The great IETF wireless black hole

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I'm currently sitting in the IETF plenary and I've only been able to be on the wireless network about 50% of the time--pretty much par for the course in this IETF, and probably a bit worse than average. Even at a good IETF meeting, the network generally doesn't work the first day. I'm not a radio engineer, but it's never been clear to me why it's so hard to get this technology working and keep it working. It's true that the IETF is a particularly challenging environment, but you'd think that after 5 years or so of experience with wireless networks this size, we would have figured it out. Anyone understand what's up? Is it that the radio characteristics of each venue are really different? That they use different equipment each time? All of the above?

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4 Comments

Wireless networks are inherently fragile. Different devices often interoperate poorly, and even with equipment that is normally compatible, it sometimes only takes one poorly configured transmitter to bring every access point in range crashing down -- and this can happen entirely by accident with disturbing regularity. I can't remember ever attending a technical conference without at least one outage, somewhere.

My experience is a little off from yours, though, in that usually the network is set up correctly at the beginning, and doesn't get clobbered until enough people have shown up and been making enough mistakes.

Depends on the conference. NANOG always has good, GOOD net...

Anything run by the hotel is almost always incompetent however. CCS has pretty crappy net.

Equipment variation doesn't help... many 802.11 implementations are awful under heavy load. Also, there's the issues to do with access point density and power output, which is somewhat magical in that with experience one can get a feel for what happens, but there's no real way to quantify the issues in advance. You just have to set out some APs and see what they cover.

Doing a proper site survey is the only way to get good wireless coverage for your network. The RF propagation properties of any given building are totally unique, dependent not only on the size and shape of the room, but also the building materials.

There are a few good tools to help do a site survey, and while they're relatively expensive, they're well worth the cost. For any deployment that requires more than about a dozen access points, there are simply too many variables to take into account for the "stick 'em up and see what happens" method to provide a reliable, high-performance network.

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