Too many mobile wireless hotspots makes for a bad day

Mobile wireless hotspots everywhere can complicate the issues of technical support.
Written by David Chernicoff, Contributor

TANSTAAFL - There ain't no such thing as a free lunch

Coined as a phrase by the author Robert Heinlein, TANSTAAFL simply means that when something is putatively free there always ends up being some payment involved somewhere. And I knew that would be the case when a friend (and client) offered me a free two-week trip to Alaska in exchange for some "minor" technical support for an event at which their company was exhibiting.

Getting the technical side of their booth set up wasn't too big a deal; the main idea was that a large video screen would be available to demo the website and that people working in the booth would be able to drill down for customers on either their notebook or tablet.  The only glitch was that during the pre-event setup days, the external Internet connection provided by show management wouldn't be available.

This wasn't a major impediment to getting everything setup.  I always carry a Verizon MyFi Mobile Wireless hotspot so that I have a backup plan in place in case that vendor provided net access isn't available or if I'm planning on using one of my WIFi-only tablets. And despite my expectation that the interior of Alaska was the middle of nowhere, mobile carrier-wise, both Verizon and AT&T had good 3G coverage at the event (AT&T had a mobile tower right outside our building). A quick run of the speedtest.net bandwidth test showed that I was getting about 2 Mb download speeds on the MyFi device, more than enough for what the client needed.

Backup plan

However, I am professionally paranoid about technology working when needed (and that's part of what I get paid for, usually), so making use of the copy of Camtasia Studio on my notebook, I recorded a quick 15 minute walk-through of the client's website, then set it up sp that it would simply loop continuously, using Windows Media Player, on the main video screen. This way, even if the net access went away, their primary display would have something running and they could talk to customers using the paper catalogs and flyers that they were giving away.

Sure enough, in the middle of the second day of the event, the show-provided Internet access went down, with their router disappearing from view within this one building (a roughly football field sized facility with 70 vendors or so). Bringing up my MyFi device provided little relief; rather than the 2 Mb of bandwidth I saw before the event started, I was getting a pipe only about 25 Kb wide, which made live website access impossible to demonstrate. Fortunately, I had made that recorded demo, so life went on.

A quick look at the WiFi scanner app on my tablet made the reason for low bandwidth clear; there were no less than 20 Verizon MyFi units competing for the same bandwidth within the confines of the small building. This wasn't unreasonable given that many of the vendors were using Internet-based payment systems and having a backup plan for them was a necessity. But what was unexpected was a constant stream of wireless access points appearing and disappearing from the scanner screen, bringing the running total of live networks in the facility to over 50, with the majority constantly changing in intensity and identification. While some of these networks were barely registering, others were powerful enough to prevent connections to competing access points on the channels they were camped on.

It took me a minute to realize that what I was seeing was mobile phone users with their mobile access point capability enabled, wandering in and out of the building. Why so many people felt that it was necessary to have their mobile hotspot enabled is beyond me; this wasn't a highly technical group of customers and I'm of the opinion that these people didn't even realize what they were doing. But it certainly would make the job of whoever was responsible for maintaining the wireless networking that much more difficult.

Sure enough, while I was considering this, a tech from the company contracted to provide IT services to the event came over and asked me if I was running a mobile hotspot. She was carrying a notebook running a WiFi scanner and was attempting to find the one unit in the building that was interfering with their ability to connect to their own router to reset it and bring the show-provided net connection back on line. One of the many signals that had popped up was camping on the same channel that their building access point was configured for and broadcasting so strongly they couldn't connect to their equipment to reset it. They were also waiting for show management to show up to unlock the room where their equipment was secured, which prevented them from connecting to the router via a wired connection. The interfering signal was clear and strong, and the tech was going to every vendor to ask if they were running an access point so that she could track it down.

A few hours later the show-provided Internet connection was restored and all was well in the world.  The tech stopped by the next day to let me know that the problem had been addressed and that the service should be good for the remained of the event. She also let me know that the device generating the massive signal that crushed their router access was not a general purpose access point, rather it was a dedicated credit card processing unit that stayed active unless explicitly turned off; the vendor using it wasn't even aware of how it worked, and when queried if they were running a wireless networking device, replied that they were not, making the IT tech's jobs that much harder.

The moral of the story? Backup plans for your backup plans are a great idea, especially when there are so many variables out of your control.

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