By Humphrey Cheung
September 1, 2005
Westlake Village (CA) - If you think setting up a wireless network is
difficult in your living room, try the Antarctic. For the last seven
years scientists in Antarctica have been setting up access points and
repeaters in sub-zero temperatures and 80 mile per hour winds. To the
hundreds of scientists stationed there, wireless gives a big morale
boost and increases their efficiency. Kent Colby, Senior
Communications Tech with the National Science Foundation, told us what
it is like to be the "Wi-Fi guy" down south.
Wireless access points and repeaters, often placed on mountain tops,
shuttle information between science camps, towns and ports. A wireless
network provides scientists a valuable and often the only available
infrastructure for transmitting the enormous amount of digital data
from collection points to home base. While Wi-Fi has increased
bandwidth between residents and stations in Antarctica, traffic
heading from the world's second smallest continent is very limited.
With only 10 phone lines and a single T1 coming off the continent
strict procedures are in place to ration outside access. There is a
coffee shop where scientists can grab a hot drink and plug in their
laptops, but around town options are scarce. "The T1 is shared with
NASA so really we have only 180K for Internet. You can't use wireless
around town because it chokes the bandwidth," says Colby.
Personnel must brave the elements to get to Wi-Fi installation sites,
often on mountain tops. Temperatures usually hovers around -5 to -31
degress Fahrenheit in the summer, but have dipped to an incredible
-129 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Colby. In addition, 100 mile per
hour winds are sustained for several hours and Colby remembers when
they had 80 mile per hour winds winds for two and a half days
straight. "The wind can blow doors off and collapse a building," says
Storms can trap Wi-Fi installers on a mountain top. Extreme winds of
up to 200 mile per hour along with white-out conditions can make any
type of rescue impossible. Colby says that most sites have
pre-positioned supplies and that personal can survive several days
before getting help.
The wireless access points and repeaters are also subjected to extreme
conditions. "If a manufacturer says their access point is rated for up
to -20 degrees, we say that we need it to be -40," says Colby. Once
the access point is turned on it stays on for the whole summer, thanks
to solar panels and backup batteries. Perhaps the cold temperature
also improves stability because, according to Colby, they have had
only three weather related equipment failures over the years.
So why would anyone need Wi-Fi in the Antarctica wasteland? For
residents it has proved to be a huge morale boost. Scientists can keep
in touch with loved ones back home. Colby says that one school teacher
was able to send almost daily pictures back to her class.
In addition to the morale boost, the wireless network has other
tangible and perhaps lifesaving benefits. Scientific data can now be
relayed with a simple email from a laptop. Before Wi-Fi, radio
channels would be tied up as information was read. "You don't have to
read the data and keep saying roger," says Colby.
The wireless network has brought some extra headaches to network
administrators. Scientists have brought subnets down with their
personally installed access points. Improperly configured IP addresses
have caused packet storms making Colby's life difficult. How does the
IT team prevent such disasters? "We go wardriving," says Colby.
Running AirMagnet on his laptop, Colby trudges around town looking for
rogue access points. Colby says, "I find a lot of Linksys and Netgear
here and there." He also has found scientific data on shared folders.
While some networks are secured, most are not and Colby isn't overly
concerned about intruders finding sensitive information. "If someone
did hack in, they would find out that a certain moss grows at 1 mm a
year, how thrilling is that?"
Sept 16-18th, 2005
San Diego, California