Despite how dependent we all have become on it, the Internet still remains a mystery to most folks. There’s a good reason for it – it is complicated and for most, it’s not their job, nor their interest, to have a comprehensive grasp of how data gets from point A to point B. But just like other things we usually take for granted – water, electricity, our cars – when it stops working, we really notice and chafe at any delays to restore normal service. In the case of a water or car problem (most of us are smart enough to not mess with electricity or natural gas!), we’ll try to roll up our sleeves, pop the hood and grab a wrench, but calling a professional is probably the safest and most effective way to get things working again. This is also the case with internet service, but believe it or not, there are some things you can do to troubleshoot and possible restore service, as long as you understand the basics of how the internet is delivered and connected to your location.
Let me break it down for you. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it simple.
First off, you have to have an Internet Service Provider (ISP). It’s important to know who this is, what your account number is, and what the Customer Support number is for that service. You should have this info printed out and easy to find, because, guess what? When the internet is down, it might be hard to look up that info.
Your ISP will deliver internet through a number of different physical types of circuits. The most common are fiber, coax (commonly known as “cable”), and twisted-pair copper. This last one can take various forms, many of which you should be familiar – T1’s, DSL and Ethernet over Copper (EoC) – are all delivered via simple copper wire. This physical circuit will be “terminated” (ie. plugged into your location) in an Minimum Point of Entry (MPOE) or a Demarcation Point (DMARC) which, depending on the type of building, can be a basement, phone closet, a box on the side of your house, or a cable drilled right through the wall into your living room. If you own the property in question, it’s important to know where your internet comes into your property.
That circuit, whatever its type, will actually plug/screw into some sort of device, most commonly referred to as a modem or a data services unit (DSU), but there are several other types and names for this piece of equipment. Essentially, they all have one function: connect the ISP to your property.
From the modem or DSU, your circuit is connected to a router. The router is where the magic happens, and is the most important device on your network, from both an internet as well as a local network perspective. Sometimes, depending on the service, the modem/DSU and router are combined into a single device. This form is often found in small offices and residential installs of coax service (from someone like Time Warner, Comcast, Spectrum, etc.), and is often just called a cable modem or simply a router.
Here’s where things get tricky: depending on your service agreement with your ISP, the router may be managed by them, or it may be your own equipment, and both situations can be found in any size business environment. It’s a safe bet that if your company is big enough to have full-time IT staff, your company probably owns and manages its own router. Either way, make sure you know who’s responsible for the router before touching it.
The internet gets conveyed to your devices through two different means: via wire (usually through an Ethernet cable) or via wi-fi. Wired ethernet is delivered via devices called switches (often incorrectly called hubs, which are no longer used), and Wi-fi through access points. In both cases, that internet is delivered to a network interface on your device, which can take the form of an ethernet jack or an antennae. To make things even more confusing, it’s very common to find routers that are also switches and access points, but which may also connect to additional switches and access points, depending on how large your local network is and how your office is designed.
Made it this far and ready to try your hand at network troubleshooting?
When troubleshooting the most basic problem of internet service, ie. it’s not working, there are a few simple questions to ask that can point you to the possible source of the problem:
- Is everyone at that location unable to access the internet? If no, it might be a problem with one of the main devices like the modem/DSU or the router. Check those devices first. If they appear to be operating normally (no flashing yellow or red lights), then call your ISP to make sure service is not down in your area or location. They may or may not instruct you to cycle power on these devices, so make sure you call from a phone that can reach where those devices are connected.
- Wi-fi service is not working properly? If your wi-fi is delivered by separate access point, cycling power may resolve this issue. In larger office environments, this may not be possible as these devices are typically mounted out of reach, and may be physically protected from tampering. In those cases, contact the responsible support person. If your router handles the wi-fi, you may need to reboot the router to restore normal service. In most cases, cycling power on these devices will not harm them nor make them lose their settings, but make sure you know who’s responsible for managing the device before rebooting it.
- Single or small-cluster of wired devices down? Look for a problem with either the ethernet cable (snugly plugged in on both ends? no exposed wires or busted tabs on the cable ends?) or a local switch. Many small offices use switches to distribute network in cubicle and multi-occupant spaces. Look for green/amber lights on both switches and network interfaces. No lights usually means the network signal isn’t getting through for some reason.
