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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