Sunday, January 29, 2012

Finally Getting Around to Dual Monitor

Tonight, I finally got around to sporting a dual monitor. Some of my friends have done so in order to improve productivity. In my case, one monitor is distracting enough in terms of productivity. Except for this one case, computer repair.

It's a pain having to plug and unplug computers into a single monitor that is shared between my home computer and the computer I am servicing. I do have a KVM switch; but, all that does is save me the manual work. I still need to switch back and forth.

In one of those strange turns of events, I wound up with an Iogear USB External Video Adapter. The device is about $60. You plug it into your USB port, and it acts like a video card. The alternative was to buy a video card that supports dual monitors.

Ultimately, having dual monitors does not help me as would be expected. In my situation, one monitor uses the KVM to help me watch the computer I'm servicing. The other monitor stays on task as my desktop, where I can keep working.

I haven't got around to the productivity stuff, yet. Perhaps I will like it. We'll see.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

WiFi Hotspot Use With No Splash Page

Over the weekend and into this evening, I experimented with leaving three Internet hotspots I control without a splash page (802.1x). The purpose was to see if usage of the hotspots would increase. Previously, the number users with DHCP leases (I'm guessing) far outnumbered the users who were actively downloading data. The item in question was whether the splash page was an obstacle to use.

After leaving the hotspots open without splash pages over the weekend and into late Tuesday evening, it can be said that authentication does pose a slight obstacle to active use of the hotspots. However, the increase in usage  without the splash page was far from dramatic. I can't draw any hard conclusions; but, I can at least expect that the splash pages do not hinder use of free WiFi too greatly.

The splash pages, consisting of randomly rotating websites, are re-enabled now. I have ordered three more Open-Mesh routers, doubling my current inventory. Yes, my data set is very meager. But, considering this is coming out of my pocket...

I will place the new routers in different location categories to see how usage differs. Currently, my routers are in two mobile phone retail shops and one restaurant. One of my targeted locations is an print/copy/ship retail location. Another is a promotional product shop. The third is back at my home, where I know there is pent up demand. Although, if a more suitable location crops up, I may yield the third router to it.

As of today, my goal is to build up to 20 Open-Mesh routers so that I can build up sufficient usage data to start making proposals. I already have serious interest by agencies from out of town; but, I still cannot say with any certainty what demand there is from the public, except that residential areas have greater bandwidth requirements.

It is ironic that commercial broadband plans prioritize data for their clients. Most businesses do not require guaranteed service levels. On the other hand, residential demands are greater; yet, they do not benefit from the same guarantees.

Going back to the original issue, splash pages are not a major obstacle to the adoption of free WiFi at the point of consumption. Those who know enough to seek hotspots are often aware of the need to authenticate, with very few exceptions.

Switching from iDEN to CDMA on Boost Mobile

Tonight, I switched from my Boost Mobile iDEN phone to a CDMA phone. Sprint has been providing lousier service on the iDEN bands to the point that I drive through several dead spots a day. I don't use the Walkie Talkie feature often; but, it was nice to have it available when needed.

Switching from iDEN to CDMA means that I no longer can use the Walkie-Talkie service; I've also lost my radio number.

It's not all doom and gloom. One of the drawbacks of iDEN is that it is rather slow and unreliable with respect to SMS (text messaging). The Internet service is also unreliable. CDMA, on the other hand, offers more reliable text messaging and Internet service.

Still, I can't help thinking that I lost something.

I've been with Boost Mobile for some time. I am very close to cashing in on their Shrinkage plan, which takes $5 off your monthly unlimited subscription for every 6 months of on-time payments. That means that I'll be going down to $45/month  after one more payment. When all is said and done, my rate plan can go down to $35/month for unlimited calling and text messaging.

The only fly in the ointment is if I use an Android phone, which adds another $5. So, if I were to upgrade to an Android phone, I'd pay a minimum of $40/month, which isn't bad.

Still experimenting with all of this.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Can Google Plus Video Embed?

