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Recent Entries

Book: Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network
T-Mobile Takes Home Line Service National
Apple's AirPort Express Offers N at $99
Digital Picture Frames, Many Wireless, Reviewed
AT&T Gives Free Wi-fi to All DSL Customers
Researchers Postulate Wi-Fi Router Virus
Dial-Up Prices Rise
Pepwave Drops Price of Bridge for Muni Networks to $99, $129
Lexmark Introduces Wireless Printer, Multi-Function Line
T-Mobile Might Make Home VoIP Play on Top of Converged Calling

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October 31, 2008

Book: Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network

By Glenn Fleishman

$5 off new edition of my book on using Macs with Wi-Fi: Folks, I've just thoroughly overhauled my book on Apple Wi-Fi networking, Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network. The latest edition, 244 pages long, costs $15--but for you fine people, just $10 with a $5 coupon.

The book covers how to use an AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express, and Time Capsule base station from Apple with Mac OS X and Windows for the best advantage. The latest Extreme model, along with Time Capsule, can share multiple printers and hard drives to Macs or Windows systems. With 802.11n built in along with options for wireless and Ethernet connection, you can build a robust network that can handle video streaming and large-file transfers.

The coupon code CPN007281031WNN can be used at checkout to pay just $10 for this $15 instantly available electronic book.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 11:38 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Book review, Home | No Comments

June 25, 2008

T-Mobile Takes Home Line Service National

By Glenn Fleishman

T-Mobile launches nationwide July 2nd with its home-line replacement service--or is it a cell plan extension service? I link here to Seattle Times's columnist Brier Dudley's take on @Home, T-Mobile's $10 per month unlimited domestic home calling service that leverages customers' existing cell service and broadband connection. The service launched in the Seattle area several months ago, and is expanding nationally, and Dudley interviews T-Mobile's boss Robert Dotson for the story. Dotson says T-Mobile doesn't see @Home as a way to get folks to necessarily cut their landline cord, but rather to extend the function of a cell phone inside the house, even if you're using cordless not cellular devices.

The service uses a router that accepts SIM cards for authentication, but the backhaul is pure VoIP over Internet. Regular POTS (plain old telephone service) phones can be plugged into the router. The router is also compatible with HotSpot@Home (an additional $10/month), which allows unlimited domestic calling over Wi-Fi using special handsets from T-Mobile; there are now 8 handset models available. Customers have to have at least a $40 single-line or $50 family plan service to add either @Home or HotSpot@Home.

Probably the key remaining advantage for Vonage and other Internet telephony services that typically charge $20 to $30 per month for unlimited calling is that they include unlimited calls to any number in Canada or the U.S., not just the U.S., as well as unmetered calls to landlines in dozens of other countries in Europe as well as Australia. For those who regularly call outside the U.S., the @Home service would quickly become ridiculously expensive for its international tolls.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 10:33 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Cellular, Home, Hot Spot | No Comments

March 18, 2008

Apple's AirPort Express Offers N at $99

By Glenn Fleishman

Apple isn't the only firm to offer inexpensive 802.11n, but their revised AirPort Express has a few extras: You can buy Draft N from other companies for under $100, but I'd point out that the new AirPort Express compact base station differs from those items. The new model, announced yesterday, is nearly identical to the one that Apple's been selling since 2004. Unlike other inexpensive N base stations, it has a USB port to share one printer (Windows/Mac OS X), an audio output port for streaming from iTunes or via Rogue Amoeba's AirFoil (Mac/Windows, analog/digital optical), and is dual band, supporting 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz 802.11a, b, g, and n.

airportexpress2.jpgThe base station is compact, small enough for travel, with an integral 2-prong plug that can be directly hung from a wall socket, or removed to replace with a several-foot-long 3-prong cord; the extension cord is part of a $39 audio extension kit, and not sold separately from that kit.

While Linksys, D-Link, and others have sub-$100 802.11n base stations, there are differences. The main one is a detriment to the AirPort Express: it has just a single 10/100 Mbps Ethernet jack. That means it's appropriate to directly connect to a larger network via Ethernet, where addresses are assigned out by another part of the network, or it can be plugged directly into a broadband modem and assign addresses out via DHCP and NAT (or a pool of routable addresses).

The Linksys WRT100 (about $80) isn't Wi-Fi certified (yet) for Draft N, while the D-Link DIR-615 (about $60) is, as is the AirPort Express (although the Express isn't yet listed in the Wi-Fi Alliance's database). Both the Linksys and D-Link units have 4-port 10/100 Mbps Ethernet switches along with a 10/100 Mbps WAN Ethernet port. Both are single-band (2.4 GHz), omit USB sharing, and have no audio streaming. (If you know of better sub-$100 models to compare the AirPort Express to, drop a note in the comments.)

It's worth calling out Airfoil, mentioned above, a package from Rogue Amoeba for Mac OS X and Windows that lets you manage where audio goes over your network. Using Airfoil and its included Airfoil Speakers software, you can choose to play audio on one computer and target it to other computers on your network, as well as AirPort Express base stations and the Apple TV media adapter (using Apple's AirTunes streaming protocol). Without Airfoil, you're limited to iTunes streaming under Mac OS X and Windows to an AirPort Express or Apple TV.