- Lastly, did you reboot the device in question? Frequently, if the problem is isolated to a single machine (computer, printer, mobile device), rebooting may solve the problem, especially if it’s wi-fi related.
Tried all of the above and still stumped? Call in a professional!
Lest you think the tech giant missed having a finger in this particular pie, Google surprised no one by debuting their own wireless carrier service earlier this week. Though the service is invite-only at the moment and only offered on Google’s own Nexus 6, they’ve negotiated a deal with both Sprint and T-Mobile to piggy back on their existing, nation-wide infrastructure to create a coverage area without having to build it. According to Google, the limited launch of this service is more of an experiment as opposed to a direct challenge of reigning champs ATT and Verizon. The major differentiator to their service? A low-cost, pay as you use it, data plan with data tethering, wi-fi calling that can also be used from other mobile devices such as tablets and laptops.
What this means for you:
Unless you have an invite in hand, you can’t jump onto the Google Wireless bandwagon yet, and if Google stays true to the “we’re just testing the waters” mantra, maybe not ever. But if Google can deliver a solid service for a fraction of the price that the big 4 carriers are charging now, it’s going to have repercussions on the entire mobile landscape. As they’ve done with Google Fiber, this particular foray into the bloody wireless markets is an exercise in forcing a change in the status quo where major carriers are squabbling over how to charge consumers more for less service. However, Google surely has an agenda that includes profit (they are publicy held), and you musn’t forget that the largest revenue stream for them is advertising and data mining. The mad scramble for dominance in the mobile data market is about as close as we’ll ever get to seeing a modern gold rush, and you can bet Google has been preparing to stake a claim since before you and I even knew there was “gold in them thar hills!”
I get this question frequently: “Is Wi-Fi dangerous to my health? Am I putting my employees/customers/family at risk?” The short answer is “no” but most folks immediately follow up with, “But I heard it’s on the same frequency as microwaves! Aren’t those things shielded so we don’t irradiate ourselves when heating something up?” This fact is true, but Wi-Fi access points and microwave ovens have very little in common past the fact that they both use radio waves that oscillate at 2.4GHz, as do many other things in your house, including cordless phones, baby monitors, remote controlled toys and bluetooth devices. The primary difference between dangerous and harmless is the amount of energy the radio wave is able to transmit from source to target.
Let me ‘splain:
Microwave ovens use high voltages and short distances to transmit a large amount of energy via the 2.4 GHz radio wave. The same radio wave broadcast by a Wi-Fi device is approximately 100,000 times weaker than the microwave oven, primarily because it’s using very low voltages, and it is affected by a physical principle known as the inverse square law, which states that energy rapidly dissipates the further it gets from the source. Even if your Wi-Fi router were to get hit by a freak power surge, the components would burn out long before it could emit anything approaching microwave oven-strength signals.
Numerous (25,000 in the past 30 years) studies on radiation, including waves in the 2.4GHz range, indicate that there is no reason to believe that constant exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields contribute significantly to health issues. You might be surprised to know that even if you were to move somewhere completely free of electronics, you’d still be bathed in a constant 2.4GHz field of cosmic radiation. The only way to completely block this form of electromagnetic energy would be to live in an aluminum foil suit deep underground in a lead-lined cave.
This being said, there is still some grumblings about cellphones and bluetooth headsets, both of which are held close to the head. In the case of your average cell phone, it’s 20X more powerful than a Wi-Fi device. As I linked earlier, there’s still no evidence that the radio waves cellphones emit contribute in any statistically meaningful way to health issues. You are actually more likely to be hurt or killed from using your mobile devices in situations where divided attentions can lead to accidents. In this way, just like commuter dining and drive-time makeup application, Wi-Fi might be dangerous to your health, but not from the electrical fields that it uses to get its job done.
Last word: I am not a doctor, but I’m pretty certain you’ve more to worry about from exploding smartphone batteries and careless drivers than Wi-fi devices. Heck, you are more likely to be killed by a cow than Wi-Fi radiation.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
It’s a common practice in the technology industry to describe computer viruses and the way they behave using the same terms and concepts as the medical industry, primarily because the reality of how digital viruses work is rather boring and technical. Up until now.
