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Posted 8/9/2004 10:36 AM Updated 8/9/2004 1:45 PM
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Teens' wireless feat could be world record
Four Ohio teens made a 55.1-mile wireless connection at a recent hacker conference in Las Vegas that might be a world record.

Ben Corrado, Andy Meng and Justin Rigling, all graduates of St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, are amateur radio operators with a fascination for defunct satellite dishes and wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, connections. They turned a patchwork of satellite dishes and other gear into a powerful wireless base station at DefCon, which bills itself as the largest underground hacking conference in the world, to compete with other techies to see who could make the farthest Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi, connection.

Contestants had to set up a pair of computers and see how far apart they could maintain an Internet connection using homemade and commercial antennas. Part of the team stayed with the equipment on top of a 4,600-foot mountain while the others loaded their equipment into a vehicle and drove until the signal died.

Wireless Fidelity

The Cincinnati team drove for more than an hour, taking Rigling's father's Astrovan up steep gravel roads and one-way dirt trails, finding every nook and cranny until they ran out of roadway.

"We thought we could go fairly far," Rigling, 18, said. "And then it started to make sense after about 38 miles. We were like, 'Well, this isn't the end. There's more out there if we can find a road to go up.'"

In the end, their 55-mile amplified connection exceeded last year's winner by 20 miles. Then they turned off their amplifiers and broke the record for an unamplified connection at the same distance.

While not yet confirmed, the connection appears to be a world record for a ground connection. The Guinness record for Wi-Fi connection is about 192 miles, achieved in 2002 by Swedish Wi-Fi equipment maker Alvarion and the Swedish Space. But that record was achieved using a Swedish weather balloon, which some experts say isn't comparable to a ground measurement because there are fewer obstacles to block a signal.

The Swedish team also used amplification in setting the mark, while the DefCon team maintained its connection even after turning off the amplification.

Commercial wireless connections are typically about 300 feet long.

Wi-Fi is becoming more popular. It eliminates cords and wires while using radio frequencies so that people with laptop computers or other mobile devices can browse the Internet or check their e-mail while sipping coffee or sitting on a park bench.

Corrado, Meng and Rigling have been interested in Wi-Fi and satellites since joining St. Xavier's Radio Club, where they became amateur radio operators and started brainstorming ideas for things they could build on a low budget. Last year, they collected satellite dishes from the back yards of neighbors who were no longer using them, mounting them on towers in their back yards so they could share files.

That idea was shot down by their parents, and the dishes sat until last month when 19-year-old Meng, who attends LeTourneau University in Texas, spotted the competition on a Web site.

Along with Brandon Schamer, who didn't make the trip, they spent nights in the Corrados' basement, cutting copper plates and welding parts together to make two strong dishes.

The teens already are planning to make the trip again next year. After being recognized at the conference and making a short speech, they tried to negotiate the sale of their equipment. Unable to find a taker, they took off the dishes' important parts and tossed the rest in the trash.

Next year, they'll try to get a sponsor and some bigger dishes and take the connection farther.

"We're the kind of guys who just like to build stuff," said Rigling, who plans to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall.


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