I've written a book about 802.11n and Apple's AirPort networking, Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Extreme Network, that covers all the issues in setting up secure networks using both Macs and Windows XP/Vista. You can buy the title with at a 30-percent discount ($7 instead of $10) by following the link or using coupon code CPN71005WNN at checkout.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 11:52 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: 802.11n, Home, Road Warrior | 2 Comments

February 7, 2008

Digital Picture Frames, Many Wireless, Reviewed

By Glenn Fleishman

David Pogue reviews several of the latest digital picture frames at the New York Times: I have frankly avoided reporting much on digital picture frames, even those with wireless, because so many of them seemed far too expensive for their simple function of automating a rotating display of photos. Product announcements seem to come weekly, which means that a lot of people are buying these for their parents and grandparents, loading them with photos, and then the same pictures display for the next year until the relative takes it down and claims it "broke."

Pogue makes it clear that I'm not far off in avoiding writing about these frames. He likes the Kodak EasyShare EX1011 at 10 inches (diagonal), which supports Wi-Fi, but not Mac OS X, and which can link up to Kodak Gallery to pull in new photos over the Internet from galleries you update from wherever. That really does make it appropriate for computer illiterate relatives. Or those who just don't want to monkey around. The 800 by 480 pixel resolution is also quite reasonable for that size of display. Pogue notes that the dimensions, however, put it into a widescreen orientation inappropriate for most digital photographs.

At $250, though, that's a hefty gift and I find hard to swallow despite the screen size and inclusion of Wi-Fi.

Pogue also likes the much cheaper PanDigital Wi-Fi Picture Frame ($150, 8 inches) has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi but can't use Wi-Fi to grab locally hosted photos, just from Picasa.

He has kind words for the SmartParts SP8PRT ($280, 8 inches) frame shipping in March that has no Wi-Fi but can print photos through a built-in, hidden dye-sublimation printer. I find the idea a little funky: why print from a picture frame that you have to load with photos from a computer? It seems like you'd want Wi-Fi most of all in this kind of device to send pictures to others, and they could make prints of photos they like.

Three others, he generally excoriates. The Parrot DF7200: "the resolution is so's not a big improvement over your cellphone screen." The eStarling second attempt: "...even though this frame is much better than its disastrous first model last year, it’s still flakier than a croissant." Momento 100: "Photos from the Web arrive on the frame at half size, bizarrely floating in the center surrounded by fat black margins."

There's a lengthy comparison chart also online.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 2:05 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Gadgets, Home | No Comments | No TrackBacks

January 23, 2008

AT&T Gives Free Wi-fi to All DSL Customers

By Glenn Fleishman

AT&T expands a previous free offer to premium DSL subscribers to almost all DSL subscribers: That's right: 10m AT&T DSL subscribers now qualify for free Wi-Fi at the 9,000 McDonald's and 1,000 other locations in AT&T's network (operated or resold by Wayport). Anyone with 1.5 Mbps DSL or greater, which is pretty much all of its subscribers, can sign up for free Wi-Fi at the AT&T Web site.

This is another big win for Wayport, which has a few deals already for free access to its McDonald's locations: Nintendo for its DS2 player and Zipit for the Zipit Wireless Messenger 2. I've long thought it odd that AT&T was willing to charge even a nominal amount to its DSL subscribers for them to use Wi-Fi, because that set a bar that would keep people from using it. Because AT&T is clearly using Wi-Fi as a customer retention tool, not a real line of revenue, the $2 per month charge seemed a little silly--both too low and too high.

I'm not sure if this puts any pressure on other locations or operators, because the kind of AT&T customer who would find this free access appealing is likely not paying for Wi-Fi elsewhere. And while McDonald's are convenient, it's not quite the same thing as, say, the mix of networks in Boingo's aggregated network or the comfort of Starbucks in T-Mobile's network.

Of course, McDonald's is putting in coffee bars in its stores, and perhaps this is part of a strategy that involves the fast-food giant to get more customers that frequent Starbucks, thus increasing the average meal price. But McDonald's would need to put cushy chairs and sofas in meet the coffee retailer halfway.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 6:18 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Free, Home, Hot Spot | No Comments | No TrackBacks

January 4, 2008

Researchers Postulate Wi-Fi Router Virus

By Glenn Fleishman

The research paper is a few months old, but apparently just being publicized: Researchers at Indiana University modeled how wireless routers, if targeted with a virus, could spread such a virus among other routers. There are a lot of variables involved: whether the administrative password on the router was changed from its default; whether no encryption, WEP, or WPA/WPA2 is enabled; and the heterogeneity of router models, as viruses aren't one size fits all. Even though the paper is weeks old, the notion seems to have captured the mind of technology sites, which are all writing about it. (Some event sparked the paper's rediscovery?)

