.
Wireless router
a device that directs wireless (radio frequency) communications packets to the next point along a path towards their intended destination.

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This resource was published by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). For comments or questions regarding this content, please contact CHIN directly. To find other online resources for museum professionals, visit the CHIN homepage or the Museology and conservation topic page on Canada.ca.

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