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Sorry Obamas, the White House will never have good wi-fi, and here's why...

Thursday, February 18th 2016 by Ellen Branagh

It’s a problem many of us suffer on a regular basis but when the President of the United States complains about bad wi-fi at home, the world stops and listens.

You probably heard that despite being the home of one of the most powerful men in the world, the White House isn't up to scratch when it comes to wi-fi.

At Cable.co.uk, we thought we'd take a look at what the problem could be and whether there's an easy fix.

Unfortunately, it's not good news.

According to experts, the problem's probably down to the difficulties of juggling connectivity with security in a building built decades before the internet was created.

When Harry S. Truman gutted and rebuilt the White House in the 1950s using the strongest possible materials, he wasn't predicting wi-fi

According to Robert Klara, author of critically-acclaimed book The Hidden White House, the main culprit for the poor wi-fi in the iconic building is Obama’s predecessor Harry Truman.

Mr Klara, whose book documents Truman's reconstruction of the White House between 1949 and 1952, said the way the house was built could be responsible for its wi-fi problems.

He told Cable.co.uk: “The service that Mr Truman did for the house is very probably the disservice that is being done to the Obamas’ wi-fi."

“When Truman rebuilt the house he rebuilt it almost like a military fort.

“The materials that went into reconstructing the White House were astonishing even by today’s standards.”

The original White House was gutted and rebuilt from the inside out during Truman's presidency

Those materials, while sturdy, serve as “handy barriers to wi-fi”, he said.

“The big problem is things like reinforced steel and concrete and metal – and it happens that the White House has so much of that.

“Even if you just look at the walls in the house, the inside is terracotta hollow block and then there’s plaster, there’s frequently marble, hardwood panelling. You also have steel framing and poured concrete.

“All of these make excellent buildings but they also make excellent barriers.”

With six levels, 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms, along with 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases and three elevators, there are plenty of obstacles to affect wi-fi.

“It’s a beautiful house but it was obviously not designed with wi-fi in mind.”

But strengthening the signal would also mean greater range, and that's a security risk

If the issue is the signal strength, a logical solution seems to be to send a stronger signal.

But Professor Tim Watson, director of the Cyber Security Centre at WMG, part of the University of Warwick, said it’s not quite that simple.

Prof Watson, who has more than 20 years' experience in the computing industry, said understanding the issue means understanding the differences between wired and wireless networks, where using a wired network is like passing a note to someone and wireless is more like shouting across a room.

“If you and I were to communicate by writing to each other in a room very few people could read it. But as soon as we start talking, somebody in the next room might be able to hear, and if I'm talking very loudly it travels further.

"Everyone can hear what’s going over a wireless channel, so the thing that protects you is the security, the encryption.”

Despite this, it's possible to bypass that encryption and jeopardise someone’s security when they're on wi-fi, he said, by setting up a 'fake' base station that a device thinks is its secure network.

“I, with just a laptop, can set that laptop up to look like a fake base station. I can make my laptop look like your home network and your phone will happily connect to it."

“In lots of government buildings around the world wireless connection is a particular issue because of course it doesn’t stop at a wall, it leaks outside.

“So you have to hope that either you've got lots of grounds around so people can’t pick up your wireless communications or limit the amount of use that’s made on wireless within the building.”

'Turning the power down' on the wi-fi signal is one way to reduce that leakage but that could mean even small changes like moving furniture, changing the wallpaper, or adjusting the air conditioning, could cause problems, he said.

White house image 2

Wi-fi signal is patchy in some parts of the White House, with the Obamas struggling with 'dead zones'

Ben Miller, author of the blog Sniff Wi-Fi, agreed that the combination of security measures and the historic building itself could be causing problems.

“Uncommon challenges at the White House are likely the result of security requirements and the need to maintain the historical integrity of the building.”

The White House probably has areas that are ‘off-limits’ to wi-fi access points – ‘base stations’ – which allow devices to connect wirelessly to a network.

In Mr Miller’s view, increasing the power of those access points won’t necessarily solve the problem but mounting them with directional antennas could.

Another problem could be the “preponderance of mobile devices”, he said, including the way people hold them and move around while trying to use them.

But it's not just a problem in the White House

For Prof Watson, the Obamas’ problem highlights the delicate balance between connectivity and security faced by us all.

“This in microcosm captures the tension that all organisations have.

“This idea that these devices that we store information on that we care about can be moved about and connected to a wide variety of communications systems creates challenges, and not only for the President of the United States.”

So it looks like the Obamas, and all future presidential families for that matter, will just have to get used to intermittent Twitter updates and stuttering video. In the battle of White House versus wi-fi, the White House has won.

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