In their modeling, they looked at wardriving data that let them figure out how close Wi-Fi routers were. They found that there is likely enough density for tens of thousands of routers to be infected over a period of days. In Chicago, for instance, they found 48,000 contiguous routers assuming a 45-meter maximum interaction distance.

The wardriving data let them also determine which routers had which modes of encryption enabled to determine the speed and possibility of attacks. They assumed that routers protected by WPA are immune, which is reasonable; there's no known generic hack for WPA, only cracks that involve precomputed large databases of keys based on default network names (SSIDs).

Their assumption on administrative access to a router is predicated that someone who hasn't changed the router's SSID is likely also to have left the password unchanged. For the rest, they assume that 25 percent of passwords can be guessed with 65,000 attempts, which conforms to other password research. Routers, they found, don't have a mechanism to delay and disable password access due to failed attempts.

One thing I don't see addressed in the report is how many different worms would be required based on the many different models of Wi-Fi routers and the many firmware releases for each. There's an assumption buried that I don't see in which a certain homogeneity of routers--seeded by DSL providers, for instance, and aided by Linksys's dominance in the market?--has to be in place to be sure that enough security holes exist, are unpatched, and can be exploited.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 1:43 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Home, Security | 1 Comment | No TrackBacks

November 26, 2007

Dial-Up Prices Rise

By Glenn Fleishman

Dial-up is the cash cow of the broadband world, despite carriers irritation at providing it: For landline companies, dial-up service uses a heavily tariffed voice phone line that occupies a circuit, and just means more copper that they have to service. Carriers would rather have you switch to DSL or fiber. The logic of fiber makes sense--triple play or more services through one new pipe increasing annual revenue per user (ARPU)--but DSL's logic may be less explicable. It's the same copper used for dial up or DSL, but the phone company can sell you more services over DSL, and it takes you off a tariffed service and onto an information service that's not regulated. (AT&T is subject to certain provisions due to their merger on their DSL and data services, but those sunset in a few years.)

The upside of dial-up for carriers is that the margins are pretty high, as the cost of providing dial-up service is a fraction of what it was years ago. I have heard that it's as low as a few dollars a month in actual costs.

AT&T announced that starting Dec. 1, it's raising the price of all its dial-up Internet service: $9.99 per month plans go to $15.95, $15.95 to $22.95, and new service is $22.95 per month. EarthLink, which has told me what a cash cow dial-up is, charges $9.95 for three months, then $21.95 per month, or $14.95 per month with a 1-year contract, plus a $30 Amazon gift certificate. Juno and others charge as little as $10 to $15 per month, typically with fewer hosting services or other limits, none of which are particularly relevant in the era of Google GMail. AOL charges $9.95 for unlimited dial-up, and includes 5 GB of storage from its Xdrive subsidiary.

AT&T knows better than anyone who it has by the bollocks. It's jacking up prices knowing that there's a set of people who need Internet access who can't qualify for DSL, and they'll simply either extract more money for those people, or they'll flee to other providers who charge less and that will reduce AT&T's management and billing burden, and they might come out even there. They'll also pick up reluctant DSL convertees, who will sign up for the hard-to-find $10/month DSL package that's faster than dial-up, or a higher-speed offering.

In any case, AT&T comes out ahead: either more profit from a service that's cheaper to provide; fewer customers for a service they'd rather not offer; or more broadband customers, which increases their take while reducing their network overhead.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 3:22 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Future, Home | 1 Comment | No TrackBacks

November 1, 2007

Pepwave Drops Price of Bridge for Muni Networks to $99, $129

By Glenn Fleishman

The company decided to take some of the pain out of municipal deployments by extending its bulk price to individuals on its entry-level Wi-Fi bridge: In metro-scale networks, it's become clear that to get good indoor reception in most cases, you need a bridge. The popular bridges from Pepwave and Ruckus Wireless pick up a faint signal from a city-wide network and then essentially rebroadcast it under a different network name for users in proximity. These bridges used to start at about $150 for units with 200 milliwatt (mW) radios, which is from twice to septuple the power of built-in adapters; they usually put out 30 mW to 100 mW of juice.

The price has fallen, though, and while $100 isn't free, it's approaching a level that I suspect more people are comfortable spending to improve access in areas with coverage. Ruckus Wireless's MetroFlex DZ has a list of $149, but ExpressNets will sell it to you for $99; and Pepwave's comparable Surf AP 200 can now be bought for $129. The Surf 200, which lacks the second home network feature, is $99.

Pepwave has dropped its 400 mW Surf AP 400 from $289 to $189, which could be useful, too, in the right circumstances, but receive sensitivity is a more critical measure than transmit power in trying to "hear" distant signals. The AP 400 has a small but measurable improvement in receive sensitivity over the two 200 models. I can't find Ruckus's receive sensitivity numbers readily, but their approach involves multiple antennas, in which beam forming and multi-path reflection analysis provide their own improvements in range and reception.

Update: Ruckus provided their receive sensitivity numbers, which in nearly all cases exceed the Pepwave AP 400's numbers for nearly $100 less. Now, this requires real-world testing to see whether the multiple antennas and this higher measured sensitivity equate to a greater service area, but the raw numbers are good.

