Wi-fi interference – the internet thief!

If you’ve been keeping up to date with our blogs on wi-fi interference, you could be forgiven for thinking we are making a bit of a fuss and racket about not a lot, and that simply banishing the office microwave and ditching Bluetooth headsets would solve the problem. You would be wrong – there are many wireless products that operate within the unlicensed band and are likely to be within your network. These include watches, shoes, MP3 payers and countless other minute consumer devices and products. Your security solution, whilst working very well at keeping out burglers, could well be causing network jamming levels of interference.

The level of interference caused by some of these devices can be estimated by assessing the following:

1. The output power – the greater this is, the larger zone of interference the device will create.

2. The time signals are emitted for – some devices constantly output a signal (older cordless telephones), others send intermittent signals (new digital cordless telephones). Unsurprisingly, the more time a device emits a signal, the greater the interference.

3. The signal frequency – some devices operate on one frequency and will affect specific channels, others hop frequency and will impact all channels a little bit, and finally some sweep across the frequency spectrum and will cause serious interruptions on many frequencies.

In a recent study, and analogue telephone and a video camera, placed 25 feet away from the AP caused the network to collapse completely… definitely a problem!

Wi-fi interference – facts and solutions

It is tempting to ignore interference, and many network users begin accept a sluggish network. But this will have a long term impact on the productivity of your business, so it is worth assessing how often wifi interference occurs, and its impact. Several reports from technicians working for a major wifi infrastructure companies showed that interference from around 20 devices in a business were causing 50% of the problems their network was experiencing. In a residential environment, it is reported that 67% of problems were caused by interference. So it can be concluded that interference is an issue that needs addressing.

Understanding the radio frequencies that wifi networks run on is key to managing interference, and this may take a little patience – but help is at hand, if you need it. Tools are available that will classify the sources in interference on your network and make RF easier to understand. Once the sources have been identified, they can be removed from the network.

How to remove (or move) the offending source of the interference is key – you could replace a microwave or cordless headset with different models that operate outside the radio frequency band. If the source of the interference is an integral to the business as the wifi network, you could try moving the affected access point or changing its operating channel so that it is different to the interfering device and therefore unaffected. Finally, you can try to shield the problem, so that the equipment that causes the RF interference is isolated to a particular room, well away from access points, or shielded with foils or insulating foams in the walls.

Packet sniffers, wireless policies

So what are the best ways to analyse and protect your wireless network from inference – the aim being to keep it in tip top shape, and performing to the best of its abilities.

Some businesses, keen to limit interference on their network, have brought in wireless policies to tackle interference caused by employees or visitors bringing wireless devices into the building. This is a good idea, and will have a positive impact on the level of interference suffered, but does not tackle problems caused by devices found in the office already – some of which might be vital to the business operation (i.e. those cordless telephones and the lunchtime microwave!).

So what about packet sniffers? You can find free software with a quick search online, which will interface with an 802.11 client card and passively capture (‘sniff’) 802.11 transmissions within your wireless WLAN. They will assess and feedback data on secondary indicators of interference, such as increased retransmission and lower data rates, but they won’t help you determine the cause of the inference or tell you where it is located. Given that in order to get rid of interference you would hope to identify the source of the problem and then decide if you want to remove it, this is a major problem and renders packet sniffers slightly impotent.

So what next for your limping, interference addled network? Could you move it to run at 5GHz, as most devices run on 2.4GHz, thus removing most of the problem without having to actually remove the devices causing it? This might bring short-term gain and some improvement, but more and more devices, including some of those omnipresent cordless telephones, are operating at 5GHz, and many more devices will follow. Then you will be back to square one, still hamstrung by interference, and still trying to address the problem.

Wi-fi interference – I’ve done a sweep…so I must be fine?

Last time we covered how your network might be affect by interference even if it appears to be working well, and what can cause this interference – this time around we are starting to look at how you can assess your problem, and how to deal with it.

It is prudent to sweep your network for wi-fi interference, and one can be forgiven for thinking a walk around your business taking measurements of your network’s capacity would be sufficient. We would recommend a little more care is taken, and that an initial sweep should be carried out for an extended time, and repeated at different times of the day on different days. This is because the interference will be intermittent, due to the varying causes already discussed.  Even periodic sweeping will not guarantee an interference free network (but should help you to assess how much of a problem you may have), so what else can be done?

