Troubleshooting a Wireless Network - Technical, Physical and Social Needs

2013-02-25 / Georgia Bullen

Collaboratively designed by Red Hook Initiative (RHI) and New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI), the RHI WiFi network served as critical infrastructure to support emergency responders, recovery workers, and local public housing residents after “Superstorm” Sandy damaged other means of communication. With life slowly returning to normal, the gears are shifting to long-term sustainability, and we want to be sure that RHI Wifi is stable and strong enough for further expansion. To that end, technologists and field engineers from OTI met with our colleagues and partners in Red Hook at the end of January to troubleshoot and reinforce the network. One goal was to prepare for the Red Hook Digital Stewards program, a model developed in Detroit meant to train community technologists who can extend and maintain the network. Another goal was to better monitor and document the network as a testing ground for Commotion, the communications tool – under development at OTI – that runs the RHI WiFi network.

Photos by Preston Rhea. This entry is cross posted on the OTI Blog.

Since community members are actively using RHI WiFi, we need to find a balance between improving the quality of service for residents and testing the Commotion software. The goal of RHI WiFi is to create long-lasting and resilient infrastructure, while more broadly improving the methods by which communities build such systems themselves. Before the trip, DC-based team members worked with our Red Hook-based colleagues to inventory existing assets and outstanding issues with the network. We then created a checklist of tasks and objectives, including software tests, hardware and construction needs, and community organizing goals. The Red Hook-based team members also ensured that they had the necessary tools and equipment available -- such as wireless routers and tools needed to build Ethernet cables, fasten routers to poles, and even caulk window gaps.

Documentation, documentation, documentation

Much of the RHI WiFi network expansion happened in the chaos after Sandy, so there was little or no standard documentation of hardware installations. We set out to make up for this. Clear, comprehensive and up-to-date documentation is key for planning and maintaining successful wireless network deployments. When troubleshooting issues on a mesh network, there are myriad potential points of failure. By documenting firewall locations, the status of static and dynamic IP configurations, and sites for additional routers or internet gateways, organizers can more easily identify problems on a network.

Always reassess a site, even when working with quality documentation

Additionally, the physical conditions, locations, and wiring routes of all hardware are essential pieces of information for pinpointing disruptions. Partners and stakeholders can provide additional input.To make future repairs easier, organizers normally use a post-installation report to capture this information -- also called a deployment report. Such documentation is especially useful if organizers seek external help to troubleshoot the network in the future.

A primary software task for the day was to set up a remote access program, called a VPN. This would allow OTI to provide remote support, as well as monitor the health of the network. During the site visit, the team tested the new VPN program and was able to successfully troubleshoot a port configuration issue with the help of a team member in DC.

Troubleshooting involves technical, physical and social tools

After establishing a way to remotely access the network, the group visited one of the hardware host sites -- an apartment building overlooking Coffey Park, which is covered by the network. The building has excellent lines of sight to the RHI offices (another hardware site) and the park, so ensuring it runs smoothly was high on the list of priorities. We needed to address a few things: re-running and consolidating Ethernet cabling and updating the software configuration on the routers. We made other small fixes as well: we attached routers more securely to their mounting poles, we replaced some Ethernet cables with more robust outdoor versions, and we re-sealed the hole where the cable enters the building. We completed some additional work on the roofs of the RHI offices and a nearby auto-body shop.

Situational awareness is essential for in-person and remote support

Visits like these give us crucial knowledge of site specifics, what is working well, and what needs improvement through future work. Beyond the technical accomplishments, site visits also support us to form and strengthen relationships in the community. While in Red Hook, we met several supporting partners and stakeholders. RHI's Anthony Schloss, the lead organizer of the network, joined us for much of the work day. He and the OTI team talked with our contact at Brooklyn Fiber, a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) currently supporting the RHI WiFi network with connectivity to the world wide web. We also met with a member of the Red Hook Coalition, whose apartment anchors and powers a couple routers on the building’s roof -- the one overlooking Coffey Park.

Technical success depends on community relationships

A community project is powered by diverse, networked community input, and fostering those relationships is crucial to realizing the goals of any human-centric technical project -- they are the true measure of success.

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