Update: Pepwave notes that in its testing transmit power is more critical; their perspective is that with metro-scale networks, the nodes can push power out quite well - often using the legal maximum - but it's difficult for them to hear distant, faint clients. An iPhone, for instance, can hear a far-distant transmitter, but can only call back weakly.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 5:19 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Hardware, Home, Metro-Scale Networks | No Comments | No TrackBacks

August 21, 2007

Lexmark Introduces Wireless Printer, Multi-Function Line

By Glenn Fleishman

Lexmark pushes out a passel of wireless printers: The models run from $130 to $200. The printers all handle two-sided printing, which, in Lexmark's words "saves paper and the environment." Whew, I was worried about the environment, and printing on both sides of a sheet of paper apparently saves it. Three of the models are multi-function printers (MFP in industry parlance), which print, copy, scan, and fax. Lexmark is calling them all-in-one (AIO), just to be different.

X6570 LexmarkThe X6570 ($150) has 28 ppm (page per minute) black and 24 ppm color printing (draft mode print numbers, naturally, a footnote explains). You can remotely control the printer to scan, fax, and read memory cards inserted into a media slot. There's a 25-page document feeder, too. The X7550 ($200) ups the rate to 30 ppm black and 27 ppm color while including an LCD display for photo preview via the media slot. The X4850 ($150) appears to omit the fax feature, although Lexmark is unclear about that.

Lexmark also added the Z1520, which is just a wireless color printer (30 ppm black, 27 ppm color) for $130. You can also get wireless-omitting versions of the AIO printers, too, that have various subtle differences to boot (the X5070, $90; and X5495, $100).

Interestingly, Lexmark only uses the terms 802.11b/g/n, and then only in a footnote. That makes me suspect that the printers haven't achieved Wi-Fi certification yet. They're not in the Wi-Fi Alliance's list of certified printers, although the previous X4500 series is listed. It's an odd thing today to see "Wi-Fi" products without the Wi-Fi brand.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 10:57 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Home, SOHO | 1 Comment | No TrackBacks

August 10, 2007

T-Mobile Might Make Home VoIP Play on Top of Converged Calling

By Glenn Fleishman

News outlets are reporting on the FCC filing by T-Mobile for a VoIP/Wi-Fi router: The filing shows an unannounced Linksys WRTU54G Wi-Fi router, much like the ones that T-Mobile is selling along with its HotSpot@Home service to ensure the best quality of service and battery performance for their Wi-Fi/cell handsets when used in the home. The only difference? The router up for certification has two phone jack plugs, similar to those found on telephone adapters used for VoIP services, including other models sold by Linksys.

The fact is that unlicensed mobile access (UMA), the technology underlying T-Mobile's converged calling plan, matches regular GSM calling over cellular networks with VoIP over the Internet via Wi-Fi. The VoIP part is encrypted using GSM technologies, but between the Wi-Fi/cell handset and the Internet portal on T-Mobile's network where the voice conversation pops out, the call has all the problems and benefits of pure VoIP.

Writers at TG Daily (the original source of this information) and mistake the reason for the router's ability to accept up to two GSM SIM cards. The writers talk about how it might be "merely a way to get up to two phone numbers into the WRTU54G" (TG Daily) and that the cards "would also allow users to add up to two additional cell phone lines" (

Not right. To perform GSM authentication and encryption, a device has to have a SIM. For the router to work interoperably with T-Mobile's UMA gateways, it has to make VoIP look like encapsulated GSM, which means that a SIM is required. A UMA handset treats a Wi-Fi network like another cell tower. A router with landline-style phones that can make UMA VoIP calls only on the Internet side is actually three layers of pretense: A landline phone is pretending to work like a landline phone; the router is pretending it's on a GSM network; calls placed are pretending that they're being made from a cell handset.

It's a little contrived, but it allows T-Mobile to leverage 100-percent of its existing infrastructure, with perhaps a slight increase in cost on the SIM side. The routers don't add any additional cost to T-Mobile handling calls, except increased call volume, but 100 percent of that volume would come on the Internet side, far cheaper to handle than on the cellular side.

The big issue in my book is pricing. T-Mobile's requires at least a $40/voice subscription to use HotSpot@Home. You can then pay $10/month for one line or $20/month for two to five lines for unlimited Wi-Fi minutes, or choose to use minutes from your cell pool for Wi-Fi calls. (The rate rises this fall, apparently, to $20 for one line and $30 for multiple lines, but the initial rate applies indefinitely to anyone who signs up in the early period.)

Would T-Mobile decide to include the one or two lines in the Linksys router as FamilyTalk additional lines, lumping them into the monthly multiple-line fee, in the interests of making sure to capture more revenue, and perhaps convert more family members on the cell side? Or would there be an additional fee, perhaps $10 per month, to acknowledge the additional calling that would take place? Would integrated voicemail across multiple lines be provided? Could you easily forward your cell to the landlines so that as you arrive home, your calls come in on a cordless not a cell? Is this another tool in T-Mobile's arsenal against Vonage et al.?

