AWA Hotel Room Network Evolution

June 2, 2017

I’ve been attending Anime Weekend Atlanta since 2004, and since 2005 I’ve gotten a hotel room that I share with friends to facilitate out-of-town friends attending, in addition to giving us a “home base” to keep our things in during the convention. As such, we’ve needed methods to get online. As the years went on, we’ve used varying methods with varying success. I will detail them on a year-by-year basis.

2004: The Beginning

In 2004, I merely attended the convention with some friends, and we commuted to it from one of their offices. As such, the only “online” capability I had was via T-Mobile’s GPRS network. At the time I was using an Ericsson R520m and Handspring Treo 180, switching my SIM card between them depending on what I was going to do. Most of the con I kept the SIM in the Treo as it had a QWERTY keyboard and a far better web browser, not to mention a client for LiveJournal, which was the top social media platform in those days.

By the time we departed on Sunday, quite a while before the closing ceremonies, I decided that the next year we would stay in one of the hotels. This leads us to the next year…

2005: Wired and a Discovery

2005 saw my group staying in the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly, the primary hotel for the convention. Keep in mind that 2005 is still very much early days of WiFi, and at that time the hotel did not have in-room WiFi like they have today, so we plugged my laptop into the Ethernet cable that on the desk, which cost us $15/night. Whatever, we had Internet and were happy.

As the weekend proceeds, we make good use of it, and as in my naïveté I had us check out on Sunday, we ended up in the hotel lobby towards the end of the convention waiting until time to take my one friend to the airport for his return flight. I checked for WiFi networks, and lo and behold, one was there! I took note of the SSID and started making plans for the following year…

2006: Skylight WiFi

We yet again stayed in the Waverly in 2006, and the hotel’s lobby WiFi still had the same SSID, which lead to this, a 2.4 GHz Yagi antenna connected to a PC running m0n0wall pointed out the room’s window toward a skylight. We had free Internet all weekend. Rejoice!

The only downside to this is I didn’t have an extra access point we could plug into the m0n0wall PC, so we were limited to wired access on the clients. That ended up being a nonissue.

2007: Soekris Debut

2007 saw us in the Waverly again, and by this time I’d acquired a Soekris net4501 single-board computer to use in a similar fashion to 2006’s PC. We would plug into the hotel’s wired network, paying $15/night, and share it via WiFi. I could just as easily have picked up an inexpensive wireless router to do the same, but those wouldn’t run m0n0wall and be overall more stable.

2008: More Soekris

We were back in the Waverly in 2008, once again with the Soekris, only this time it ran OpenBSD. Everything pretty much “just worked” again off the hotel’s wired network.

2009: Embassy

As I’d somehow missed the first day reservations could be made at the Waverly for the con, I was forced to make the reservation up the hill and across the street from the Waverly at the Embassy Suites Galleria Atlanta instead. I’d come up with some silly idea involving a La Fonera I’d flashed DD-WRT to as a client and another router, the kind I forget, running Tomato, for both wired and wireless access. Somehow it worked, albeit slowly.

2010: 3G

Within a couple of weeks after the convention in 2009, I had acquired a data line on T-Mobile using the Huawei UMG181. I immediately began scheming how to make a “better Cradlepoint” due to Cradlepoint’s rather low limit for wireless clients. The ultimate solution was to load IPCop on an old netbook and plug a wireless router into it. Other than the fact we blew through the 5GB of fast data on the aircard rather quickly, it actually was usable! This year we were again in the Embassy Suites.

2011: WiMax

We were back in the Waverly by request of a certain person, so I began a plot involving a Clear 4G WiMax USB modem and a Cradlepoint CTR35 connected to a wireless router. This sounds pretty normal, right? That’s where it gets fun! I’d pulled the 2.4 GHz Yagi from 2006 back out of retirement, connected it to one of the antenna ports of the wireless router, aimed it across the hotel to where convention operations was, and thanks to my connections with con staff, put the La Fonera there with an antenna to receive the signal from the room router, which was plugged into another router that had an even larger 2.4 GHz vertical antenna connected to it. Needless to say, it was a bit crazy.

2012: Return to Sanity

I was originally not planning to attend the convention this year, but a membership gifted from a friend changed that. The Waverly was full, and the convention block at the Embassy was also full, so what was I to do? Go ahead and book a room at the Embassy at the normal rate and have a great time! For connectivity I just set the CTR35 up with the UMG181 plugged into it, since the idea was to spend precious little time in the hotel room, which was done.

2013: WiMax Redux

2013’s convention found itself happening just a month after the release of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, a game my con friends and I were playing, so since we were playing it, we needed Internet. My new Clear modem/router to the rescue! This was the best solution we ever came up with: I was already paying for the service, so it wasn’t an extra expense on the hotel bill, it was truly unlimited wireless, and the modem could do IP Passthrough quite effectively. Needless to say, much like two years prior, it worked and worked quite well. We stayed in the Embassy this year too.

