Wifi roaming on the move

Preface: legal stuff

Depending on where you live, use of random open wifi networks might be considered illegal. Although I know of no law in my country against doing this, where you live, things may be different, so educate yourself before following my example.

Wifi roaming on the move

For the past year I have used my Eee PC on the metro transit bus, as it is the perfect size for this. When I can, I take advantage of open networks to connect back home. In this article I will show how you can actually use such access, will recommend which software works best and will explain how to set it up.

So, what can I really do with the net while in motion?

How about irc? No kidding! This shell one-liner does the job:

while ! ssh -t 'screen -UDr' 2>/dev/null ; do echo -n "." ; sleep .1 ; done

We’re concerned about privacy and security on other people’s networks, so we use ssh. Inside that screen session, keep irssi running for a continuous irc presence. Every 10th of a second, the script tries to resume your session. Once a the net passes by, typing “[Enter]~.” drops you back out to retry again. The row of dots serves as a progress bar. If you want to get fancy, you could replace that with an ASCII ‘spinner’. I leave that as an exercise for the reader. ๐Ÿ™‚

Come on, is that really usable?

Certainly. As the good folks on #eeepc at irc.freenode.net and #debian-eeepc at irc.oftc.net can attest, even a half dozen brief connections can be enough to provide tech support, rough out some development ideas, or just carry on some friendly chat. If your spouse or housemate is online too, it can even help you make some last-minute grocery-list changes. ๐Ÿ™‚ While the script is working, enjoy some offline things such as blogging, reading a cached Planet Debian feed or a PDF book.

OK, so what else do I need to make it work?

Well, you’ve seen so far we need on a server:

  • openssh-server
  • screen
  • irssi

On the Eee, you should also have:

  • openssh-client
  • wpasupplicant
  • gnome-terminal

But what do I need wpasupplicant for if I only use open networks?

Well, wpasupplicant is really handy for fast control of networks in Roaming Mode (as per /usr/share/doc/wpasupplicant/README.modes.gz). A GUI is just too slow. For example, you may need to filter out ‘junk’ open wifi nets: pay-per-use hotspots or nets that hide their name. You’ll not only want a “catch-all” stanza for any open network, but also a number of the most commonly found default network names, e.g.

# Catch-all; associates with any open network:
# Commonly found default network names:
# etc. by watching scan_results closely you'll find several more

While the connect script is running, keep a separate tab open in gnome-terminal for wpa_cli. Use ‘disable_network 0’ to drop the catch-all and let the other stanzas kick in and ‘enable_network 0’ after filtering is no longer needed.

Isn’t it really slow to get connected?

Without some tweaks, yes. But here are a few things I have found by trial and error that help.

One issue is that dhclient takes too long to retry, so you drop the delay between retries back to 1 second in /etc/dhcp3/dhclient.conf:

backoff-cutoff 1;
initial-interval 1;

If the signal is very weak, you’ll want the transmit power turned up to the maximum value for your hardware. For the Eee PC 4G this is 50mW, so you set this in /etc/network/interfaces for ath0, your wireless interface:

wireless-txpower 50mW

Finally, while you’re in motion you are constantly leaving no-longer-usable access points behind. The driver needs to discard them as quickly as possible and scan for new ones. So again in /etc/network/interfaces for ath0, you bring the default scanvalid 60 seconds down to 10 with:

pre-up /sbin/iwpriv ath0 scanvalid 10


The netbook has changed how we use the net. Now that we can take it everywhere, we either pay through the nose for expensive cell network access or else use the patchy wifi coverage blanketing most urban areas. A few lucky cities have such things as municipal wifi nets, but the rest of us have to scrape what access we can wherever we go. You are now equipped to try this out on the bus. If you find any other tips that can help, I’d love to hear from you.

Bits from the Debian Eee PC team, autumn 2008

Some brief highlights of the last three months of Debian Eee PC development.

Thermal and ACPI breakage resolved in 2.6.26-7

We’re pleased to see that in the upload to Sid of linux-image-2.6.26-1-686 version 2.6.26-7, the pair of 2.6.26 bugs we’ve been tracking that have made it difficult for Eee users to upgrade their systems have been resolved. Since then 2.6.26-8 has been uploaded and is expected to enter Lenny this week due to a freeze exception. Once the new kernel has migrated we will move quickly to build and release a new installer that includes it.

Ath5k wifi works on Eee PC in Linux 2.6.27

Jean-Christophe reports that ath5k works in Linux 2.6.27 on the Eee PC 701, and just needs a small patch to work with our eeepc-acpi-scripts package. This is good news for those of us with models 701, 900, 900A and 1000HD who have been wanting to get off of the non-free Madwifi drivers and onto DFSG free drivers.