A lot of questions remain to be answered, but it could be a unique combination of services that would increase ARPU (average revenue per user), especially in families, while decreasing the cost of delivering service, and decreasing churn.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 1:48 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Home, Voice | No Comments | No TrackBacks

August 7, 2007

Apple Upgrades AirPort Extreme to Gigabit Ethernet

By Glenn Fleishman

Apple slips in 1000 Mbps Ethernet in its Wi-Fi router: Apple quietly upgraded its Draft N-based AirPort Extreme Base Station to full gigabit Ethernet support across its three LAN and one WAN ports today. While the company didn't release information separately, they contacted me to note the change, and the Apple Store's product listing has been updated. The new base station can be ordered right now.

The first release of Apple's Draft N base station was rather marvelous for its inclusion of a USB port to share multiple printers and hard drives; the company's decision to have both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz radios inside; and the fact that Macs had been shipping with 802.11n inside, requiring just an enabler, released with the base station, to upgrade their performance. My primary complaint, however, was the mismatch between the company's widespread inclusion of GigE in most of its models long before the competition. With the drop in cost in GigE switches, it seemed odd for Apple to release a unit that was designed for homes and small offices that would underperform a $35 Ethernet switch.

I also suspected that the overall performance of the 802.11n draft that Apple is using was constricted due to internal Ethernet limits. In my testing for a review in Macworld, I was able to top 90 Mbps in Wi-Fi to Ethernet and Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi transfers. But Ethernet-to-Ethernet data was limited to just over 90 Mbps as well. Apple says that their new gigabit Ethernet base station is up to 50 percent faster for wireless-to-wired links, which would put it closer to 150 Mbps, a speed achieved on other GigE-based Draft N routers.

When testing the base station in February, I discovered that with NAT enabled to share access from an incoming WAN link, performance was restricted to about 30 Mbps from wireles LAN to LAN and 60 Mbps from wired LAN to WAN. Apple confirmed this was a bug that was due to performance issues in their NAT stack. Apple wasn't able to tell me if this limitation has been fixed, but I would imagine so.

This bug emerges in only two edge cases: Where a broadband connection exceeds 30 Mbps, which is true for some fiber and cable customers; or where a corporate or office LAN isn't supplying addresses to the computers connected via the AirPort Extreme. If NAT is turned off, the AirPort gateway has no performance limitations.

The price for the AirPort Extreme Base Station with Draft N remains $179.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 2:25 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Hardware, Home, SOHO | No Comments | No TrackBacks

July 17, 2007

Devicescape Adds Secure Sharing of Personal Network Access with Buddies

By Glenn Fleishman

Devicescape adds buddies for your own networks: Devicescape has added a feature that lets you securely share encryption keys to your Wi-Fi networks among friends and colleagues who also use Devicescape's free software. "When you've got any of your personal networks up on our Web site, you can share them," said CEO Dave Fraser. Users control the access buddies have to which networks, and can revoke permission for a buddy's access. The centralized management through a no-fee Devicescape Web account also means that a user can change their Wi-Fi gateway's encryption key, enter that new key on Devicescape's site, and have that updated information distributed to their buddies.

Devicescape's plan is to have their lightweight software client preinstalled on gadgets like phones, cameras, and gaming systems. For now, their client can be used under Mac OS X, Windows, Windows Mobile, and a handful of handhelds, including the Nokia N800. The company said that announcements of other device support would be coming.

Buddy lists will make it simpler for a host of scenarios, including gaming parties, in which kids and/or adults gather with Wi-Fi-enabled systems. Right now, each person has to enter a key manually (something that Wi-Fi Protected Setup also hopes to obviate), adding friction. If Devicescape's client were embedded, buddies would simply connect.

The buddy system requires that a buddy connect to an Internet connection after being granted access to someone's network or networks, or after any key change by the network owner, to have Devicescape's servers push the new information to their client software.

Devicescape has focused until now on easing access to hotspot networks, by allowing an account holder to enter the credentials for every network they use. Devicescape has been compiling a portfolio of authentication information which allows their client software to navigate through gateway pages and other processes transparently to the user. "We've got to the point now where most of the world's hotspots are in the system," said CEO Fraser.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 10:21 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Gadgets, Home, Security | No Comments | No TrackBacks

March 21, 2007

Skyhook Not Violating Your Privacy, Stealing Sheep, Eating Your Young

By Glenn Fleishman

A bit of backlash emerged from Skyhook Wireless's partnership with AOL: Skyhook has been driving the streets of major cities for years gathering pinpointed signal strength information about Wi-Fi access points. It now has 16m access points recorded in 2,500 cities. This allows it to use a laptop or other device's scan of its surrounding Wi-Fi environment to produce a GPS-like result. They just announced a partnership with AOL that couples their results via a free plug-in for AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) for Windows, that allows you and your buddies to see when you are physically near each other.

Anne P. Mitchell, a greatly respected unsolicited commercial everything fighter, seems to have misinterpreted what Skyhook does: "Skyhook’s trucks have been cruising your street, have identified your home wireless router by its unique code that only your home wifi has - and is correlating it with your location using GPS. And then they put it in a database." Mitchell's posting was picked up at Slashdot and amplified at Computerworld.

