Friday, July 29, 2011

Quick work made of slow Internet

Donations, collaboration bring broadband to Community Library

Express Staff Writer

Aaron Pearson, The Community Library’s information systems director, helped convince board members that a better Internet system was necessary and achievable. Express photos by Roland Lane

Aaron Pearson felt a sense of mission, but not one easily accomplished.

As the Community Library's information systems director, Pearson, like other employees at the Ketchum facility, are tasked with providing free access to all forms of knowledge to all people.

In an era of rapidly changing technology, keeping that access up to date was increasingly challenging.

"The most important part of my department is to provide public Internet access," Pearson said.

That access, he said, was poor at best. The library had a single T-1 line providing 1.5 megabytes per second.

"That's very, very little," he said, noting that one YouTube video would take up most of that.

In comparison, a residence's broadband might be two, four or even 10 megabytes per second.

"The internal infrastructure was inadequate," he said. "The networking equipment and internal ethernet wiring needed to be upgraded massively."

Patrons likely didn't see the internal infrastructure, but many noticed the library's lethargic computer speed and aging hardware.

"We had very old public computers," Pearson said. "People would stand up during their session and walk away."

The only way to solve the problem was to get fiber optic connectivity into the building. The cost: $40,000 for the connection, plus another $82,000 to complete the upgrade project.

Pearson made a proposal to the board of directors, telling them, "first and foremost was bandwidth," he said.

The board agreed and got to work. It was February 2010.

A year and a half later, the Bandwidth for the Future Project is complete and nearly fully funded.

A project's champions

Even necessary projects can languish if there's no one to champion or pay for them.

Lyman Drake, a library board trustee, and the Library Association's executive director, Colleen Daly, took on the project.

Among those with whom they came into contact were two 12-year-old twins.

Victoria and Theo Castellano-Wood had received $5,000 each from a family friend to give away. They began searching for worthy causes, conducting interviews with local nonprofits to narrow the list of prospective recipients.

"We were going to different organizations that we enjoyed that we thought would need the most help," Victoria said.

The kids talked with Community Library staff and took a tour of the facility.

"The lights went on for them," Pearson said.

From there, he said, "it started to snowball."

The teens' parents, Benjamin and Theresa Castellano-Wood, matched the $10,000 donation.

"Part of our mission is to inspire people to make a difference," Benjamin Castellano-Wood said. "Our role as parents is to set an example."

For the children, this, their first foray into donating a significant sum of money, was a good experience, and an educational one.

"It's a really nice thing to give money to certain organizations because it can impact even more than that organization," Theo said. "It can impact everyone who uses the organization."

Money soon began to pour in from other donors, both individual and corporate.

Inspired by the family's actions, major contributions were made by board members Lyman Drake, Bill Lowe and Kristin Orr, as well as the Wattis-Dumke Foundation, Peter and Jennifer Roberts, Bill and Anne Vanderbilt and all other library board members.

Boise-based Syringa Networks donated $40,000 worth of equipment and labor to the effort.

Donations amounting to nearly $82,000 helped finish the project—from idea to implementation—in less than a year and a half.

"The new fiber-optic connection not only helps us close the digital divide for our patrons, an important Community Library goal, it opens up a world of possibilities in terms of services and programming, speaking directly to our vision of enabling success by being relentlessly relevant," Daly said.


The rapid pace of technological innovation can make keeping infrastructure adequate a time-consuming and expensive proposition.

"Demand for bandwidth will only increase with time," Pearson said, making the need for "future-proofing" even more important.

Unlike copper cabling, the only limit to the speed of a fiber-optic connection is the equipment on either end. Incremental increases in bandwidth can be implemented without adding additional lines.

"Once the connection is established, the speed can always be turned up," Pearson said. "We've removed our technological obstacles for our patrons for the foreseeable future."

Because the library is entirely donation-based, anyone can use its services and resources. Visitors, part-time residents and those who have slow, or no, connection to the Internet—all are allowed to take a turn.

"All we really want to do is give it away," Pearson said.

If anyone had asked Pearson a year ago if the project would be successful, he said, he might have laughed or sighed.

"I wouldn't have believed it," he said. "Now, our internal network just hums."

In the future, the library may offer high-definition videoconferencing to the public, computer classes and streaming video of lectures held at the library—expanded capabilities that will help bring more of the world to library patrons and more of the library's offerings to the world.

"We can do all manner of things that were never imaginable before," Pearson said.

Rebecca Meany:

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