Thursday, August 5, 2004

Teens' wireless feat could be world record

By Justin Fenton
Enquirer staff writer

Greg Rigling (from left), Andy Meng, Justin Rigling and Ben Corrado with one of the satellite dishes they used to make a 55.1-mile wireless Internet connection in Las Vegas. Greg Rigling is Justin's father.
Photo provided
Four area teens couldn't wait for Cincinnati to catch up with wireless Internet technology, so they took matters into their own hands. And their homemade, 55.1-mile Wi-Fi connection at a Las Vegas hacker conference might be a world record.

St. Xavier High School graduates Ben Corrado of Colerain Township and Andy Meng and Justin Rigling of Hamilton were amateur radio operators with a fascination for defunct satellite dishes and wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, connections - turning other people's junk into engineering projects.

But a last-minute decision to drive across the country and test their patchwork dishes against hackers, security professionals and undercover intelligence agents from around the world might land them in the Guinness Book of Records.

Last weekend's DefCon conference, which bills itself as the largest underground hacking event in the world, included a competition to see who can make a Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi, connection reach the farthest.

Contestants had to set up a pair of computers and see how far apart they could maintain an Internet connection using homemade and commercial antennas. Part of the team stayed with the equipment on top of a 4,600-foot mountain while the others loaded their equipment into a vehicle and drove until the signal died.

Wi-Fi, short for Wireless Fidelity, or wireless computer networking, is a way for computers to communicate wirelessly using high-frequency radio technology capable of sending large amounts of data quickly. In most cases, one computer - the host - is connected to the Internet through a standard wired connection and acts as the server with a router. Other computers equipped with wireless cards then can transmit and receive data to and from the host computer.
The Cincinnati team drove for more than an hour, taking Rigling's father's Astrovan up steep gravel roads and one-way dirt trails, finding every nook and cranny until they ran out of roadway.

"We thought we could go fairly far," Rigling, 18, said.

"And then it started to make sense after about 38 miles. We were like, 'Well, this isn't the end. There's more out there if we can find a road to go up.'"

In the end, their 55-mile amplified connection exceeded last year's winner by 20 miles. Then they turned off their amplifiers and broke the record for an unamplified connection at the same distance.

While not yet confirmed, the connection appears to be a world record for a ground connection. The Guinness record for Wi-Fi connection is about 192 miles, achieved in 2002 by Swedish Wi-Fi equipment maker Alvarion and the Swedish Space Corp. But that record was achieved using a Swedish weather balloon, which many think is not the same as a ground measurement because there are fewer obstacles to block a signal.

The Swedish team also used amplification in setting the mark, while the DefCon team maintained its connection even after turning off the amplification.

Commercial wireless connections are typically about 300 feet long.

Wi-Fi is becoming more popular. It eliminates cords and wires while using radio frequencies so that people with laptop computers or other mobile devices can surf the Internet and check their e-mail while sipping coffee or sitting on a park bench. Locally, you can log onto the Internet at Hamburger Mary's, the Brew House, Panera Bread and McCluskey Chevrolet's car service waiting room, for instance.

Piatt Park recently became the first "unwired" spot in downtown, for $5 an hour or $20 a month. Many cities have adopted free Wi-Fi - Columbus and Cleveland will be Wi-Fi accessible by 2006. Cincinnati has no such plans.

Corrado, Meng and Rigling have been interested in Wi-Fi and satellites since joining St. Xavier's Radio Club, where they became amateur radio operators and started brainstorming ideas for things they could build on a low budget. Last year, they collected satellite dishes from the back yards of neighbors who were no longer using them, mounting them on towers in their back yards so they could share files.

That idea was shot down by their parents, and the dishes sat until last month when 19-year-old Meng, who attends LeTourneau University in Texas, spotted the competition on a Web site.

Along with Brandon Schamer, who didn't make the trip, they spent nights in the Corrados' basement cutting copper plates and welding parts together to make two strong dishes.

They even tried to turn a profit on their hobby, going door-to-door with fliers trying to encrypt wireless Internet connections for Cincinnatians whose connections were exposed to attack.

The venture was not met with enthusiasm, however.

"People gave us kinda weird looks. I don't know how many people understood what we were trying to do," Ben Corrado said.

Undeterred, they gathered more dishes and decided to trek to Las Vegas, less than three weeks before the conference.

They're already planning to make the trip again next year. After being recognized at the conference and making a short speech, they tried to negotiate the sale of their equipment. Unable to find a taker, they took off the dishes' important parts and tossed the rest in the trash.

Next year, they'll try to get a sponsor and some bigger dishes and take the connection farther.

"We're the kind of guys who just like to build stuff," said Rigling, who plans to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall.


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