I told Mitchell via email that I thought she was looking at this through the wrong end the telescope. Wi-Fi uses a public band. There is no expectation of privacy. It's one reason why I stress that everyone should employ Wi-Fi encryption of some sort or use a virtual private network (VPN) connection to make sure that their locally transferred data isn't sent in the clear. (This is true mostly in urban areas, because proximity to potential crackers and sniffers is the real reason to employ these methods.)

While you can protect your data, you can't protect your base station's identity. That's part of the risk and part of the benefit of using a public band. The BSSID, or unique interface address of the base station, is put out there as public information because it's part of the protocol: Wi-Fi adapters need BSSIDs to identify base stations uniquely. (Spoofing the BSSID is one of the ways that evil twins and other attacks work by fooling your computer into thinking it's connecting to a known network.)

The fact that BSSIDs are spat out with great abandon is why large-scale networks and coffeeshop hotspots work so well: the public space is flooded with information about what's available. The next step is whether what's available is designed for everyone to access or for just the owners of the access point. That requires an attempt at association, and then some kind of authentication if that's enabled. But those next steps involve active attempts at infiltration: they don't rely on passive monitoring of the public space.

The "unique code" that Mitchell refers to is the BSSID, but it only uniquely identifies a piece of hardware that has some temporal existence in your home and business. The correlation in Skyhook's systems is by signal strength and coordinates, not by exact street address. I would suspect that Skyhook could probably connect the BSSID to an actual home in single-family house neighborhoods, but I don't believe that they do, nor have a reason to: databases already exist that map most US residents to their household address, along with details about their income and so forth. What's the benefit of knowing that a given BSSID is matched to a given address? I can't tell, beyond knowing what hardware (Linksys? Beklin? Actiontec?) that someone at that address uses for a Wi-Fi network. Perhaps Linksys would direct mail addresses that used competing access points with coupons?

So they're not really associating your BSSID with your address; they're associating a cluster of BSSIDs by their signal strength with a set of coordinates that represents a given Skyhook truck's position on the street. BSSIDs aren't persistent: they live and die with the life of the particular hardware. When it dies (or is turned off) or a new access point is purchased, the BSSID changes, too. I suspect that hundreds of thousands of BSSIDs disappear or move over the course of a month.

As a public band with no expectation of privacy, there's no way for Skyhook's scanning activities to be taken as an invasion of privacy. When Amazon drove its A9 trucks around cities taking photos of houses and businesses and exactly correlating those with street addresses, I don't recall any outcry about privacy partly because Amazon was using the visible spectrum, publicly available, and public streets. In some countries, both Skyhook and Amazon's activities would probably be illegal, but not for any reason that benefits the public.

Now the partnership with AOL is interesting, because Skyhook and AOL could conceivably associate a BSSID with a particular AIM user at a particular time. That's tricky because the BSSID isn't sent as part of any network communication to higher layers, and it would require AIM to reach down into the network stack (which is possible) and have the computer retrieve the BSSID information, and then AIM could send that along with other instant messaging data. And anyone who downloads the Skyhook plug-in for AIM conceivably wants their location to be known--presumably they're not at home--so they can find their buddies. Perhaps a user ID plus the locations they use would be useful, but AOL can already do that by tracking the IP addresses at which AIM users log in, to a lesser degree of location precision.

There's a related point, which is that Skyhook has no interest in revealing the contents of its database, which represents billions of scans they've performed, as well as scans submitted automatically by their Loki toolbar on individual computers. (The Loki scans help correct and enhance existing information and fill in gaps.) What they sell to partners is the ability to take a reading of all the signals via a Wi-Fi adapter and produce coordinates. Their database is their crown jewel, and one hopes they protect it well.

And anyone with similar resources can reproduce their database. People have been wardriving with GPS receivers for several years, and posting the results into giant databases that are publicly accessible. Skyhook's system does even less and more: they post no information about individual access points, and they provide location information based on a scan, which the wardriving databases don't offer directly.

The takeaway here is that if you use a public band, open to all comers, you can't expect privacy. If you don't like it, you can turn down the signal strength in your router, paint your home's interior with signal-blocking paint, or switch from Wi-Fi to powerline and Ethernet. You could use cell data networks, which are highly private, but the operators know everything about you, and market based on that, anyway.

It's a choice to use Wi-Fi, and it's the same choice we made when entering any public space. People may take our picture, walk up to us and try to talk to us, stare at us--or ignore us.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 10:10 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Home, Location, Security | 4 Comments | No TrackBacks

February 16, 2007

AirPort Extreme: Apple Breaks 90 Mbps

By Glenn Fleishman

My review of the new AirPort Extreme Base Station is up at Macworld: This lengthy review, aided by several colleagues at the magazine, covers a lot of the basics for home users. I gave the unit 4 1/2 mice for how well it lived up both to its potential and how well it works. I was able to see consistently high speeds in testing, in excess of 90 Mbps in a single direction over 802.11n to Ethernet (flooding packets from N to Ethernet), and about 50 Mbps when flooding from N to N via the base station. My conclusion is that the device really needs gigabit Ethernet to achieve its full potential.

