Monday, July 19, 2010

Attacked by pirates!

Captain Jack Sparrow

We are at the Monte Sano State Park, in the hills just east of Huntsville, Alabama (map). As we had surmised, by the time we arrived just before 2pm, the park had cleared out, and we had our pick of spaces; the person at the check-in desk was kind enough to let us drive around the campground until we could find a space where we could get on-line.

The park is lovely, and part of the reason is that it is in a stand of tall mixed hardwood. We drove around both loops, and we found this space with a narrow gap in the direction of the satellite. It may well be the only such spot in the whole park, and it is certainly the only one that was empty when we arrived. It's also one of the cheaper spaces, at $18 per night on weekdays for 30-amp power and water. As we drove around under the tree canopy, we pretty much decided that if the only space we could find to get on-line was a more expensive full hookup, or still more expensive pull-through site, we'd just take it.

Once we had the dish pointed and were certain we could get on-line, we pulled the scooters out and rode back to the office to pay. After all that effort we decided to stay at least three nights. That made it worthwhile to set up the hot tub, and we're pretty well settled in this spot. I spent the afternoon getting some projects done, and grilled a nice flat iron steak for dinner. Afterward, as we were catching up on email and news and planning out our stay, I got a pop-up telling us we had exceeded our bandwidth allowance, and we've been "turned off" for 24 hours, so now we have no Internet access until 9pm tonight.

I knew neither one of us had used that much bandwidth, and when I checked the router, the guy across the street had his laptop and two iPhones on our network. Somewhere around 5pm they downloaded over 200 megabytes of stuff, and I was hopping mad. To make matters worse, they are Escapees, who should know better. Mostly, I was mad at myself for not locking down the network as soon as we arrived.

Long-time readers may know that, once upon a time, we deliberately left our wireless network open so that other RVers could use our signal for checking email and doing moderate web surfing. We made a lot of friends this way, and it really was helpful on our Mexico caravan. It was not really a burden for us, as our own laptops are already secure, and we've been using open signals from other WiFi networks for years, so this was just maintaining the balance of cosmic karma.

Then one day, HughesNet changed the way they penalize users for going over quota under their "Fair Access Policy" (FAP). Previously, if you accidentally went over your usage allowance, you merely had to stop or limit your usage for an hour or two before you could return to full-speed browsing, and then keep an eye on usage until your "bucket" refilled. The new policy is still a "leaky bucket" algorithm, but the instant you go over your daily limit, you are throttled back for a full 24 hours, no ifs, ands, or buts. HughesNet users call this "getting FAPped."

The first time this happened to us unwittingly, due to neighbors using our signal, we locked down the network. In pained me to do it, but with no warning mechanism, and no way to tell the neighbors to limit their usage, we really had no choice. Our router is now carefully configured to permit access only to those devices we've pre-approved. We still provide network access for friends and traveling companions, but it requires specific configuration ahead of time and I can monitor the usage. This allows us to explain how the limit works and to ask folks to limit their use to email and normal web surfing, and not to download large video clips, audio streams, or software updates.

All well and good, but regular readers will also know that we are having problems with our satellite equipment, and I've spent dozens of hours on the phone with customer support over the last month or so trying to resolve it. We've already swapped out several components of the satellite dish itself as well as the modem, but somewhere in the troubleshooting the suggestion was made that the problem might be our WiFi router. So I swapped in a spare router temporarily for testing purposes, one that does not have the full configuration to implement our security scheme. No big deal for test purposes, and until yesterday, it has not been an issue.

In a classic case of locking the barn door after the horses are out, as soon as I realized we'd been FAPped by pirates, I yanked the open router and put our secure one back in place. I'm sure old Earl there is wondering what happened to his network connection. Even though his big download was at 5pm, we did not go over the daily allowance until after 8, and so we are shut down now until 9 tonight. "Shut down" means that we still have access, but our throughput is limited to about half that of a dial-up connection. We can load pretty much any all-text page, and send or receive text emails. I'll be able to post this blog, but without any graphics.

There is a "free window" in the middle of every night, where usage does not count toward the allowance, and where full speed is restored to FAPped stations. So at 1am I was able to get back on and pre-load some information I'll need today, as well as generate my shipping labels for the eBay items I need to mail today. We'll spend the rest of today out and about running errands.