Nope. Can't embed. The only option you get is the Post to Blogger/Twitter, as in above. And, there is the embed image code below:

From January 19, 2012

Or a direct link to the Picasa page.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Moving Free WiFi Out of a Residential Area

I moved the mesh radio I had at home out to a retail store to see what impact it would have on network use. If you look at the image above between January 10 and January 12, there are three routers with one in a residential setting.

After January 13, you'll notice that the usage becomes sparse and light. This could be attributed to several factors. For instance, when people are out of the home, they are not looking at retail locations to provide free WiFi. The main users of the all-commercial hotspots are people with mobile phones, though this is probably skewed given that two routers are located in mobile phone stores; but, it holds just as true for the third router, which is in a restaurant. That is to say, mainly mobile users.

There is another possibility; the splash page is an unfamiliar step for most mobile users. They are connecting; I can see the connections. Somehow, they are not drawing data. I believe that some users are not aware that the connection requires them to view the splash page. I'll experiment with this next week by turning off the splash page for an entire week. I'm curious how big an obstacle authentication is for the average user.

My least popular theory, amongst me, myself, and I, are that mobile users just aren't that into WiFi. This does not necessarily mean that all mobile users aren't that into WiFi. Simply, that the locations that I have chosen don't attract users or bore them to the point they want to surf the web. Another network, for example, has minimum of 4 mobile users each day; it is located at a doctor's office.

Ultimately, the splash page is the value proposition for prospective businesses wanting to provide free WiFi. Therefore, I can't skip it

In the business perspective, my results thus far placate the fear that people will slam a free WiFi connection if made available. As can be observed with three access points, the results are hardly overwhelming the connections. It also shows that people are not squatting on WiFi connections.

The downside is that lack of use also suggests that having a Hotspot may not be worthwhile. Why do it if only a handful of users will take advantage? For me the reasons are clear; but, they are not clear to everybody. I will have to learn to make my case.

There are more experiments on the way. Since I'm funding them with my own money, I can't run concurrent experiments as I would like.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Free Residential WiFi vs Free Commercial WiFi

My experiments thus far have had somewhat expected results, residential free WiFi use is heavier than commercial free WiFi use.

Just for background, I have four commercial locations providing free WiFi and my own residence filling in for residential WiFi. In the commercial locations, I have a retail store, a public space, a doctor's office, and a restaurant.

What I have observed is that in the commercial hotspots; people mostly connect with their mobile devices, and they only connect for short periods. This is good news for businesses considering setting up hotspots for their clients. It means that their customers are not going to linger too long and bog down their network with huge downloads.

On the residential side, I get a good share of mobile devices; but, the really heavy downloads are the result of laptops and possibly desktops with wireless access. These connections are more bandwidth intensive and persistent.

What This Means for Community Network Planning

Residential community networks need a high concentration of bandwidth donors to spread the load of those who are connecting and REALLY using the connection. I knew that throttling my free connection would come in handy.

Ideally, it would be beneficial to tap into the commercial links to feed into residential areas. The reason for this is that businesses primarily use their bandwidth during the day. In the evenings, their Internet connections are largely unused; my data supports this. Residential areas use Internet in the evenings, mostly. Daytime use is minimal.

The problem is, commercial and residential areas are separate, which makes piping Internet connections back and forth problematic.

I don't have a solution; these are just observations.

The Midnight WiFi Rider

I went out again tonight, to play with microwaves; you might call them WiFi. OK, so it wasn't midnight; I really needed a catchy title. Anyway, I drove up to a high point in town, which isn't all that high; and, I pointed the Ubiquiti Nanostation LOCO down Conway Avenue in Mission, Texas just to see what networks I could hit.

As an aside, you can set Ubiquiti radios to "any" SSID, which, as the name implies, connects your radio to any open SSID it finds. Of course, there is more to it than that; the radios do not come with setup destructions, so there are plenty of things to figure out the hard way.