Some newer to market switch-based WLAN infrastructure products have interference management technology that detects the presence of non-802.11 signals, and changes the channel of the access points in the area. This is helpful, but will not solve problems with broadband based devices such as cordless phones and Bluetooth devices. So the problem will still need addressing…

There is a school of thought that suggests if you stick an access point in each room of your network, you can overcome interference simply because the network is spread out. Sadly this is not the case, as the access points may begin to cause interference to each other… somewhat negating the point of having lots of them!

Next time we will look at how a wireless policy in your business might work, packet sniffers and other wi-fi interference geekery – don’t miss it. At some point we promise to tell you what will work to stop interference in your network!

Wi-fi interference – fact and fiction

Geekabit love a bit of problem solving, and this week we have been looking at some of the myths commonly associated with wi-fi interference. Wireless devices are everywhere now, in both home and office environments, and interference is something worth reading up on if you want to keep your network performing at its best.

All may seem well with your network if the most you ask of it is web surfing and occasionally up or downloading large files, but it will be being impacted by external interference and you may not realise how much, until you ask more of your network. For example, should you decide to use your wireless network for your business’s telephone calls and invest in VoIP phones, you will need a network resilient to interference – this becomes more important if you have multiple lines.

So what might cause interference, and how? Some of these might surprise you! Microwave ovens, fluorescent lights, bad electrical connections and cordless phones are all culprits, among many others – it might just be worth taking a look around your office and seeing what might be lurking. When a device on your network senses an interference burst occurring (such as someone switching on the microwave to heat up their lunch!), it will hold off its own transmission until the interference has finished, resulting in a domino effect of hold ups and transmissions. This will negatively impact the capacity of your wireless network, and needs to be addressed.

Next month we will share the secrets of preventing interference with you – be sure to pop back!

Wi-Fi Security

More and more work is now being done from home or remotely, which provides great benefits and quality of working life to employees, and can help an employer to lower costs and motivate their workforce.  But what risks are there to working ‘outside the firewall’ that most businesses IT departments provide for workers in the office?

Security firm Tripwire have conducted a survey of over 1,000 remote workers in the UK and US, and found that 85% of them use the default IP address on their wireless router. Worryingly, the same study found that only half of the 600 IT and security professionals surveyed at the same time had adjusted their IP address – and they really should know better!

The results of the study also recorded that 52 percent of IT professionals and 59 percent of employees haven’t updated the firmware on their routers sine purchase, and 30 percent of IT professionals and 46 percent of employees haven’t yet changed the default admin password on their routers.

So the freedom to work away from the office does carry with it some significant security risks. Some companies will already have requirements in place for those choosing to work remotely, but for others, perhaps knowing that basic wifi security measures are not being undertaken may make them rethink their policy.

Hotel wi-fi – why are we still being charged?

Having just returned from a very welcome holiday in the States, it was interesting to see how many of the large hotel chains still charge for wi-fi access. It was often free of charge provided you were located in a corner of the lobby, but should you wish to have access in your room, lets say to Skype loved ones in privacy or to tackle a tricky work task away from the hustle and bustle of public areas, a fee would be levied for the privilege.
Web magazine Hotel Chatter looked into the issue (focusing on hotels in America), and found that although wi-fi is free of charge in rooms in 64% of hotels, many of the big names still charge.

We found this to be pretty staggering stuff, considering that in a recent survey by Hotels.com, customers ranked free wi-fi to be the most important service offered by a hotel, and many of the main hotel price comparison sites will allow you to filter hotels by free wi-fi availability.

So why are the large chains still charging?
Is it simply holding to ransom those customers who want the security of staying in a hotel from a well know chain, in an age where many people cannot function on a personal or professional level without being connected to the internet? It seems this could indeed be the case – it is easy money,essentially making an extra few percent on each room rate sold. A quick look at Trip Advisor shows that some customers are not happy, especially when they are not informed about this charge when booking… so perhaps we will see the large hotel chains being forced to reconsider?