You'll note that the AirPort Extreme is what I was referring to in a post a few days ago in which I described how I developed new testing methodology for Wi-Fi gateways. The Extreme has a minor flaw that won't bite many people in its ability to pass traffic at full Ethernet speeds across its WAN port when network address translation (NAT) is engaged. Apple said they are looking into the problem, which is software based. A source unconnected with Apple provided convincing proof that the AirPort Extreme uses NetBSD as its embedded operating system, and that the network stack in that OS could be at fault. But it could be trivial to fix, too. (Update: Not to be obscure about NetBSD: the Acknowledgements.pdf file found on the CD-ROM that ships with the AirPort Extreme provides full copyright and acknowledgments credit for included software, as required by a host of GPL and other licenses. NetBSD is thoroughly acknowledged there; the DHCP software is credited to ISC.)

I'll be writing more soon about particular aspects of the base station, but for now, I'd like to direct you to the technical discussion about the Extreme's use of IPv6, the next-generation Internet routing protocol that's been "next generation" for something like eight or nine years now. IPv6 support is found throughout Mac OS X and is fully supported in the Extreme base station--so fully, Ars Technica's Iljitsch van Beijnum reports, that by default every Mac OS X computer that connects to a new Extreme gateway will be fully reachable through tunneled IPv6 from the rest of the Internet.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 4:58 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Hardware, Home | 9 Comments | No TrackBacks

February 12, 2007

"Up to" May Get Kabosh, FTC Says

By Glenn Fleishman

The Federal Trade Commission is looking into how to enforce how broadband speeds are advertised: The San Francisco Chronicle says that a two-day workshop by the FTC will look into the "up to" rates and pricing that broadband firms promote. While the price is fixed, the minimum speed isn't typically stated, and no speed at all is promised. The reporter tries to track down whether any regulators track the "up to" rate and complaints, and finds that the California Public Utilities Commission lacks jurisdiction (broadband is nationally regulated), and the FCC said it doesn't regulate ISPs. So the ball is in the FTC's court, probably in terms of advertising and deliver. [via]

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 1:23 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Home, Regulation | No Comments | No TrackBacks

February 12, 2007

Mvix MX-760HD Adds WPA, 802.1X

By Glenn Fleishman

The high-def streaming media adapter gains good network security: Since I regularly criticize consumer electronics and handheld devices that lack full Wi-Fi security stacks, I should also point out when that changes. The Mvix USA MX-760HD is a kitchen sink full of audio and video streaming options that work with high-definition up to 1080p. It can even hijack a video DVD in a computer's drive and play it using an encrypted stream (and a licensed process, the company says).

But they didn't have WPA, although an update was promised. Now the $300 can be upgraded at no cost for both home and enterprise WPA (WPA Personal and WPA Enterprise, which is WPA over 802.1X). Good going!

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 1:19 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Home, Home Entertainment, Security, Streaming | No Comments | No TrackBacks

February 5, 2007

Peplink Adds Virtual Networks, Signal Control, Management

By Glenn Fleishman

Peplink last week announced its updated Pepwave Surf Series of wireless bridges for metro-scale networks: The new Pepwave Surf keeps parity with Ruckus Wireless's latest CPE (customer premises equipment) bridge, intended to bring signals of large-scale networks into the home. The rebranded Pepwave Surf now offers virtual SSIDs, which allows devices in a home to connect to the bridge, while it connects to the metro-scale network. Peplink said via email that their device dynamically adjusts power to use less signal strength on the home network. Peplink uses an omnidirectional antenna as opposed to Ruckus's MIMO approach.

Peplink also added an external set of "signal bars," green LEDs that show the strength of the Internet-connected network, making it easier to move the bridge to the optimum receiving position.

On the provider side, the new Surf models can be remotely accessed and tested by tech support and management tools to check on whether the bridge is active and functioning correctly, including collecting low-level signal information.

The two model names with its "home access point" feature--virtual SSIDs--are the Surf AP 200 and Ap 400 (200 mW and 400 mW, respectively), retail for the same price as under their former names: $189 and $289.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 1:03 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Home, Metro-Scale Networks | No Comments | No TrackBacks

February 2, 2007

Fon Could Score Major BT Deal

By Glenn Fleishman

Reuter reports that Fon could move from grassroots to mainstream: Fon, so far, has build its tens of thousands of nodes mostly through individuals who obtain a router from them or flash an existing device with new firmware, and set up shop. Although some ISPs allow and some tolerate sharing a connection via Fon, only a few actively encourage it. This could change, Reuters reports, if a deal with BT goes through.

Under the deal, which BT and Fon wouldn't comment on for Reuters, BT would allow its millions of broadband users to share their networks with Fon, and BT's Fusion mobile callers--who can call over Wi-Fi or cell using UMA (unlicensed mobile access)--could access Fon's nodes to place calls. Fon claims 250,000 Foneros, but a smaller number of active nodes.