2014: Stability

Much like 2014, we utilized the Clear modem with two remote wireless routers for silliness’ sake. This was bliss: unlimited wireless, remote wireless to extend the network, and a very usable connection. This was in the Embassy yet again, but this was short-lived…

2015: Failure

In early 2015, Clear announced they were shutting their network down in November. I could have just used the modem at the con but opted to cancel preemptively to save a few bucks a month, which left us in a lurch.

Before this happened, however, I’d gotten a second voice line on T-Mobile with the intent of using it in a non-TMO-branded aircard for work road trips. It worked; however, the network was clogged, and my attempt to make a virtual WiFi client with the pfSense box I was using failed miserably. I’d opted to bring just my tablet instead of a laptop, as had the friend I had rooming with me, so we were kind of stuck. We used his T-Mobile hotspot and I just used my phone in WiFi tether or connected the tablet to the Embassy’s WiFi. This was the worst year since the 00s…

2016: Partial Success

We went back to the Waverly in 2016 because it claimed “wired Internet access” in the rooms. This turned out to be untrue, so we fired up the aircards and blew away the 7 GB personal hotspot on them. As I’ve mentioned in the blog before, I had a Raspberry Pi 2 set up as a wireless client. Sadly it was just on 2.4 GHz, so speeds were awful. The ultimate solution was to use our laptops on the hotel’s rather fast 802.11ac 5 GHz WiFi. In the months since then I’ve done a lot of research and studies of possible solutions and came up with one…

2017: To Be Determined

We’re back in the Embassy Suites this year, and we have several months until the convention as of this post’s writing. The solution has evolved quite a bit since the original plan a decade ago, as detailed in a recent post. The basic idea is to use a dual-band client with a high-gain vertical antenna powered by Power-over-Ethernet from a wireless router that will serve the connection to wired or wireless clients. I have done some preliminary testing on my home network and the results are promising. It remains to be seen just how effective this will be on a crowded network, though if the Embassy has fast 5 GHz WiFi like the Waverly it may be a nonissue.

Thus far I have good hopes for the current solution as it affords wired, WiFi, and LTE. We shall see in just a few months’ time!

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Internet in a Box, Rev. A (Part 1)

February 20, 2017

In the last post I discussed the current-at-the-time state of my “Internet in a Box” project. As it’s been ten months since then, I felt an update was warranted.

Since that post was published, the system has been taken on five trips for work or leisure, and each of those had its own set of hiccups.

The first trip was to Orlando, FL, at the end of July for a business trip. I used the LTE solution as the particular room at the Best Western Orlando West hotel we use for HamCation in February did not have a wired port under the desk. Surprisingly enough, it worked flawlessly! I was there for four days and things worked swimmingly as I only had one device connected.

The second trip was to Huntsville, AL, in the middle of August for the Huntsville Hamfest. Once again, the LTE solution was used and worked flawlessly. The trip was three days this time and yet again things worked swimmingly.

The third trip was to Milwaukee, WI, the second week of September for a business trip. As before, the LTE solution was used and worked acceptably. I had taken my Windows laptop with me instead of my Arch Linux-equipped Chromebook this time so I could play Final Fantasy XIV during evening downtime, and I kept getting disconnected from the game. Curiously, the tethering bucket of that line did not get touched despite using Windows.

The fourth was a local trip to the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel for Anime Weekend Atlanta. I had planned to use the wired solution, as the Waverly’s site did mention wired access; however, that was inaccurate. My group, which was myself and one friend, used the LTE solution out of necessity and burned up the tethering bucket as always. Oops. The WiFi solution using the Raspberry Pi failed miserably, so we each opted to just use our laptops’ on-board WiFi cards to use the hotel’s 5 GHz connection.

The fifth and final was two weeks ago to Orlando, FL, yet again, this time for HamCation. I was back in the same hotel, only this time there was a wired port under my room’s desk. Win! I plugged the router in and had great connectivity for the trip. On the return trip, we stopped over in usual fashion at the Tifton, GA, Fairfield Inn, which still had wired ports under the desk. For that one night things worked as well as they did last year.

Anyway, this post is dragging on, so we’ll get to the meat of it!

I have yet again decided to change the system around due to the proliferation of wireless and the dearth of wired access in hotels. The LTE solution is not as reliable as expected; however, it does work swimmingly for single laptop access, especially at certain airports. I’ll still put the AF23 router in the box with this new solution, however, even if just for a true backup.