While we're in Huntsville we'd like to see the space center, and there is some sort of observatory and planetarium right here in the park. I also need to pick up an air filter and some oil for the bus, and we're going to try to find someplace nice for dinner tonight. Probably using my Blackberry, since even searching for restaurants while FAPped is nearly impossible.

Photo by Dunechaser, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. At what point do you break down and get an aircard and a cradle point router? And yes we have the 5gb limit, and it doesn't work in the really bonnie boonies. But they don't FAP you for 200 meg! That's only 1/25th of 5 gig.

  2. Don at has created a FAP monitor that monitors usage on a 30 second interval and will disconnect you from Hughes when you reach a preset minimum, it may be worth a try. I tried it and it gives a very good indication of usage. I've got FAPed before because of similar issues to what you've had and I give out passwords to our router after telling people the limits of the Hughes system.


  3. It is too bad there are inconsiderate jerks out there! When we hook into an unsecured router I try to find out who it is and then ask permission to download my email and check my Blog. The odd time I cannot find the owner I will download email only. we really appreciate that there are some folks out there sharing and we are very careful with it. on the other hand I know there are some folks who look for an open router and immediately start downloading a movie for the night and ruin it for all the rest of us.

  4. @Rod and Loyce: 200 meg is not the daily FAP limit, that's just what he did that hour. And, sorry to say, aircards just do not work in some of the places we like to spend a lot of our time. Moreover, while you have a limit of 5 gB per month, we can easily use four times that amount without a problem, well over 20 gB. The problem only crops up when you are not paying attention to how much you are using on a given day. I would bet if you left your CradlePoint open for access, you'd have a bigger problem -- no matter what happens, our bill never changes.

    That said, aircards do not suffer from the latency issue that satellite connections do, and we wouldn't have to be concerned about trees and other overhead obstructions. But for what it's worth, neither my Sprint service nor Louise's Verizon service has enough signal here in this park for a 3g aircard to work, so we'd be off-line here anyway.

    We'll stick with our 20gb-per-month satellite service that works anywhere in the CONUS and well into Canada and Mexico. More than once, we've had to use the bird to make a phone call because neither of our phones had any coverage at all -- and that's even back when we had tri-mode phones with AMPS coverage.

    @Al: I am aware of Don's utility. It uses the same information that Hughes finally put into the modem (after years and years of customer complaints) that the utility I use does. But that would not have helped in this instance -- it would have turned us off, but not the pirate. No, the problem here was that I left the network open, plain and simple.

  5. "At what point do you break down and get an aircard and a cradle point router?"

    Well, first off, you don't need both units anymore, a MiFi (the size of a credit card) by Verizon does the same thing for just $99. The only reason we have a MiFi is because we use it as a backup to our Motosat....our business bandwidth needs are too great for the dish setup we have now and we dont have the $$ to shell out for an upgrade.

    We're with Sean; we don't care what aircard devotees say, if you like to boondock in remote places and be connected, air cards don't cut it. We have been tons of places without cell service, but with Internet access thanks to the dish.

    Meanwhile, Sean, that sucks! I would've gone banging on their door. Grrrr... We used to leave our network open too, till the FAP limit. We learned our lesson when we were working inside one day, looked outside our window and saw 3 teenage boys with their laptops sitting near our rig. They were obviously gaming or something, and within minutes, we were FAPd!

    Pirates suck.

  6. Sean, I was camped across from you at Monta Sano the last couple of days. I wanted to say hi to you but never had the chance. You have one nice coach there, I took the tour you and your wife have on the net and it is quite a bus. Thanks for making it possible to see. You don't know this, but I had to have my coach towed off the mountain, the brakes went out.. and I sure did not want to go down the moutain with no brakes. DUH. Any way, maybe we will get together some time in the future.. earlhop

  7. Just curious what you do that you send so much out to Ebay customers? We are looking for ideas to do work after the carnival season which ends the end of September.

    We so enjoy reading your blog and following along on your travels. You have a gorgeous rig.

  8. @Ali: I'm afraid I can't really help on the workamping score. The eBay sales are a mere consequence of daily life in a small space -- nothing can be allowed to accumulate, and so we sell or give away whatever we don't need.

    Much of what I have been selling over the last few months came from our "storage closet" in San Jose that we emptied in March, as described in detail in this post.

    We're finally down to just a handful of items. But when I finish fixing the satellite dish, whatever parts are leftover will end up on eBay, as will the two laptop computers I am still working on repairing. It is never-ending. I'm afraid.


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