From the archives: SWANS and the WiPhone

[note to readers: the pictures of the WiPhone are from the archives but the text is new]

I’m a nerd.

I’ve been a nerd for a long time. I feel that the label “geek” has been taken up as a banner by a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies. No one ever called me a geek at high school, and I was by no means even remotely cool.

Some people asked if I could dig up from my archives pictures of the WiFi VoIP phone I built back in … er, mid 2004.  This ran on the Interface club’s wireless network at Victoria University.

SWANS. as it was known, was the first “student-usable” BYOD wireless network at any tertiary institution in Wellington.  It was built out of bits scrounged from the Computer Science systems people (thanks, Mark Davies!) and some fortuitous buys from TradeMe.  The access points were either old laptops or old PowerMacs, rescued from being used as monitor stands in the dungeons in the ground floor of the Cotton building.  I put Linux on them, found Prism2-based cards supported by HostAP, and plugged them in.  As no one would give us a VLAN, we used a tool called vtun to tunnel Ethernet frames over UDP/IP, over the University network.  We had coverage in the second floor of Cotton, where the computer science labs were, and in the Quad.

Through the Software Engineering Research Group (ELVIS), I knew Brenda Chawner who had an office overlooking the quad.  We eventually got ITS to give us another live network port there.  An old laptop with a broken screen from the computer science department sat on her windowsill, offering internet access to Interface club members.

The WiPhone itself was a bodge-job.  I used a Linksys WRT54G, all the rage among the hacky-stuff-with-wifi community at the time, to connect to SWANS, and to CafeNet downtown. I put a rather heavy 12V SLA battery in my backpack to power it.  Then I used a Sipura SPA-200 VoIP adapter to plug in a cheap Warehouse headset phone.

The Spiura needed 5V, so Chris Andreae lent me a 5V regulator which I used to provide the right voltage. Back then, no one had stacks of spare switch-mode DC-DC converters in their junk drawers, so we used a linear regulator which turned the excess energy into heat.  The photos below, taken downtown when I was using Citylink’s relatively new CafeNet WiFi service, show the regulator hanging out of the back of my backpack.  This was because it was getting so hot in the bag I was worried that either the bag would melt or catch fire.



The irony in all of this is that I didn’t make many phone calls in those days and really had to scratch around to find some people to call. There’s not much conversation in “Hi, I just wanted to call you to try out this new mobile phone I made.”

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