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Duke's iPhone wireless mystery sparks debate, rants, ponderings and Osmond Brothers nostalgia

Readers, blogosphere weigh in on why some iPhones are messing with Duke's WLAN

By , Network World
July 20, 2007 03:41 PM ET

Network World - The iPhone Wi-Fi Puzzle at Duke University this week triggered a cyber tidal wave of commentary, complaint, confusion and even some comic relief at NetworkWorld.com and other Web technology sites.

The problem is that a few iPhones on the Blue Devils' campus-wide wireless LAN (WLAN) sometimes trigger a flood of Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) requests, as many as 18,000 per second. The flood overwhelms groups of Cisco WLAN access points, anywhere from a dozen to 30 at a time, taking them offline for 10 to 15 minutes.

As of end of day Tuesday 17 July, Duke recorded 9 iPhone ARP events. The university did not reply to an e-mail requesting an update on the number of incidents since then

By midweek, Network World readers logged about 90 posts on the problem, and scores of readers at dozens of other tech sites did the same. One anonymous reader suggested a simple explanation: "Everybody loves a good mystery."

But plenty of posters thought they sorted it out quickly. It was the fault of Apple. Or Cisco. Or Duke IT. Or Applehaters. Someone even suggested that Michael Nifong, the North Carolina county district attorney who was found guilty of numerous ethical violations in his handling of the notorious Duke lacrosse team case, was behind the problem.

"My take? Apple knows the problem but is afraid to own up to it since they are riding the glory train of success with the runaway whoop-dee-doo of the jesus-phone...I mean the iPhone," wrote Ed web/gadget guru. on the Network World comments thread.

Pure jealously, according to one Apple fan. "Come on guys, it's the network, not the iPhones. Otherwise this result would be worldwide," wrote ajhill at AppleInsider.com [registration required]. "Just another fruitless attack on the iPhone. Oh, they can be so jealous, can't they?

"Duke's IT staff should send a delegation to the nearest Starbucks or Panera Bread outlet and ask the girl behind the espresso machine how to configure a wireless router," wrote zanely, at CNet's forum.

Comments such as these prompted a Duke faculty member, John Madden, to reply on the Network World thread. "The good news is, from the perspective of us Duke users, our network is behaving just fine, thank you very much," he wrote. "The bad news is, I'm mortified by the amount of hostility evident in certain posts here from Network Administrators towards both network users and device manufacturers."

One anonymous Network World poster introduced a welcome note: a YouTube link to a song "written about this very topic," the Osmond Brothers' "One Bad Apple", which topped the singles chart in February 1971.

As of Monday, the Duke troubleshooters were pretty sure that it is the iPhone, and not the university's Cisco infrastructure, that is causing the disruptions. The phones are calling for the media access control (MAC) address of an invalid router, and in effect, won't shut up.

The speculation is that the flood may be triggered when the iPhone user moves from one part of the campus WLAN to another, disconnecting along the way. When the iPhone tries to re-associate at the new location, it may be calling for an address that previously worked: the wireless router in the user's home. It's not a valid device on the Duke WLAN, so the iPhone inexplicably keeps jabbering for it.

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