Chimney Park

Going back to my signal checking, I was able to see Chimney Park North and Chimney Park South, which are about 5 km away. I did not have a very clear line of sight other than what a road without traffic can provide. The elevation drops about 20 feet between where I was and Chimney Park.

There is another RV park that is about 1 or 2 km closer, Oleander Acres. I was able to occasionally see their network; but, it was much weaker, which is understandable. Oleander Acres does not have a clear line of sight up Conway. They are off to one side of Conway, surrounded by trees, and blocked by buildings and a highway bridge. Whereas, Chimney Park had nothing but open road between them and me.

I could see them; but, I could not connect. I am certain this is because their radios are omnidirectional access points. Perhaps it would work under ideal conditions; but these were not.

The Chamber

I then drove to the parking lot behind the Rotary Park, which I think is called the Leo Peña Placita these days. From there, my objective was to connect to the Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce public WiFi. There is no elevation change, the routers transmit at 400 mW from inside the building. Even so, I was able to connect from 250 meters away. The speed was not all that great (30 kbps to 300kbps); nor was it a reliable connection. It would flake out on occasion.

In the past, I had tried that link with a mesh router in between the park and the Chamber to act as a repeater. I got good speeds; but, the connection could get flaky at times too. Without a high gain radio, the connection simply isn't possible.

For the Record

I don't like the metric system. I'm quoting km and meters even though I can't estimate what they are, mentally. The only reason I'm using them is for the sake of calculating stuff. Metric is Measurement for Dummies. I've got enough going on that I don't want to fuss too much with conversions; therefore, metric.

What Could Be Done Differently

Even though my results were not amazing; they were rather exciting considering the limitations. Placing the radio on the dashboard of my old minivan was not the greatest location. It does not even bother to account for the Fresnel Zone and Earth curvature.

Obviously, a more definite line of sight would have helped. In the Chimney Park instance, having a pole would have helped. In the Chamber instance, a pole on my end and an external antenna on the other end would have really helped.

Given the limitations of these "quick and dirty" experiments, I'm not bummed out. Now that I know that my Ubiquiti Nanostation LOCO can likely achieve 15 km links under ideal conditions, I can start attempting to achieve those conditions. Yes, 5 km is not 15 km; however, that was 5 km under crappy conditions. The next step is to decrap the conditions.

How I Can Improve Results

  • I can get a higher gain radio for testing. Instead of the Ubiquity Nanostation LOCO, I should get the larger Nanostation. 
  • More elevation. Ground level simply does not work well with long distance radio communications. I'm going to need to raise my devices above rooftops and tree canopies. 
  • Better equipment. The "base stations" used in these tests are not designed for long distance links. They are designed for short-distance omnidirectional links. More directional equipment would improve the connections. 
That's it for now. Once I get past that, I can start tweaking some more to improve upon those results. 

Friday, January 06, 2012

Some Details on the Mission WiFi Project

I've been working on a project to get WiFi hotspots throughout the city. The ultimate goal is to have access to the Internet from anywhere in town. The challenge is coming up with some kind of incentive to get businesses to participate by donating their bandwidth. After all, they pay good money for it. 

I'm thinking of approaching this from two different angles. For businesses, there is a marketing/advertising angle. For the consumer, we'll need to go along a Wireless ISP approach, with distribution points back to the consumer. 

I'm still figuring out the best approach to ensure that we have enough bandwidth for everybody. In the meantime, little islands of WiFi throughout town, in an advertising pool is the best idea I could dream up. 

This means knocking on doors and offering to set up hotspots with 1 Mb connections for visitors; it's best not to abuse the business participant. 

Advertising Co-op?

By hosting a hotspot, the business can have their website and facebook page added to the splash page rotation. This isn't too exciting with one or two hotspots; but, imagine that I got around to 50 hotspots. What if each hotspot has 3 or 4 users per day (on the low end)? That means 150 to 200 page impressions per day to cross-promote all the participant websites. Some locations will have more users, meaning that the number could be greater. If you have a website and it's not seeing the traffic you think it should, then showing it to wifi users throughout town is good exposure. It is a source of Facebook likes that may never have happened. 