In the meantime, should you be planning a trip to the States in the near future, the chains still charging for wi-fi in your room include: Marriott, Hyatt, Sheraton, Waldorf Astoria, Ritz-Carlton, InterContinental and Hilton.

Marriott Misbehaving

Here at Geekabit we are great believers in free, reliable and straightforward wi-fi being offered in public places, such as bars, restaurants, hotels and coffee shops. It is universally expected, welcomed, and even our own research shows it does influence whether people choose to return to your business.

Which is why we were completely staggered to read that the hotel group Marriott were fined in the US in November last year for blocking wi-fi hotspots in one of its hotels, forcing business travellers to pay to access to Marriott’s own network. What makes it even more suspect, and outrageous, is that their wi-fi charges are normally $14.95 per day, but in this instance the jamming happened during a business conference, and the charges were considerably higher.

Marriott were fined $600,000 by America’s Federal Communication Commission (the FCC), who called the hotel chains actions ‘unacceptable’, and reinforced point that all jamming devices are illegal. Marriott released a statement claiming that they were simply trying to protect their customers from ‘rogue wireless hotspots’, and demanded that the FCC clearly define the law.

In an era where some customers find it tiresome to even have to ‘sign in’ to free wi-fi hotspots, we cannot imagine the impact this type of negative press would have on a UK based hotel chain, and will be keeping a close eye on the ‘Marriott affair’ in the weeks to come.

Wi-Fi hotspots versus mobile broadband

We often blog about wi-fi hotspots in the UK and abroad, so today we wanted to see what impact the planned universal (well, 98% of the UK!) 3G and 4G coverage have on the prevalence of hotspots?

The majority of people using public wi-fi hotspots only need the internet for short bursts – to check social media, read a few emails or compare the price of a product while shopping. When 3G was first launched as a service, it was unreliable, slow and often hard to access inside a building so the rapid growth of wi-fi services continued unabated. Now the performance of wi-fi and mobile broadband are on a par, with 4G often quicker than wi-fi hotspots in public places, so mobile broadband is the easiest option for these users.

43% of customers signed up to EE’s 4G service said they now rarely needed to use wi-fi hotspots, and turned off the wi-fi connection of their mobile when out and about. Fiddly sign-up forms still required by some hotspot providers also put people off using them if there is quick and reliable 3G or 4G, but these forms are becoming less common as a result.

Wi-fi hotspots will not disappear, with a big plus being that they are usually free, so you can download data and preserve your allowance. Mobile network operators are also working to improve the security of data sent over these networks, and make sure speed and reliability are up to scratch, but there is no doubt that they will become less relevant in the face of increasing 4G coverage.

Weird & wonderful wi-fi hotspots

Wi-fi is our business, and we have previously covered the fact that most people in the Western world now expect free and reliable wi-fi (or 3G/4G) everywhere they go. This got us thinking about the opposite –  where on earth is there wi-fi where you would never expect it?

First up, is Barneo Ice Camp, which as the name might suggest, is a mere 80kms from the North Pole. Wi-fi was installed here by Intel in 2005 to allow research data to be sent back to institutions many miles  south.
There is, would you believe, wi-fi at Everest Base Camp, 5,000 meters above sea level. Very useful for uploading that ‘summit selfie’ with your Sherpa.

In slightly warmer climes, lots of tourist beaches in Europe and the States now offer wi-fi hotspots, so you can post happy sunshine filled updates to social media all day long, making friends, family and workmates green with envy.

Finally, some graveyards in the US are now offering free wi-fi, proving that you will never quite escape from Twitter, even when six feet under! There are also reports of QR codes being placed on graves, so one can find out more information about who is buried there. Rather ghoulish, and  topical given the shops are filling up with pumpkins and skeleton costumes!

So you might be pleasantly surprised to find strong and reliable wi-fi in the most unexpected of places. Your author today speaks from a point of bitter experience, but with 4G rather than wi-fi. There is absolutely no 4G coverage in the vaguely rural pocket of Hampshire in which I dwell, but I was astonished to have a strong 4G signal at the Aguille du Midi, looking up at Month Blanc and standing within touching distance of the highest point in Europe….