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"On Demand"? Well, I'm DEMANDING already!
July 27, 2009 6:27 AM   Subscribe

Shouldn't I be able to get "on-demand" wireless networks to WORK on my computer? Why can't I?

After another frustrating train trip during which I was unable to get online, I need an explanation.

When I'm looking for a computer network to log onto on my laptop, I usually see three different kinds of signals -- "secured" and "unsecured" I understand. But then there is a third type, called "On Demand". My wireless manager is often able to connect TO whatever "on Demand" signal I select, but then when I try to open Outlook or a web browser, it doesn't work, and the troubleshooting for my web browser tells me it cannot see the very "on Demand" signal that my wireless manager tells me I am connected to. (Fortunately, at least this time, I know that I'm not the only one with the problem -- I asked a couple guys on the train who were also trying to log on, and they were having the same problem.)

What in the name of hell is behind all this? Why is one program telling me I'm connected when another one is not? Doesn't "On Demand" imply that it is a functioning signal which works when people need it? What's really going on here?
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Computers & Internet (9 answers total)
It's possible ondemand means you have to pay for the time you use it. Otherwise it would simply be an always on unsecured connection.
posted by royalsong at 6:37 AM on July 27, 2009

By "on-demand", the software you're using is probably referring to an "ad hoc" connection, which is a wireless connection that works directly between computers with no central "access point" involved. In practice, these networks are rare, and the few that you usually see are not real; they are the result of a bug in Windows XP.

The bug is this: if a person using certain versions of Windows XP tried to connect to one of those "ad-hoc" networks in the past, then their computer will perpetually broadcast the address of that network to all other nearby laptops as an available ad-hoc network, even days or years later. That's probably what you are seeing when you try to connect to one of those "on-demand" networks; it is not a real internet connection; instead, someone on the train is broadcasting it unintentionally from their laptop..

Also it's pretty rare for trains to have wireless internet access, and in every case where I have seen it available, it wasn't free.
posted by helios at 6:39 AM on July 27, 2009

It's possible ondemand means you have to pay for the time you use it.

I never get anything indicating a request for payment or asking me for a log-on or anything like that, though. I mean, conceptually that makes sense, but wouldn't they be trying to ask me for money if that were the case?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:40 AM on July 27, 2009

After preview: Helios, that also explains a lot -- it also explains why I see "on demand" networks in my neighborhood as well.

Wait, though -- these networks are usually named something like "Public Access WiFi" or something similar. Which also implies "people should be able to use this."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:43 AM on July 27, 2009

Those ad-hoc SSIDs are viral (In the infectiiously spreading sense, not necessarily the dangerous sense).
posted by kickingtheground at 7:24 AM on July 27, 2009

If you ever see a wireless network called "Free Public WiFi," you can be nearly 100% guaranteed that it is an ad-hoc network that will never connect you to the Internet. Connecting to those networks is never worth the trouble, for the reasons outlined in the article kickingtheground links to just above.
posted by Inkoate at 7:50 AM on July 27, 2009

Yeah, it's quite possible at one point that there was one ad-hoc access point that provided public access wi-fi. But unfortunately, due to this bug, many laptops that once connected to it in the past are now perpetually broadcasting it wherever they go, and laptops that try to connect to those laptops are also broadcasting it everywhere, etc.

Also, note that there are no restrictions on what someone can name their access point, so it's important not to automatically trust any implications that the access point's name might give. For example, there is nothing (from a technical standpoint) stopping someone from creating a network named "AT&T wireless internet" and using it to phish passwords and/or credit card info. Although it's somewhat rare, there's some risk involved in connecting to unsecured networks.
posted by helios at 7:52 AM on July 27, 2009

I have never seen the term "on demand" applied to describe ad hoc wireless networks, but I've also skipped a few popular versions of Windows in the last few years. Maybe Microsoft made up the term? Or is it some kind of mistranslation across a language barrier? I don't know.

"Wait, though -- these networks are usually named something like "Public Access WiFi" or something similar. Which also implies "people should be able to use this."

No. Ad hoc networks named this do not mean people should be able to use them. Ad hoc networks named this aren't useful as internet connections for two reasons:

1. They are ad hoc networks, which means that there is probably not a device with an Internet connection that participates. If there were, it would almost certainly not be an ad hoc network.

2. "Public Access Wifi" and similar SSIDs are not in fact public access wifi. They are created by misconfigured Windows software. When you connect to one, you are connecting to some technically incompetent person's laptop, not to a piece of equipment that is intended to connect you to the Internet.
posted by majick at 7:55 AM on July 27, 2009

Ah, that all explains everything now -- so what's been happening is that I've been trying to connect to some other poor schlub on the train's computer, because at one point he tried to connect to some other poor schlub and now his computer's saying "I'm a free wifi", and so on, and...

Okay, that makes sense. Thanks.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:05 AM on July 27, 2009

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