New Eee PC model 701SD wifi support in the works

Users of the new Eee PC Model 701SD have just started showing up looking for support in mainstream Linux distros. Martin Filtenborg confirmed using our Eee PC Live image with the GPL’d rtl8187se driver from Realtek that we can at least use it to connect to an unencrypted AP, get an IP address and ping other hosts.

Of course, it is one thing to have a working vendor-supplied driver and quite another to have mainstream support. We’ll make do with what we have now, but will be seeking a mainstream solution as soon as possible.

We’re seeking more testers and developers to work on this. To date, an ITP has not been filed, as it is not yet clear who is going to carry this work forward.

Chasing the 5 second boot

An interesting discussion on Arjan van de Ven and
Auke Kok’s work to get an Eee 901 to boot in 5 seconds
took place this month. While the Debian Eee PC team is not making work on this a priority, we’ll keep an eye on it to see if Debian can incorporate some or all of the techniques they used so that our users can benefit without making radical changes to their systems.

Working towards mainstream support for rt2860

Our filing of an ITP for rt2860 (the wifi driver for models 901, 1000 and 1000H) was followed by discussion about how to separate out the GPL’d driver from the embedded non-free firmware so that it can at least go into contrib. Glenn Saberton has been working on rewriting the build system around kbuild and separating out the firmware.

Numerous improvements to ACPI scripts

Since my last progress report, there have been numerous improvements to the eeepc-acpi-scripts package to deal with all of the various models we now support and make the scripts more robust and flexible. Check out the changelog for details.

Bits from the Debian Eee PC team, summer 2008

As always, we’re doing lots of interesting and significant things and have more good ideas than we have people to do the work.  If you have an Eee PC or are planning to get one, or are otherwise interested in our work, some of which has uses beyond just the Eee, here are some highlights:

Earliest Eee models supported in Lenny

Lenny will release with the atl2 ethernet driver and the non-free madwifi-source now works with the earliest Eee models as well, so our patched version is no longer needed.  This means Lenny will work with all of the earliest models of the Eee PC: 701 (2G and 4G surf, 4G, 8G) and 900! All we need now for full support in Lenny is to replace the non-free wireless driver with the free ath5k driver when it is ready.

Free drivers

Nick Kossifidis has submitted patches on linux-wireless supporting the Eee models currently supported only by the non-free madwifi in ath5k.  This means we’ll soon realize our goal of a completely DFSG free system for the earliest models of the Eee.  By 2.6.27, or at the latest 2.6.28, these models will be supported.  Then we will see about making a patch to support whichever kernel makes it into Lenny.

New models

Model 901, 1000 and 1000H users are now able to install using the atl1e ethernet driver from eeepc.debian.net.  Support for wireless and other aspects of the new hardware will follow soon.  The debian-kernel team was prompt to add atl1e to 2.6.26 which has just been uploaded to sid.  We hope 2.6.26 makes it into Lenny.

Wireless installer

Glenn Saberton has been doing an upstanding job adding wireless support to our custom Debian-installer.  We have supported WEP authentication for several releases, now, and a beta version supports WPA.  Glenn is also making progress with these patches upstream so that non-Eee Debian users will benefit from our work.

LXDE is in Lenny

LXDE has entered Lenny, thanks to Andrew Lee.  It is a quite lightweight desktop environment that is made with the Eee PC in mind.

Live images

Two flavours of Debian-live USB images are available: a demo of the LXDE desktop and a minimal console-only image for rescue/backup.  The images are still in alpha stage of development.  If you’d like to help, give us a shout.

More interesting things are planned for the future that benefit Debian as a whole.  With a small amount of work patching live-helper, anyone will be able to make a live image that includes a customized Debian-installer.

Mobile device initiative

This month on debian-devel, there was some interesting discussion about Debian support for the Intel Atom processor and a possible mobile net device initiative.  That’s something we could get behind, if anything comes of it.

Wiki translation

Robert Epprecht has been keeping the German wiki translation in good shape, but we could always use some more help with any of the translations.

New members welcome

If you’d like to join us, check out our site at http://wiki.debian.org/DebianEeePC and drop us a note on our list or join our irc channel and talk to us about what you’d like to do.



Sister project in Ubuntu to Debian Eee PC

I was pleased to learn through Christer Edwards
of the existence of a sister project in Ubuntu to our Debian Eee PC project. I followed up on his invitation to drop in on their irc channel and introduce myself. I’ve been looking over the bugs listed on their TODO to see if any are applicable to Debian. Already I have filed #479217 based on the corresponding bug in Ubuntu, and have encouraged them to check out ours as well. I look forward to sharing more with them in the future so we can benefit from each other’s work.

