Someone or something disrupted service for 1,000 of the 3,800 users of Moorhead, Minn.’s municipal wireless network in late February, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune is reporting. Let’s recall that early critiques of municipal systems mentioned that radio systems that use unlicensed spectrum, as Moorhead’s does, would be prone to interference from everything from microwave ovens to garage door openers to radio controlled remote control toys. More chilling was the city’s response. Purely on the say-so of GoMoorehead network administrator Kevin McClain, who believed the source of the interference was a local residence, police shut down power to the house and executed a search warrant for “a directional antennae” (it’s not clear whether the newspaper or the search warrant made muddled the use of the singular indefinite article and the Latinate plural of antenna). You’d need a lot of radio power to jam wireless service to more than quarter of GoMoorehead’s user base. Although the interference stopped when the power was cut off, police found nothing at the home and no arrests were made. So either the interference was unintentional or the home itself was not the source of the problem. So what happened? Police are still investigating. The paper does not report the perspective of the hapless homeowner. My money’s on the likelihood that the interference stemmed from a problem within the network itself, not a malicious attack. It’s not as if Moorhead has no history of interference problems. Here’s a trade paper report from last October on Moorhead’s use of a device to detect and resolve RF problems. “It’s alarming just how much interference is out there that you don’t know about,” Travis Durick, wireless network engineer for the city, told SearchNetworking.com.
At [Minnesota State University-Moorhead], cordless phones and microwaves often interfere with or create trouble on the wireless network, Durick said. In one instance, four small wireless surveillance cameras installed in one building tucked behind lighted exit signs interfered and made the wireless channel unavailable. Complaints came pouring in. Durick said he found the access point that wasn’t working and replaced it, but there was still no connectivity. Using Spectrum Expert, he was able to determine why the access point wasn’t transmitting and was able to fix the problem. The city of Moorhead’s Wi-Fi deployment created a different set of challenges. In many cases, too many devices were operating on the same channel and were canceling one another out.
Either way, the city’s reaction was overkill and serves as another example of why municipalities shouldn’t be in the broadband business in the first place. Say what you want about the phone and cable companies, but they can’t turn off your electricity on a mere whiff of suspicion.