(Almost) off the grid

Sitting on the deck in front of a lake in the Laurentians north of Montreal, I find myself almost off the grid. There is no cell phone coverage for about 20KM before the driveway, so no 3G wifi hotspot. A rural data wireless provider with antennas on mountaintops usually provides a decent wifi connection, but a power surge destroyed the base station of a radio, and here I find myself reduced to my last 2 lines of communication: satellite TV and an old-school voice landline.

Yes, I did make a dialup connection over the landline during last week: it was 24Kbps, slow even by dialup standards, and modern web pages, even those optimized for lower-speed connections like the HTML version of Gmail, are completely unusable.

Colleagues are covering for technical support responsibilities in civilization, and my brother will drive me this afternoon to the community center, 7KM away. Until then, I find myself myself essentially cut off: no WhatsApp texts, no checking for latest headlines, weather, or trivia, no streaming audio for my airpods.

So here I am typing on a computer in offline mode, to be pasted to the Internet later today. This reminds me of a project I have put off several times: a complete offline web development environment. Hosting a LAMP server is trivially easy, whether on the baremetal of a Linux laptop, or as a vm guest on a Windows laptop, but one must take precautions to be productive offline: I need to install a local copy of the php.net documentation, and I have found some interface code that must be redone to invoke local copies of JavaScript libraries, rather than pulling them in from remote locations at run time.

People tell me that I will benefit from being “unplugged,” that it will relax me. They are mistaken, although I will survive until Monday morning when I return to the city, sustained this afternoon by a half hour of the community center’s free wifi. The rural data wireless base station will be replaced at some point, I hope soon – I will be back in the city on Monday morning, but my Mom spends the summer up here – I hope for her that she will soon get wifi for her iPad.

By the way, here at the community center: wifi is awesome, never take it for granted.

Using dialup at the cottage due to a rural wireless outage

Back from a weekend at the family cottage. Barbecue in front of the lake, good weather, my brother’s birthday party.

The family cottage is outside cell phone range. Normally, the cottage has wifi from a rural wireless provider, a satellite TV link, and a landline.
The rural data wireless was out. Using a us robotics usb 56K modem, i was able to make a 24Kbps connection, which is a low speed, even by dialup standards. This poor performance is due to the analog exchange and noise on a rural line: in the city one would expect 50Kbps. There are “light” versions of sites like gmail that load faster on slower connections, but even the simplest requests would often time out and require a reload.

It was fortuitous that i had left a us robotics usb modem in the cottage 10 years ago.

I was able make a dialup connection with my windows 10 laptop, but the experience was not as good as with previous versions: sharing the connection via mobile hotspot did not work, and using connection sharing via the wifi did not trigger a wizard with ad-hoc networking set up on the wifi adapter, things that worked well in prior versions of windows, as recently as windows 8.1.

At the community center 7KM away, near the dépanneur, there is free wifi and a picnic table. On my Linux laptop, I was able to apt install wvdial on the free wifi. wvdialconf autodetected the modem and the man page made it easy to create a dialup file /etc/wvdial.conf (even to find the option for pulse dialing: “ATDP”):

[Dialer Defaults]
Init1 = ATZ
Init2 = ATQ0 V1 E1 S0=0 &C1 &D2 +FCLASS=0
Modem Type = USB Modem
Phone = xxxxxxxxxx
ISDN = 0
Password = xxxxxxxx
New PPPD = yes
Username = xxxxxxxx
Modem = /dev/ttyACM0
Baud = 33600
Dial command = ATDP

wvdial was able to make a 24Kbps ppp connection. I gained some insights, and learned enough to complete a dialup wifi server, based on wvdial, hostapd and dnsmasq. Given the limited speed, there is little point in deploying a dialup server. I will, however, continue to maintain the ability to connect as a dialup workstation, from both my windows and linux laptops.

Modern websites and i/o make dialup almost useless. there may be edge cases especially involving security or remote telemetry, but for consumer use, I suggest driving to the free wifi at the community center.