Wi-Fi Shootout in the Desert 

By Kim Zetter  |   Also by this reporter Page 1 of 1

02:00 AM Aug. 03, 2004 PT

LAS VEGAS -- Mobile warriors having trouble making a wireless connection across the hall might want to give some Ohio teens a call. This weekend they were able to make a 55-mile Wi-Fi connection.

The teens from Cincinnati got an ovation at the DefCon hacker conference here Sunday when organizers announced at the Alexis Park Resort that the winners of this year's Wi-Fi shootout might have broken a world record for ground distance in establishing a 55.1-mile Wi-Fi connection.

DefCon, in its 12th year of gathering hackers, security professionals and undercover intelligence agents from various countries, held its usual list of extracurricular competitions to accompany talks on subjects like hacking with Google and hacking RFID tags.

The Wi-Fi shootout, held for the second time, was among the most popular contests. Six teams participated, including two women who won an award for the most innovative antenna design, which consisted of an assortment of cardboard, duct tape and a car sun visor. That's only slightly less conventional than previous contestants, who built antennas from Pringles and Hormel Chili cans. The jury-rigged antenna achieved a connection at 0.82 miles.

Contestants had to set up a pair of computers, get an 802.11b Wi-Fi connection working on each one and then see how far apart they could place the computers and still maintain a connection using homebrewed and commercial antennas with and without amplifiers.

While one part of the winning team climbed a mountain with equipment, another part of the team climbed a second mountain. Then the first group shot a signal from one station to the second station with an encrypted message provided by the judges. They logged increasing distances over two days. (Wired magazine helped sponsor the contest.) Contest judges verified the distances using GPS coordinates.

Last year, teams got caught in a two-hour traffic jam before they reached the base camp, at 4,650 feet above sea level, then faced rain and thundershowers in addition to blistering heat. This year they faced only the heat and the absence of bathrooms and fresh beer for miles around.

Ben Corrado, Andy Meng, Justin Rigling and a fourth friend, Brandon Schamer (who didn't accompany them from Ohio), won the greatest distance achieved for an 802.11b network. The teens, two of them 18 years old and the other 19 years old, achieved 55.1 miles using homebrewed antennas on both ends along with amplification, exceeding last year's winner by 20 miles. Then, when they established that record, they turned off their amplifiers and broke the record for an unamplified connection at the same distance. At the announcement on Sunday, the crowd rose to its feet.

The Guinness world record for Wi-Fi connection stands at 310 kilometers (about 192 miles), achieved in 2002 by Wi-Fi equipment maker Alvarion and the Swedish Space Corporation. But the companies achieved the distance by launching the equipment in a Swedish weather balloon, which many feel is not the same as a ground measurement, since there are fewer obstacles to block a WiFi signal in the stratosphere. The Swedish group also used amplification to achieve its record, but the DefCon team maintained its 55.1-mile connection even without amplification. Guinness World Records could not be reached for comment in time for publication to determine whether the DefCon team's efforts count as a distinct record.

Corrado told the crowd that they initially had no plans to attend DefCon but decided to enter the contest 19 days earlier after a "business plan" they devised fell through.

"We were going to war-drive around Cincinnati and find unencrypted wireless access points," Corrado said. "We knocked on people's doors and asked if (they) wanted us to encrypt them, and they just got all freaked out. So we were searching for other things to do with the equipment we had just purchased."

After Meng stumbled across the DefCon Wi-Fi shootout website, Corrado called Rigling and said, "Hey, dude, we're going to Las Vegas in like 19 days!"

They already had a few 9-and-a-half-foot satellite dishes that they had collected around Cincinnati over the last few years.

"We were planning on putting them up on towers behind our houses and sharing our broadband Internet connections (with people)," Corrado said, to a chorus of hoots and hollers from the crowd. But due to "parental restriction" they scrapped that plan.

"We still had the dishes laying in our backyards and we thought, what the hell. Why not?" Corrado said.

After collecting more equipment, they ran a test run, placing the stations two-and-a-half miles apart, and got a connection that was much better than any link they had ever established with laptops sitting side-by-side in their bedrooms.

When Meng's dad, a radio frequency engineer, looked at the test-run data he said, "Oh my God. They might have a chance at this. They might actually have to go to Las Vegas."

Not without Justin's father, however. Greg Rigling drove them across the country in a van, with the 10-foot satellite dish strapped to a trailer. Then he spent two days driving around Nevada's mountains helping them get a signal.

They might have achieved an even greater distance, Justin Rigling said, "but there was no road left."

For their efforts, the teens received a stack of O'Reilly books, Best Buy certificates and über-hacker badges, allowing the teens and Justin's father lifetime admission to DefCon for free.

After the awards ceremony, the three were seen in a corner of the conference room trying to sell their equipment to lighten the return trip home.

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