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« FCC Amends Part 15: More, Better, Cleverer | Main | Simple as Pi »

May 19, 2002

Weekend News

Dan Gillmor Explains Open Spectrum Linksys Sale

Installing a Friend's Simple Home Wi-Fi Network

Dan Gillmor Explains Open Spectrum

San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor conveys David Reed's ideas along with his own about open spectrum: spectrum is finite, but technology can allow uses that go far beyond the stratification of policy. FCC licenses protect incumbents who have paid, often, for geographical monopoly. Restricting airwaves was once a necessity, and is now a market-driven requirement for companies that need to own purpose, location, and spectrum to make their business models fly. Linksys Sale notes a large sale on Linksys gear at the moment. For instance, you can buy their WPC11 Wi-Fi PC card with the integrated mini-PCI device (instead of the CardBus adapter) for just $70. But they're bundling it as a package with EtherFast BEFW11S4 router/gateway for $200 total. By itself, the EtherFast is $150, or $10 less than the last time I checked a few weeks.

The ever-popular WAP11 is $130. Buy a pair to link wired networks per my article last year at O'Reilly Wireless DevCenter.

For more details about gateways, read Cheap Home Gateways, which is fairly up to date. Prices continue to fall and devices increase in sophistication.

Linksys's 802.11a gear is starting to become affordable, too, although they offer just an access point and PC Card. (No USB or PCI card yet.) The WAP54A access point is just over $300 and the PC Card is about $135.

Orders over $99 include free shipping in the U.S. with some limitations.

Installing a Friend's Simple Home Wi-Fi Network

My friend Nick recently left a five-year-plus stint at a dotcom. During his time there, he had enough connectivity at work, where he spent quite a lot of his time, that his home network was of little importance. After returning from a trip overseas, Nick turned his attention to the homefront: how to get bandwidth distributed through his not-ready-for-Ethernet, three-story house.

I volunteered my services in exchange for lunch and some strategic affiliate-based clickthrough purchases on his part through his former employer. We did a site survey. Nick and his family have a tower PC, primarily used by his wife; a parallel-port based printer, hooked up to the PC; and a recent generation iMac, with no AirPort card. They also have two phone lines, which the current computers share. Nick added a third computer: a Sony Vaio laptop, which he plans to roam around with.

The computers are on the third floor, and phone lines are wired throughout the house. After a failed attempt to order DSL -- his house is apparently too far for higher-speed DSL -- he turned to Ma Cable, and should have had his installation last Thursday. The broadband will be brought to the third-floor office.

After checking out the equipment and the lay of the land, we opted for an SMC gateway with Ethernet ports, wireless AP, DHCP/NAT service, and a print spooler built-in. (We'd looked at Linksys's offering, but it lacks external antennas or removable connectors and has only a single LAN Ethernet port, making it less flexible.)

The plan was to connect the printer and tower PC to the gateway directly (via parallel and Ethernet), adding an Ethernet card to the PC for this purpose. The iMac would get its own $100 AirPort card. For the Sony Vaio, several PC Card options were available, but I steered Nick to a refurbished Sony Vaio brand Wi-Fi PC card because he's running Windows XP. The Sony card is about $150 retail or $90 refurbished, and it's simply a relabeled Orinoco PC Card from Agere. Because it's a Sony card, it means he can make a single tech support call, and they'll actually support him in case of problems.

I brought over my Mac iBook when the SMC gateway arrived to test out the house's connection. With the AP located in the tippy-top of the house next to the PC tower and printer, the entire house received good to excellent coverage except in the kitchen and dining room. Old plaster walls covering wire or other support must provide an effective barrier. An option at this point would have been to locate the AP elsewhere (like on the 2nd floor), use bridging APs, or install a higher-gain antenna. However, those two rooms have little need of a roaming connection, so we avoided the problems with running printer and Ethernet cable as well.

The SMC gateway is administered via a Web interface. in my site survey, I could already see Nick's next-door neighbor's network, so I installed 128-bit WEP security. Yes, I know: it's broken. But for home users, the volume of traffic required to break the key happens over days and weeks, not minutes and hours, severely reducing even the possibility of a cracker obtaining the key.

The SMC interface is relatively clean, but the WEP key encryption area is ridiculous: to enter a key manually, not only do you have to invent it -- I don't trust the passphrase feature which is incompatible from platform to platform, often -- but you must enter it in 14 separate two-digit-hex boxes. Further, those form fields are set as password input types, which means you cannot see what you are entering as you type it, nor can you retrieve the key by reconnecting to the page. I carefully wrote down the code, rebooted the gateway, and then entered the code in my iBook to reconnect. (Remember: Mac AirPort software requires that you enter a dollar-sign ($) before the hexadecimal WEP key. Also, older AirPort cards must be upgraded to the 2.0.x software to handle a 128-bit WEP key.)

As Nick, a pretty technical guy, but not obsessed like myself, stood there shaking his head as I explained the details that I had written down about the station ID (ESSID), the WEP key, the sequence of digits, and other details -- I thought to myself again: now how does the average consumer handle this? Ah, yes: leave the details alone, no security, no even minimal protection, and no room for error.