“Turbulence In The Ether”

Fred: Your newsletter has allowed me to stay slightly more in-step with quickly changing world of computers, software, & the internet.  Best dollar-a-month I spend!

My questions/problems are in the nebulous area of wireless networking.  I have come to discover that about 99% of people know very little about it. Probably because these people are the lucky ones who set it up, turn it on, and have absolutely no problems whatsoever.

I have had issues ever since I first tried to set-up wireless networks back at my previous residence.  We eventually got that sorted out but now we have some sort of ghost in the air at our new residence and new network.

The strange things that happen stir many questions.  The laptops drop the signal whether we are the whole house away or a room away from the router. It is frustrating to be working on the internet, go about three screens/pages and then access is gone!!  There will be times when you show full signal but have no internet.  This internet drop does not happen when you plug the laptop into the router via cable.

So question #1:  What specific kinds of things could be causing turbulence in the ether?  Is there any way to measure or otherwise see what these things might be?  The problem really developed/got worse over the past few months.  Could it be from the networks of neighbors? Sometimes the wireless card receives other networks.  In my neighborhood, houses are about 150 feet apart side-to-side and 200+ across the street.  Is there something environmental?  I live 2/3rds of the way up a mountain and maybe it reflects all the excess waves of various sorts my way like a giant satellite dish?  It’s probably not related but my garage door opener doesn’t respond very well at all, either.  The main thing is— who knows what’s floating through the air.  People on the other side of the river have had a flap with the local navy depot.  DoD installed some sort of transmitter to send supply info to far off places and the frequency was so close to garage door openers that no-one within a few miles of the base could get their garages to open!

Follow-up questions have more to do with how the wireless cards & XP search for/connect to networks.  Apparently the cards constantly look for networks within range.  And they memorize previously used networks like at airports or hotels where I have logged on.  Once connected to one source, like home, does the card keep scanning the others methodically maybe looking for a better connection?  I occasionally get a pop-up telling me the card was unable to connect to some network that is in an airport 10 states away.  I know that if I am wired the wireless card still scans and I believe connects.  Is this a competition that maybe saps system resources or causes some kind of conflict?

I know that this is a lengthy letter, but possibly others have voiced similar issues.  Thanks again for your newsletter. —Joseph Devers

Turbulence in the either— nice phrase! <g> Ladies and gentlemen, the network is experiencing etheric turbulence; please return your laptop screens to the full upright and locked position….

Joseph, your problems seem unrelated to where you are in the house, so I agree with you that it’s probably something else that’s interfering with the wireless network rather than an problem with the network itself. The most common causes are other Wi-Fi devices, Bluetooth devices, some kinds of portable phones, and microwave ovens; all of which operate in roughly the same part of the electromagnetic spectrum. You can look to see if any such devices are operating in your own home, but there’s not a lot you can do about what may or may not be going on in other homes nearby.

Frankly, I’d also be suspicious of that local military installation you mention: Very powerful signals can "leak" outside their nominal frequency and cause problems up and down the EM spectrum. Also, radars (which use microwave frequencies, just like a microwave oven) can concentrate a lot of energy into a narrow beam; if or when a military radar scans past your house, it might send your wireless connection into a coma. <g>

There’s not a lot you can do about that, of course. If you’re *very* geeky, you could try to rig a partial Faraday cage out of some grounded metal window screening or some such; and place it in the line of sight between your Wi-Fi components and the military installation; but so that it doesn’t come between the Wi-Fi devices themselves. If the interference stops, you’ve proved the source.

*I’m* very geeky, but building Faraday cages is a lot further than I’d want to go. Rather, I’d suggest that you use a different technology that’s relatively immune to external interference of that sort; such as "powerline networking." ( http://www.informationweek.com/story/IWK20030108S0003 )

As for configuring your wireless, with each of the last four laptops I’ve gotten over the years, I’ve ended up eventually stripping out the vendor’s proprietary wireless access management software and letting Windows manage the connections on its own. In XP especially, the wireless connection tools are pretty good and not hard to use. And, with only one tool trying to monitor and manage the wireless, things are much simpler. For example, you can tell the Windows tool NOT to try to connect to just any network it happens to find; to forget about networks you’ll never see again; to connect automatically only to networks you know about and preapprove; and so forth. I keep hoping that some vendor will ship a truly effortless tool, but none in my experience has even come close; instead, the built-in Windows tool is still the best I’ve found.

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.