[ISN] Running Wi-Fi in the coldest, driest and windiest place on Earth

InfoSec News isn at c4i.org
Thu Sep 8 02:36:48 EDT 2005


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?" 

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