The premise is as follows:

1. The Pelican 1400 case will still be used.
2. The router will be changed to a Mikrotik hAP ac lite.
3. The WiFi client solution will be changed to a Mikrotik GrooveA 52 ac with its included antenna.
4. The Huawei AF23 will remain in the case as a backup.
5. The Chromecasts and associated accessories will remain in the case.
6. All this will necessitate acquiring replacement foam for the Pelican case.

With that said, the choice to move to MikroTik equipment from pfSense stems from a search for applicable USB-powered dual-band WiFi routers that could be used in client mode that ended up as a dead end. I then moved my search to a USB-powered passive PoE injector I could use with, for example, a Ubiquiti AirMax station. That ended with locating an injector, but I still was apprehensive as to which WiFi device to get. Eventually I decided on the MikroTik GrooveA 52 ac, as it is dual band and comes with an antenna. With that part decided on, it was time to decide on replacing the router itself.

I went for the hAP ac Lite as it has passive PoE out on one port, and I could use that to power the GrooveA. Right now the it is set up at my house powering a spare UniFi AP that I flashed OpenWrt to set up as a client to my local WiFi. So far, so good.

Initial tests both with the UniFi AP as a wireless client and connected directly to my local LAN have proven to have acceptable speeds, roughly 40 Mbps wireless and 50 Mbps wired.

The GrooveA will be acquired sometime between now and June, probably next month. The truly fun part will be finding a proper mount for the GrooveA as it is designed to be strapped to a pole for outdoor connectivity. I’m fairly certain I can find or easily build something sufficiently small to be portable as well as stable enough to handle the load of the GrooveA plus its antenna and the attached Ethernet cable. Once it arrives I’ll have a better idea of what to build out.

Needless to say, I hope that once this is set up we will be fine for a while, as I don’t foresee hotel Internet connections becoming that much different within the next few years.

Until next time!

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Internet in a Box

April 24, 2016

Oh, it’s been far too long since I’ve posted in this blog, forgive me!

Over the years I’ve have this idea floating around in my head to create what I dubbed “Internet in a Box” to take on my annual convention trip with friends. The initial idea, circa early 2010, was a rather unwieldy wooden box that had an 8-port hub, a Soekris net4501 embedded computer, a Netgear WGR614L wireless router/AP, my old Cradlepoint CTR350, and a Samlex SEC-1212 DC power supply to run everything. I would have plugged my venerable Huawei UMG181 3.75G aircard into the CTR350 to give 5GB of data for the stack to use.

While the idea was good, it was a bit ambitious: it was unlikely for me to acquire the lumber to build this out, and I would have likely crushed a thumb or finger under a hammer during the construction stage, so I shelved the idea and went for the plan mentioned in this blog’s first post.

Fast forward 5 years and I’ve gone through three or four different router machines, all being repurposed for other projects eventually, so I was left with a PC Engines apu1c that needed a project. By this point I’d acquired a third T-Mobile line and had put its SIM in an LTE aircard for use with this board or as a backup for my home connection. After a failed attempt at AWA last year, mostly due to a congested LTE network and some minor driver issues with the version of pfSense the board had installed at the time, I managed to wrangle it into working properly over my trip to Orlando in February for work, though only on the last day at the stopover hotel in Tifton, Georgia.

In the weeks since returning from that trip, I’ve gone through several different OSes on the APU and tried several different solutions to make it work well, even getting a Huawei E3276s-505 for coverage on all 3 of T-Mobile’s LTE bands, which I could not get working properly with any distribution. I felt like I was back to square one before coming up with a moment of brilliance. I reloaded pfSense on the machine and ordered the Huawei AF23 “Modem Sharing Dock” to serve as a bridge of sorts for the new aircard. A DMZ entry and static DHCP lease for the APU’s “WAN” port later, and we’re golden for LTE as the “last resort” connection. A huge bonus is the dock is powered by USB, and the APU’s USB ports supply enough power to run it, even under heavy load.

The LTE problem solved, I turned to the most problematic issue: WiFi client mode. As pfSense presently does not have full support for USB 802.11n, I picked up a Raspberry Pi 2, loaded OpenWrt on it, plugged in the Edimax EW-7811Un USB WiFi card I’d originally picked up to use with my original Raspberry Pi before coming to my senses and plugging it into my ProCurve switch, and set that up in similar fashion to the LTE dock, only with the WiFi card as the “WAN” interface. As the Pi is also powered by USB, I was able to once again use the APU’s USB ports for power.

Now we are mostly set for any sort of future trip. My ideal connection priority is as follows: if wired access is available, use that, if not use WiFi if available, if neither are available or feasible, use LTE. Based on my many hotel stays over the years, the most obvious connection is WiFi followed by LTE. Very few hotels that I’ve stayed at in recent years have had wired Ethernet ports in their rooms.

