Living in a Cage

Funny stuff, wireless. We take for granted that we can wander aimlessly about the office or home while maintaining a robust connection to the outside world, or just to the server down the hall. Let's face it, modern kit and the connection it provides is pretty reliable. And, rather annoyingly, after the not inconsiderable effort of hard-wiring my house with CAT-5 and a 10MB switches, it even seems that the new generation of Wi-Fi is faster.

And range is less and less a limiting factor. From my laptop sitting in the lounge, I can see five wireless networks that have almost as strong a signal as my own router than lives on top of the display cabinet in the dining room. OK, so I run it at half power, but I'm only five yards away from it while my nearest neighbor is thirty yards away. And I can even tell where some of them actually are because they insist on transmitting their own name as the SSID. I just hope they are properly secured.

Anyway, where I'm going with this is that - in contrast to Wi-Fi - not much else wireless seems to work as reliably. I read endless articles about how vague and unreliable the latest 3G networks are when using a mobile phone or a dongle; and that many sat-navs seem to spend most of their life trying to find satellites. I bought a radio-controlled wristwatch a couple of years ago, and we have several radio-controlled clocks in our house. Yet, even though we're only 70 miles from one of the major time signal transmitters that's supposed to serve half of Western Europe, updates are sometimes sporadic. I think I've more chance of radio wave radiation burns from it than getting to know the correct time.

But what really got me going was a recent purchase of a wireless weather station. I've been using some old-fashioned tools (such as a wood and brass barometer) and simple indoor weather monitors for a while. However, real outdoor weather measurement has so far tended to involve the more "manual" activity of looking out of the window, or actually going outside. So I expected the complexity of boxes and technology nailed to a post in the garden to be a real improvement over current methods.

Yes there's gubbins to measure the wind, rain, temperature, pressure, humidity; and some other stuff that seems undecipherable (do I need to know what the "evapotranspiration" or "leaf wetness" is?). And it all shows up on a fancy wireless console you keep next to the TV, or on the coffee table as a talking point, as well as being uploadable to a PC. Unfortunately, the only way it would work is with the sensors sitting on the dining room table, or with the wireless console precariously propped in a bush in the garden.

The wireless range is advertised as "up to 100 metres line of sight". Yet, even though it's only fifteen feet away and I can see it through the window, the feeble non-licensed signal can't manage to struggle over that distance to the receiving console. Even with new batteries, the maximum range turned out to be about three feet. Maybe I got a faulty one? I can understand that the signal can't be as powerful as Wi-Fi (it's supposed to run off two AA batteries for a year). But I might as well stand outside with a sprig of seaweed, hold a wet finger in the air, and take off my hat to see what the weather's like.

Talking to the customer care department, it seems that this is a common problem. It's because I live in a Faraday Cage. Modern houses have metal foil on the back of the wall panels, and low-emissivity glass in the windows (which uses a very thin coating of metal oxide to reduce long wave radiated heat loss - I know this 'cos I used to be a double-glazing salesman). So getting a wireless signal in or out is obviously going to be very difficult. They did suggest keeping the batteries warm to maximize the signal strength. Have I bought a weather station that only works in summer? The "ice warning" obviously consists of a blank display.

Strangely, they also suggest that "traditional brick and stone" walls, even very thick ones, cause a lot less signal attenuation. So the solution seems to be either hacking into one of my neighbor's Wi-Fi signals (which obviously isn't aware that it should be blocked by my walls and windows) to see if they know what the weather will be like. Or go and live in a castle.

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