Space & Innovation

Why The White House Wi-Fi Is So 'Sketchy'

The Obamas recently described the Wi-Fi at the White House as 'sketchy.' But this is not just any Wi-Fi. Continue reading →

In an interview this week with CBS' Gayle King, the Obamas said the White House Wi-Fi needed an upgrade.

"...it is an old building, and so there's a lot of dead spots where Wi-Fi doesn't work," President Obama said. The first lady added that wireless access could be "a little sketchy," which irritated their daughters.

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President Obama wants the issue fixed before the next president arrives, but it may not be as simple as waiting for a technician to show up. That's because, spottiness aside, this is not just any Wi-Fi.

The issue with Wi-Fi dates back to 2012 - prehistoric in terms of Internet speed.

In March of that year, Nextgov's Bob Brewin spotted a Defense Information Systems Agency "notice to industry" on the Federal Business Opportunities website requesting a White House campus Wi-Fi network.

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It needed to serve 60 buildings, several outdoor areas and accommodate sensitive data. The goal was simply to move from place to place without losing a signal.

"The agency specified the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n, which has a raw data rate of 600 megabits a second and backward compatibility with the older 802.11 a/b/g standards," Brewin, who passed away in 2014, wrote at the time.

They finally got it.

But a more advanced standard called 802.11ac exists now and it has 1300 megabits per second capacity. There's no indication that the White House network got upgraded.

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Regardless of the standard, any technology wielded by the leader of the free world must be secure. White House officials don't reveal much, but from what we've seen everything goes through serious vetting. Remember how Obama fought to keep his BlackBerry? And he's still not allowed to have an iPhone for security reasons.

So I'm sure the Wi-Fi network was also subjected to an intense process.

The constant challenge is balancing security and functionality. Retired general James E. Cartwright, who was on the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Obama's first term, recently told the New York Times how DARPA modified his iPad. They took out the cameras, wireless chips, location sensors, microphones, and disconnected it from any network.

"What I ended up with was a pretty dumb iPad," he said. Sounds like the Obamas ended up with a pretty dumb wireless network, too. Maybe by the end of the next president's term, the signal will be slightly stronger.

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