Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Radio Poltergeist, The State of Wi-Fi pt.3

I have a Wi-Fi network of my own. I wouldn't be without it, but I also know it doesn't live up to the marketing hype. Typing away in a lounge chair, I'm pleased it's cheap and so laptop convenient, yet the serenity of my visual space belies the bellicose battle of the unseen.

Most nights recently around 10:30 PM a mysterious external microwave signal in the same band as my Wi-Fi network (2.4 GHz) rumbles through the house. The cordless telephone (yes, 2.4 GHz) coughs up a partial ring as if the poltergeist were announcing its arrival. For the next hour or two I get wild fluctuations in the signal strength as measured by a Wi-Fi software utility installed on my iBook. These signal "dropouts" washout my iChat and Firefox connections throwing both into "now you're online, now you're not" modes. iChat makes a repeated whooshing sound as I am ushered in and out of cyberspace.

I don't yet have a clue regarding the source of the Wi-Fi "interference." One Wi-Fier's disconcerting interference is the next-door neighbor's gleeful iTunes download on their own wireless network.

Speaking of next door. The signal from a typical Wi-Fi access point has a useful range of about 50 feet inside a wood-frame house, but the signal can often be easily detected at about 150 feet. The walls of home or office contain the corporeal but the invisible microwave radio signals of Wi-Fi from your neighbor land right in your lap--and vice versa. The importance of enabling one of several network security options bears explicit treatment.

I've detected as many as eight separate Wi-Fi signals representing an equal number of networks in one building. No more than three networks can function unimpeded in the same radio signal space. Interference multiplies and data rates plummet even though your computer says the signal is strong.

Sooner or later, most users of Wi-Fi networks experience problems due to interference caused by neighboring Wi-Fi networks, cordless telephones, and microwave ovens.

"Cooking up a storm" has gained a new meaning.

Mark Mason

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