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Weekly Column

I Network, Therefore I Am: Further Adventures in the World of Bootleg 802.11b

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my adventure building a high-speed 10-kilometer wireless Internet connection using off-the-shelf 802.11b components and a telescope. I live in a very rural part of Sonoma County in the California Wine Country, and this was the only way I could find to get my bandwidth fix without the unacceptable latency of a satellite connection. Well, that column was so well received that I got e-mail from all over the world asking for more information so people could try to do it themselves. That is the purpose of this follow-up column.

Understand that I am an idiot, and so I only know what I have done and not much else. My shallowness of knowledge in this area is epic, but if I can make it work, so can you. The hardest part of the job, in fact, is knocking on doors telling people you've been looking at their house through a telescope from across the valley.

For all the tens of thousands of people who read this column each week, I was amazed to learn that almost nobody knows that the "I Like It" button on the right side of the page leads to five Web links associated with each column. [Now Links of the Week — Ed] If people had known about those links two weeks ago, most of their questions would have been answered already and I'd be trying to think of something else about which to write this week.

One question that kept coming up was about the legality of such a bootleg connection. A lot of armchair lawyers with nothing better to do told me I'd soon be headed to jail. Well, this is absolutely not so. Regulations vary from country to country, of course, but in the United States, what I did is perfectly legal under the Federal Communication Commission Part 15 rules, specifically sections 5 and 23. The rules are simple. Just don't build these gizmos and offer them for sale, and don't build more than five of them that are identical. No testing or pre-qualification is required, which was probably a surprise to the lady from Metricom who lectured me ad nauseum (and inaccurately) about this only hours before her company declared bankruptcy. For homebuilt components like these, the standard is a simple one of non-interference. Whatever mischief you do should not interfere with baby monitors or garage door openers. And the very sensible way the regs chose to validate non-interference is through a lack of complaints. So if nobody complains, you are okay. If somebody complains and you are able to satisfy them by changing frequencies or modifying your antenna installation or just buying them a beer, then you are again okay. Nobody goes to jail.

Many people asked about antennas. I bought mine from a local ham radio dealer, and they are Cushcraft yagi antennas, and fairly expensive at $249 each. Were I to do this again, I probably wouldn't use the Cushcrafts. This is not because they don't work, but because there are cheaper alternatives. True, the Cushcrafts are sleek and unobtrusive with their all-weather ABS enclosures, but with homebuilt alternatives running $10 or less to build, it is hard to justify paying the big bucks. In the links associated with this column (Links of the Week) are directions for making your own yagi antenna from Pringles potato chip cans and for converting old DBS satellite antennas (like DirecTV, The Dish Network, or Primestar) into high-gain 802.11b antennas. These directions require the use of one or two large juice cans and carefully instruct that you must first drink the juice before using the cans. Ten bucks gets you not only the antenna, but also the juice.

Most questions had to do with my use of Apple Airport Base Stations. This is one area where your results may vary — not because of technology, but because of business decisions by companies who make this stuff. Apple Airports don't immediately connect to each other, for example. You can link computers with Airport cards to Base Stations or to each other, but not Base Station to Base Station. There are two ways to overcome this problem. If you are using Airport software prior to version 1.2, there is a lucent hub manager program that can reconfigure your Base Station to act as an Ethernet-to-Ethernet bridge. If your software is version 1.2 or later, then you need a $50 firmware upgrade from that accomplishes the same thing. Now there is some controversy about this firmware upgrade, which seems to be only intermittently available. Some people claim it is no longer available. Some people claim it is available only to ISPs. I don't know the answer to this, but Doug Karl (he of Karlnet) gets back from vacation today, the 12th, so we'll have some answers soon.

But you don't really need two Base Stations to make this thing work. Use one Base Station and put that at the other end of your connection, at the place where you are borrowing bandwidth. Putting the Base Station on that end means there doesn't have to be a computer up and running in order for you to get on the Net. On your end use an iMac, iBook, PowerBook, or Mac G-3 or G-4 computer equipped with an Airport card. Set this Airport connection to operate as a Base Station or repeater, and you are there. This solution requires having the Mac turned on in order to surf, but I generally find Internet use requires turning on the computer anyway, so what the heck.

There are many companies other than Apple that sell 802.11b hubs. Many of these hubs may work in this application. I have no way of knowing that they don't work. But since I have experience only with Apple Airports, I can't say one way or another whether your Linksys or Netopia or whatever brand hub will work. Experiment and report back to me, please.

Many readers wondered what effect weather would have on the link. The 2.4 GHz frequencies used by 802.11b are supposed to be very near those used in microwave ovens, which suggests that a rainstorm could bring down the connection. Alas, I live in California where it simply doesn't rain between April and November, so I have had no way of knowing whether this is a problem. But there are other, far more experienced folks who say it is not a problem. Here's the word from Granite Island, an old lighthouse in Lake Superior connected to the mainland solely by a 10-mile bootleg 802.11b link: "Not only does it work flawlessly in the rain, there have been days when it was snowing so hard you could not see 10 feet. We get a constant 5 megabits through anything. The only time it has ever been down is when our Internet access, supplied by Charter Cable, on the mainland goes down. That has happened about eight times (for a total of eight hours) in the last year."


So this is a cheap, reliable, perfectly legal way for rural users to gain access if they can only find a line-of-sight connection. But could it be even more than that? I think so. Nokia has a 2.4-GHz networking product (NOT 802.11b) called Rooftop. Developed in the U.S., Rooftop is software for creating ad hoc wireless networks. Rooftop units discover the nodes around them and create their own routes automatically, reconfiguring as nodes turn on or off or move into or out of range. It is a microcell system that could easily network a whole city and automatically link to the outside world through any available DSL or other high-speed connections. Just turn it on and it works. Have you ever heard of Nokia Rooftop? NOBODY has. I think Nokia doesn't quite know what to do with the product. And there are similar open source 802.11b projects underway right now in places like Portland, Oregon and Seattle.

As the reaction to my column showed, there is a LOT of interest in this subject, and lot of progress still to be made.

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