The Fusion plan would benefit from BT-broadband-backed Wi-Fi nodes because BT can separate VoIP packets on their side of the broadband connection, providing a higher-quality service than a company like Vonage, which must push VoIP packets over the broadband connection out to the Internet, over an unpredictable route.

The article claims that BT could push software to its routers to enable Fon, but I imagine that's an oversimplification--unless most BT broadband users also received a Wi-Fi router from BT, and it's a router that they can insert Fon software into.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 7:45 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Home, Hot Spot, International, Voice | No Comments | No TrackBacks

January 30, 2007

Apple Ships 802.11n Base Station, Software Upgrade

By Glenn Fleishman

Ae-DiagramThe AirPort Extreme Base Station with 802.11n is now shipping: The software enabler required to update existing Macs that have 802.11n technology built in can also now be purchased from the Apple Store for $1.99. The enabler is included with the $179 Extreme gateway. All Core 2 Duo and Xeon-based Macs with Wi-Fi can be updated, except a single iMac model, but including Mac Pro desktops that had the AirPort Extreme option added. Apple isn't offering 802.11n options for any older Macs; third-party adapters will be required.

The enabler isn't locked to a particular Mac. David Moody, an Apple vice president, said, "You can install it on the all the Macs in your house." The license on the purchase page is even broader: "The software license for the 802.11n Enabler software allows you to install and use it on all computers under your ownership or control."

AirPort Extreme with N can work in either the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) band, in which 802.11b (AirPort) and 802.11g (AirPort Extreme) operate, as well as in the 5 GHz band, which is less occupied and has greater available frequencies. While the new Extreme includes Wireless Distribution System (WDS) support for linking base stations wirelessly, and will work interoperably with the older AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express models. However, Moody said that the greater range of 802.11n should obviate the need for WDS connections in the home.

In 2.4 GHz, Apple won't allow 40 MHz "wide" channels that, in the absence of other Wi-Fi network signals, could double throughput. Moody explained that Apple has a huge interest in preserving the functionality of Bluetooth, which has shipped alongside Wi-Fi in most Macs in recent years. "We need to make sure Bluetooth and [802.11]g co-exist perfectly," he said. Allowing 40 MHz wide channels in 2.4 GHz would have severely constrained Bluetooth. Starting with version 1.2 of Bluetooth, that short-range networking standard actively avoids frequencies that are in use by Wi-Fi.

Jai Chulani, senior product manager at Apple, suggested that many users would be better served by preserving a legacy 2.4 GHz network for 802.11b/g devices with an existing base station, and plugging that older base station into an Ethernet port on the new AirPort Extreme, which would then operate to its best advantage in 5 GHz. The AirPort Extreme with N is configured to automatically choose the best channel in 5 GHz, but Chulani said that an advanced settings option would allow 5 GHz channel selection. This could be important, because four of the nine channels in 5 GHz that Apple is offering are restricted to a low-power mode.

Chulani also confirmed that the Apple TV could operate in either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz bands, but that like the AirPort Extreme, the best mode of operation would be automatically selected, and could be manually overridden.

The AirPort Admin Utility has been updated for the new standard with an overhauled interface that, Chulani said, "has two faces." One features more automatic, sensible choices for users who don't need or want to customize configuration. The other includes even more technical detail than earlier releases. For instance, the separate, free AirPort Client Monitor, used to view connected devices and their signal strength, is now part of the AirPort utility. An update to the AirPort Management Utility for configuring multiple base stations at once will be released in the indefinite future. Mac OS X 10.4.8 or Windows XP is required to configure the new base station.

The pipeline for Apple's 802.11n is just revving up, and Macs sold at retail could need enabling. Purchasers of Macs that don't have the newer software installed will have to pay the $1.99 fee unless they also purchase the AirPort Extreme Base Station. It seems likely that the base station will drive the upgrade to 802.11n. The base station started shipping today, and orders placed at the time of announcement should be in purchasers' hands shortly, Moody said.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 12:42 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: 802.11n, Home | No Comments | No TrackBacks

January 29, 2007

Ruckus Doubles the Zone with MetroFlex DZ

By Glenn Fleishman

Ruckus Wireless adds virtual second network to its metro-oriented Wi-Fi bridges: The MetroFlex DZ offers multiple virtual Wi-Fi network names (SSIDs), which allows a single bridge to communicate at high power with a metro-scale network and at low power to devices in a local network. It also lets the user of the bridge configure strong security on the local virtual network. Ruckus uses MIMO and dynamic power control to focus energy where it needs to go. This reduces interference from and with other devices.

A similar set of devices from rival bridge maker Peplink use traditional high-gain Wi-Fi antennas, and thus cast energy in lots of directions. The MetroFlex DZ has a list price of $149, and uses a 200 milliwatt (mW) radio. Peplink offers two models: the  Surf 200BG-AP lists at $189 (200mW) and the Surf 400BG-AP at $289 (400 mW).

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 5:01 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Hardware, Home, Metro-Scale Networks | No Comments | No TrackBacks

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