If there are 100 businesses with hotspots, that's 400 impressions or more distributed per day. 

On the technical end, imagine 100 businesses donating 1 Mb of bandwidth. Concurrently, that's 100 Mb of Internet flowing. What would that cost on a monthly basis? In this case, picking up bandwidth spare change adds up. 

For the moment, that's a bit ambitious. We only have 3 hotspots active. But, it's not too ambitious; there are well over 1000 businesses in Mission, Texas (an understatement). 

In the long-term, the trick will be to find a way to aggregate that bandwidth and redistribute it to low-income areas of town. You'd be willing to endure a few ads in exchange for free Internet, right? 

But, that may be far down the road. In the meantime, I need to get over my shyness to go knock on some doors. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Free WiFi Hotspots Increasingly Serve the Mobile Market

In watching the traffic on some of the wireless networks I admin, which provide free WiFi to visitors, I have noticed that a good portion consists of mobile devices rather than laptops, as the typical WiFi moocher of the past was likely to use. This makes sense now that mobile devices have taken over basic communication functions, such as email and looking up quick information.

In the list of devices, the device name typically contains "Android" or "iPad, iPhone, or iTouch". If those aren't dead giveaways, the manufacturer is often listed as Apple, HTC, Android, or something similar. Scientific? No. Rough idea? Definitely. What I find more striking is that these devices are not simply downloading a few KB here and there as they are polling email servers. Rather, they are pulling down tens and hundreds of MB of data.

This finding is significant because it means that mobile users are taking advantage of WiFi to supplement their data plans. As mobile companies move to cap data plans, heavy users have to be a bit more mindful with their big downloads.

Another issue to keep in mind is that mobile companies do not cut you off completely after you've passed your data allocation for the month; but, they do reduce your speed to a crawl. If you can imagine blazing at 4G and then being kicked down to 3G or EDGE, it is imperative to find all the WiFi.

What this means for small businesses is a temporary marketing advantage by offering free WiFi to customers. While most businesses are reluctant to provide WiFi, those that do will stand out as a preferred vendor to their customers. Once free WiFi becomes more universal, offering it will be less of an advantage; but, not having it would be a disadvantage.

The greatest WiFi benefit can be achieved by those businesses that force people to wait, such as clinics, pharmacies, auto care shops, car washes, restaurants, etc. The amenities traditionally offered are magazines and maybe even a television on a boring channel. With WiFi, your customers can watch their own videos, get work done, purchase things, read news, or whatever they do with their mobile device. The end result is that the dreaded long wait becomes tolerable.

Here is an image of the network clients of a doctor's clinic. Notice all the users are mobile devices. Obviously, people want something to do while they wait for their appointment.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Checking Out Ubiquiti Products

I've decided to give Ubiquiti products a try. I've placed an order for my first product, the Nanostation M2 LOCO, primarily for the range that the product specs claim.

I've experimented with Open-Mesh routers. They are pretty good; I'll continue to use them. However, even Open-Mesh suggests that their products are best used indoors. I have a high-powered one on a pole on my roof. It's impressive how far the signal gets considering how small the unit is and that there are trees in the way.

Still, the little routers use dipole antennas, which I suppose I could replace with something more directional or higher gain. I'm happy with what they can do; but, I need more coverage.

Before changing the stock product, I want to see if I can access the signal from a further distance using the Nanostation.

In my mind, I'm thinking that having radios that mesh is helpful; but, I don't necessarily want to build the city network entirely on mesh due to the network overhead required to maintain it. The idea is to have affordable access points.

For more robust service, I'm also looking at the Ubiquiti sector antennas, M2 Rocket, and omni antenna. Combined with Nanostations, these products should yield good, solid connections at the distances I need. Well, in theory. I should get my hands on some and put them through the paces.