WiFi In The Arena

UFC 125 happened on New Year's Day, and I was fortunate enough to cover the show for the Wrestling Observer. As with just about every sporting event nowadays, the MGM Grand Garden Arena provided WiFi service for the members of the media who were covering the event. I managed to squeeze in a little bit of sniffing while I was doing my live blog, and the results I found were a little bit surprising to me.

When I think of public Wi-Fi, I think of downloads. Maybe that makes me an old codger, but I just imagine all of these web pages, videos and spam emails coming down with just a few requests and acknowledgments going back up. The world has changed, of course, with more people than ever wanting to tweet, blog and upload photos as part of the social media revolution, but I still was dubious when Andrew Von Nagy (@revolutionwifi) told me on Twitter that I should expect a pretty even distribution of data on any public WiFi network nowadays.

Sniffing in the media area turned out to be a bit of a chore. When I got cageside (after a scrumptious fajita lunch in the press room; thank you, UFC), I immediately booted into Windows 7 and broke out my trusty WUSB600N adapter so that I could run WildPackets OmniPeek. At that point I slid on over to the WLAN screen (SSIDs/APs/stations) of OmniPeek to find my laptop's AP. What I found was an RF war zone. I wish I would have been smart and taken a screen capture, because this place had all the makings of an unusable hot WiFi mess. Plenty of APs on every 2.4 GHz channel, no 5 GHz APs and a mish-mash of different vendors providing the coverage (Vivato and Aruba, to be specific). Since I was using the Windows 7 wireless client (what can I say, I'm too cheap to spend the fifty bucks on the Juniper Odyssey Access Client) I had no idea which BSSID was mine. I had to sift through a number of APs on channel 11 until I finally found my station's MAC address. (And if you're wondering why I didn't have my laptop named in OmniPeek already, that's a good question. The reason is that my Macbook Air suffered yet another meltdown and had to be rebuilt. I got all of the requisite sniffing software installed on the Windows partition, but I had yet to repopulate the Name Table.)

Once I found my BSSID, I quickly created a filter for it and started working. I checked the full stats for the AP (about 120 kbps, on average) and then I modified the filter to check to downlink (~74 kbps) and uplink (~46 kbps) usage. Unfortunately, I was there for a job outside of sniffing, so I lacked the time to do a full analysis of the WLAN. Had I been there for strictly sniffing purposes, I would've looked more closely at other stations (there were tons, but I didn't get a full count), Retry percentages and data rates.

The whole experience was an eye opener in one way and quite typical in another way. On the one hand the MGM Grand Garden Arena had a multi-vendor environment with a ton of APs and no 5 GHz coverage, yet it worked. On the other hand, questionable RF design often does work just fine when WLAN usage is fair-to-middlin', but breaks down when put under stress. This event had one of the smaller media attendances in recent years for a Las Vegas UFC show. I'll be interested to see what the results look like next time when WiFi usage is likely to be much higher.

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