The kit complete, I had to pack it all in a very portable situation. It just so happens my company sells Pelican cases, and one of our stores had the 1400 Protector case in stock. A simple transaction later and the case was on its way to my home. The case’s contents are as follows:

  • PC Engines apu1c
  • AC adapter for the APU
  • USB-to-serial adapter with null modem adapter
  • Two dual-band WiFi antennas
  • Google Chromecast
  • HDMI extension for Chromecast
  • USB cable and AC adapter for Chromecast
  • Huawei AF23
  • Raspberry Pi 2 in official case
  • USB cable to power AF23 and RPi2
  • 7′ Cat-5e cable

All in all, this was likely one of the more fun, though frustrating at times, projects I’ve done for myself over the years. I’m sure it will have improvements as the years go on, but for right now it certainly meets my relatively meager needs for connectivity on the few trips I take each year. The largest benefit I find from this is the ability to use a Chromecast in a hotel room to watch Netflix with. It certainly beats the average drivel on the limited television selection most hotels have.

Until next time!

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WB4HRO “Portable” D-STAR Repeater

September 27, 2010

D-STAR is a digital voice mode for amateur radio, and one of its neatest features is seamless VoIP. Obviously, this requires the repeater to have an Internet connection of some sort, which is easier said than done for many repeater sites. The repeater I manage, WB4HRO, has the luxury of living in an office with a fast DSL connection. Not all sites are as lucky as ours, however.

So what’s this about the repeater being “portable?” We also attend several trade shows throughout the year, and the repeater goes along with us to be set up. Most of these trade show sites do not have public wireless, and even if they did, it wouldn’t facilitate the intricacies of the D-STAR network, so we bring our own access in the form of a Sprint aircard.

When the thoughts to take the repeater on the road first came about, I was tasked with figuring things out. After trying out one of Cradlepoint’s routers only to discover it wouldn’t work as the direct endpoint, I began delving into the “forbidden” world of double NATs. I’ve used “double NAT” setups to share hotel Internet on several occasions, and it shined in this setup. The setup in the rack at present has a Soekris net4801 running m0n0wall with 10.0.0.0/8 for the “internal” network and its external address set as 192.168.0.3. The WRT54GL that hangs on the office wall has the ports forwarded to the Soekris’ address which then have the same forwards for the gateway server. When on the road, the WRT54GL is replaced by a machine set up with the same forwards, presently my Cradlepoint CTR350. It works incredibly well!

I used my preexisting knowledge of networks for this project, and the knowledge gained from this project helped push forward my own portable network projects.

Until next time!

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Here We Go!

August 13, 2010

Well, this is our first post on our new site!

The objective of this site is to document the creation and use of portable networks.

When I registered this domain, the concept of a “Personal Area Network” over Bluetooth fascinated me. It was literally a “pocket network.” I still have not set a PAN up, but I have toted networking equipment in my luggage on several trips to set up a LAN in a hotel room at conventions, so while that’s not quite a “pocket” network, it’s still a portable network.

With the proliferation of “smarter” phones and true smart phones, the importance of PANs to keep phones and PDAs in sync has diminished; however, new devices like netbooks and tablets like the iPad that use WiFi as their primary connection need something to get online with. This is where we will focus.

Early Efforts

Windows 98 Second Edition was the first version of Windows to include Internet Connection Sharing, enabling easy setup of NAT routing. Additionally, Apple released the first AirPort router, which included a modem, around that same time, and Mac OS X contains a similar function to ICS. Every version of Windows since then has included ICS, and Apple has continued to produce AirPort products.

Impromptu networks could be made easily with these sort of things, and once wireless networking started to catch on, wireless networks were made in similar fashion. Networking started to become portable then.

Initial Personal Effort

In 2005, some of my friends and I attended a convention and paid the hotel for access. On the last day of the convention we discovered open wireless in the lobby. That gave me an idea for the next year.

The following year we aimed a directional antenna through our room’s window at the skylight over the lobby. We had set up an impromptu network for wired access at the very least. We’ve continued doing similar for the past few years at the convention as well.

Current Efforts

Upon discovering Cradlepoint’s products, I began researching acquiring an aircard for my personal use as well as use at conventions. Their products work rather well for their intended purpose but are somewhat limited.

As a crazy person, I decided to improve on their idea: I installed IPCop on my spare netbook and configured it to function as a truly portable wireless router with a 3G connection. This will be used for this year’s convention and future conventions.

Additionally, Connectify has released a piece of software to enable Windows 7 computers to share an existing connection, wired or wireless, with other wireless clients. They frequently retweet reports by other Twitter members of using their software to create a quick network.

Having some sort of portable network means you can bring your connection with you. This is a tremendous boon for travelers and commuters alike. Until wireless connections are truly ubiquitous, being able to create your own connection will have to do.

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