In the “surprising no one” category of research findings, scientist in the UK have built a prototype computer virus called “Chameleon” that spreads via Wi-fi access points, and upon testing it discovered that it exhibited similar characteristics to airborne pathogens, ie. it spread more quickly in densely populated environments. The virus was also designed to keep its actions from interfering with normal device operations and to bypass well-protected devices for easy-to-infect models with weaker security, much in the same way biological viruses operate. It’s not clear whether the virus was designed to behave this way because the scientists knew how effective biological viruses worked and incorporated that into the design, or whether these traits manifested spontaneously from a “traditionally” designed computer virus.
What this means for you:
Don’t panic yet. The “Chameleon” virus was designed and tested in a lab by trained professionals, and never actually unleashed into “the wild”. Oh wait, did that sound like the premise of just about every virus outbreak movie in the history of Hollywood? Seriously, wi-fi viruses have not yet been found in the wild (but they are really close – see last week’s warning about Linksys routers), but you can bet that black-hat forces are hard at work trying to figure out how to attack wi-fi access points, and the first ones to be targeted will be devices used in heavily trafficked venues like airports, restaurants, coffee-shops and malls. Unless you happened to be in the business of designing wi-fi devices, there’s really not much you can do at this point beyond the usual mantra: keep your software and anti-malware up to date, avoid accessing sensitive data on public wi-fi access points, and use strong passwords. Stay vigilant!
Customer’s of Comcast’s Xfinity broadband service are slowly coming to discover that their new in-home routers are being used as wi-fi hotspots for any other Comcast customer within range of the router. Comcast introduced the service in mid-2013, but seems to have not taken great pains to ensure that its customers understood exactly what the service was. Many consumers just assumed when Comcast said “hotspot” that it meant they would now have wireless internet in their home. The new routers do provide that feature, but additionally they are also programmed by default with another wi-fi network labeled “xfinitywifi” which can be accessed by any current Comcast account login and password.
What this means for you:
If you are a new Xfinity subscriber, or had your Comcast router replaced in the past 6 months, your new equipment may be providing this hotspot. Anyone with a Comcast account can use your hotspot to access the internet. Keep in mind, this doesn’t require them to actually be the account owner – all any wi-fi device needs is that account’s login and password. Assuming they know it, anyone can use that login information anywhere an Xfinity hotspot exists.
Regardless of how savvy you are with your home equipment, you can’t disable this feature yourself – you have to call Comcast to have them turn it off. According to Comcast, the impact on your bandwidth of providing this hotspot should be minimal, and is helping them provide more accessible wireless bandwidth to other Comcast customers in your neighborhood. The question you need ask yourself is whether you feel its appropriate for Comcast to use equipment in your house as an extension of services provided to people you don’t know.
It’s still too early to tell whether having a hotspot on your home network is inherently less secure, but think of it like this: Imagine your property sat in front of a popular amusement park. The amusement park has asked if they can provide entrance to their park that requires customers to traverse your property via a secured walkway. They promise they will keep your property completely safe, private and separate. Would you allow that walkway?
Just in time to ride the publicity wave created by Amazon Prime’s Delivery Drones, infamous MySpace hacker Samy Kamkar has created a flying drone that can hack other drones and take over control of them. Before you grab your bug-out bag and head to that bunker in Montana, it may ease your fears somewhat to understand the drones in question are of the toy variety, versus the death-dealing military variety. The popular Parrot AR Drone is controlled from an iPad or iPhone via unencrypted Wi-Fi, a feature that Mr. Kamkar takes full advantage of in his miniature drone predator, aptly dubbed, “Skyjack“.
What this means for you:
While Skyjack is a long ways away from hacking the various UCAVs that are in extensive use around the world, it’s not hard to imagine how this could escalate the high-tech arms race fueled by the highly-publicized arrival of combat drones in the Afghanistan invasion. The idea behind Skyjack is a drone that can hunt out other Parrot AR Drones autonomously and enslave them. Fly Skyjack into a park where enthusiastic drone pilots are taking their Parrots for a spin, and the more unscrupulous Skyjack pilot can steal away the $300 devices in a blinking of an LED. Now extend that idea to a drone that can fly around neighborhoods, hunting out unsecured Wi-Fi networks or routers, hacking them, logging their locations, and then returning to its owner with map and database of ripe targets. Have I frightened you enough yet to get you to change the password on your home router to something a bit harder to guess?
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.org