Install Debian on your Eee PC over wireless

Installing Debian on your Eee PC is even easier now, as the option to install over wireless is now present in our custom debian-installer image. Also, the new installer automates installation of many more things than prior releases, so wireless, acpi hotkeys and suspend all ‘just work’ out of the box.

Two barriers remain to including wireless support for the Eee in Debian main. The first is the lack of wireless support in the official d-i installer. The second is the dependency on the non-free madwifi driver. I have no illusions about this being ready for Lenny, but I hope in Lenny + 1 this will be realized.

The good news is that Nick Kossifidis is working on getting support for the Eee into ath5k. For patches, see: http://kernel.org/pub/linux/kernel/people/mickflemm.

I have created a stub page FreeYourEee in our wiki about making a completely DFSG free install of Debian on the Eee. I encourage anyone going this route to contribute.

Using wiki.debian.org for project management

From the start of the DebianEeePC project, we have used a combination of the irc channel and our wiki site to our great advantage. The DebianEeePC/HowTo/Install document has been actively maintained as we go, serving not only as a good reference for new users, but also for existing users and developers to see where improvements are being made and what is left to work out.

Recently, we’ve started using the wiki for task management as well. Patterned after DebianInstaller/Bugs, we now have DebianEeePC/Bugs where we link to reports on the BTS for packages we maintain and our own usertags on packages we don’t maintain. As well, we are keeping a DebianEeePC/Todo to manage our tasks.

I see from a search through the wiki that lots of other Debian subprojects keep Todo lists, but most of them have little more structure than point-form lists. A few, though, have structured these pages a bit more carefully. For instance, some of these use tables listing who each task is assigned to, when it was assigned, and when it is completed. Our point-form list is a bit more free-form regarding task assignments. Participants can register their interest in a given task and what they are doing as a subpoint of the task. As for state changes over time, we rely on the revision history on “info” page for people to be able to see state changes for particular Todo items. When something is done, it just gets dropped from the list.

I haven’t exhaustively reviewed everyone’s Todo page, but from my brief survey I haven’t seen a couple of things I’ve added to try to help people choose what to do next. The first is to tag items with six difficulty/importance pairs, rating each actionable item from Easy/Urgent to Hard/Wishlist. The second is to state dependencies between items using anchors. It would be nice to see any of you are doing something similar and hear about whether it has worked out well for you.

I’m happy with how the irc/wiki combination has helped with project management. In the past with a different project I’ve made an abortive attempt to use the task management system at Alioth, but it just seemed too cumbersome and nobody ended up using it. With the wiki, it appears barriers to participation in task management are sufficiently lowered that everyone is willing to help keep it up. And with irc, we can keep on top of defining and assigning (or more usually volunteering to do) various tasks, and making sure the wiki is kept completely up to date. It takes a bit of discipline to do, but after the habits are established, it gets easier, and the rewards are well worth it.

Bits from the Debian Eee PC team

In the past few months in the Debian-EeePC team, a number of interesting things have been happening.

Progress has been made to ensure the Eee’s drivers get merged upstream. Chris Snook from Red Hat has taken over atl2 upstream and has started merging it with the atl1 driver to make a unified atlx driver that will be suitable for inclusion in the kernel. As well, there is continued progress on the madwifi driver, with a patch now included to support version 2.6.24 of the Linux kernel.

In the meantime, the Debian Eee PC Install HowTo has been under constant revision, even gaining recently the beginnings of translations in French and German.

ACPI, another important piece of infrastructure for the Eee, is now supported in lenny and sid through Eric Cooper’s eeepc-acpi kernel module. This is a fork of the asus-acpi module renamed so that it won’t conflict with the in-tree version. It turns out that asus-acpi is deprecated, having been replaced by asus-laptop. Eric has been in touch with the asus-laptop maintainer to ensure the Eee-specific bits are merged so that we can eventually retire our forked version.

There still remains at the top of our Todo list the issue of ACPI scripts to go with the kernel module. Having at first considered patching acpi-support, we have decided instead to start with Eric’s own scripts which will be packaged shortly for Debian. This gives us more freedom to tinker before considering submitting patches to more general laptop support packages like acpi-support.

Finally, after Brendan M. had to send his Eee back to Asus for repairs, work stopped for a while on the custom debian-eeepc installer. Fortunately, he just got his system back from the shop as good as new and has returned with renewed vigor to that task. He has produced a new version of the installer which we are now testing.

Thanks to the efforts of numerous users and developers who are being added to our ranks daily, we expect by the time Lenny releases we will be well on our way to providing a pure Debian solution for the Eee. Whether or not everything needed for the Eee is in Lenny at that time remains to be seen. We need to allow for how long it takes to get new drivers into the kernel. But if we miss the release, we will certainly provide backports and look forward to full support in the following release.