Wireless Networking Problems

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2004-01-28 Print this article Print

The wireless network has also been unreliable, Hamid says, with five of the 14 Aironet boxes used to create the bases wireless local-area network currently out of commission. Some of the locations that have been without network access, such as the officers quarters, arent critical, but he wants service restored to an engineering compound and other facilities more critical to the bases operations.

UNAMSIL has experienced other wireless-networking problems. At headquarters in Freetown, palm fronds weighted down by rain blocked an Aironet connection to the heliport. In fact, most of the wireless-networking equipment at headquarters has been demoted to backup status, except for an access point that serves an "Internet café" in the stairwell.

And Mayordomos own staff has complained about the Proxim wireless bridges he ordered to provide 100-million-bit-a-second wireless connections between the headquarters buildings. One failed to work during storms, even at short range and with the power cranked up. Another proved unable to reach a signal battalion across the bay that should have been well within range.

Mayordomo and Proxim both say the issue must be training, since the same equipment has been used successfully in other missions. Proxim will get a chance to repair its reputation on-site when technical staff come to test a billion-bit-a-second version of its bridges.(See Dossier) Because he has never been able to secure a large training budget, Mayordomo encourages vendors with long-term contracts to bundle training with their products.

But Mayordomos most immediate problem is the Aironet boxes, wireless bridges used to connect one location with other wireless nodes. He hitches a ride to a nearby engineering compound, where he gets his hands on one of the dead Aironet units. After asking a few questions, he has a good idea of what killed this one.

The Aironet 350 is designed to run off inline power—electric power delivered over an Ethernet connection—much like a telephone that can function on the small amount of current coming over a phone wire. So when a lightning storm whipped up, the Pakistanis apparently thought the device was safe because it wasnt plugged into an electrical outlet. But it was probably jolted by an electrical surge that came over the network connection.

Hamid says his people have been following a directive to unplug equipment during storms. "Still, the lightning phenomenon is so great that sometimes we cannot catch it before the damage is done," he says.

Karuppiah uses one of the spare Aironet units he brought to replace the one that took a lightning jolt. And he is able to get another working again by using his laptop to reprogram it. But he cant fix everything. He will stay over in Koidu so that he can visit some of the other team sites in the region that have reported Aironet problems.

Having equipment burn out is a constant problem. "Bridges, switches and power supplies are consumables for us," Mayordomo says. "When I was in New York, I wondered, What, are you eating these for lunch?" This sector office is the worst because of the intensity of the lightning in the mountains, he says.

He manages this problem by paying Cisco an extra 20% in return for whats essentially a no-questions-asked replacement policy for equipment that burns out within three years of purchase. The replacements he gets arent necessarily new units, Mayordomo says, "but thats all right—refurbished is good enough."

Mayordomo says he is looking to see what else he can do about lightning strikes. Recently, he read about dissipation-array systems from Lightning Eliminators and Consultants. By discharging charged particles into the air, this technology is supposed to create an electromagnetic umbrella around an area, diverting lightning rather than attracting it like a lightning rod. Lightning Eliminators says Federal Express is using the technology to protect the computer systems powering its shipping hub in Memphis.

Many electrical engineers, however, dispute the science behind dissipation arrays, saying there is no proven way to deflect lightning. They believe Lightning Eliminators customers are protected by the other measures, such as improved grounding, that the vendor installs at the same time. Lightning Eliminators argues its critics are simply narrow-minded. Mayordomo figures the technology is at least worth exploring.

Returning to the base, Mayordomo finds Ambrose Majongwe looking dejected. "My day has been a total waste of time," he laments.

His sole task had been to replace a Cisco 3800 series router with a 3725 that would handle both data and phone calls. But he hasnt been able to get the 3725 to work. "On the bench, back at the office, it was working perfectly well. But it wasnt handling 200, 300 calls an hour then," he says. He keeps getting an error code indicating "IOS Error," meaning a problem with the Cisco Internet Operating System. He is able to reestablish an Internet connection and download another version of IOS from Ciscos Web site. But that one also crashes, as soon as he reconnects the router to the bases internal network. He downloads yet another IOS version. That crashes, too. "Im going to have to take it back to the workshop and revive it," he says.

Back at mission headquarters in Freetown, one of Majongwes colleagues is busy relaying an account of Majongwes difficulties to Cisco tech support.

Nevertheless, at the end of their stay in Koidu, Majongwe takes two routers on the helicopter flight back—the one he came with and another malfunctioning unit that had been sitting on the shelf. And this time they get stowed like luggage.

Next Page: Oct. 28, DPKO Headquarters.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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