Hotspot Recommendations

Before anyone jumps on about Hotspots not being allowed at competition, please read my post first.

So I am looking at getting a Hotspot for use by the team, primarily the developers, because the school and school board IT departments have been completely unhelpful and uncooperative in delivering a solution that will actually allow us to operate as a robotics team using the school’s network. I’m not certain what our usage would look like, but ideally it would be fairly small, maybe 10-20GB/mo (grab any big updates once and share between computers, and mostly just github and general browsing/google-fu). So if anyone has Hotspot Devices and Plans they’ve had good experiences with, please share them to help aid my research. Thanks in advance!

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I have no hotspot advice, but a few questions that may impact your decision.

Do you know what you need to access, and are you able to allocate a bit of time to using the school’s network for the functions you can access? My hypothesis is that unless you all are doing ML, or other things that require an image, downloading the software and updates may still be allowed.

Of course with Labview, even the robot code is rather large (or at least it seemed it when we were using it)

Also, some tech departments who are that restrictive do not want hotspots in their building either. Are you sure it will be allowed? Allong those lines, do you have good service in the shop?

You have probably all thought about these things. I just wanted to suggest them in case you have not yet.

Definitely can relate to unhelpful school admins and ‘their network’.

I’ve used my own phone hotspot to download updates and other software, but I can’t help with pricing or selection, our phone plan includes the hotspot feature.

For a robotics team, I’d look into getting one of the ‘standalone’ hotspot devices for the team, instead of perhaps someone’s personal phone, depending on the team’s extended or short term use. I’m not sure of the pricing, it may be prohibitive if not tied to an existing user’s phone plan.

Please update this thread with what you find out.

A couple of ideas that may or may not help, from my own experience in dealing with less-than-helpful district IT folks:

  1. Can you use a hard line? (wired ethernet connection) That is something that schools often don’t lock down the way they do WiFi, since it can’t be accessed unless you’re physically present in the school. My own team uses this method for any large-scale work (big downloads, etc.) to speed things up.

  2. Is there a guest network for WiFi connection? Often districts use these when they don’t want students’ and staffs’ personal devices on the secure network or they need to be able to give visiting subs/presenters/etc. access who are only loosely associated with the school.

  3. Can you use school-approve devices to access the network and then transfer files to other devices (by USB drive, for instance).

These are just some ideas/questions off the top of my head, but all represent work-arounds that my own team has used to bypass the district IT when they refuse to put our team computers on the school secure WiFi network. It’s not perfect, but you can get what you need to do done.

Its not a matter of size of downloads, they have blocked GitHub as well as GitLab, Bitbucket etc, making it very difficult to download the WPILib Installer, PhotonVision and GlowWorm images, ect. As of yet they haven’t blocked NI or FIRST websites, so those are accessible, and why this is mostly necessary for the developers. We have given multiple options that would at least mostly solve the issues including some sort of on-site Git hosting for our development (and I could just pre-download any updates/installers before the meetings) but they haven’t given any indication of actually considering them.

Don’t care, I’m not an employee of the school, and if it comes to it, it will be an ask forgiveness situation. We won’t be leaving the hotspot on all the time, just during meetings. Cell service in the building is fine.

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Last I checked none of the jacks in our room were hot because they’d undersized the switches in the network cabinet. No idea if anything has changed on that front in the last 4 years…

No, at least not one that just anyone can join.

I haven’t checked all the sites we want to be able to access, but GitHub is still blocked on school devices.

They’re blocking Github?!? Who are these people? I had to argue with my district IT to get them to unblock Twitch so the team could watch other competitions from school, but they’ve never blocked something like that. This sounds like a very unreasonable set of It folks. Maybe appealing to the school board, especially with parent support at a public meeting (or better yet with parents leading the charge), could have some effect?

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That is what I had assumed. However, I forgot that all the WPILIB pieces were also hosted on Hit. I asked about size because it is very relevant to the hotspot. If you have access to 5G (TBH I am not certain it is a thing anywhere as it certainly is not where I am yet), that may be a good route because there will be tines that either a) you will need to download all the images ahead of time, or b) you will need a lot of bandwidth on that hotspot.

My guess is you may need to add Twitch to that list as well now that I think about it.
Another option may be to get a mentor who is a teacher. They may have better access.

Another thought may be to see if anyone has unlimited data and hotspot capabilities on their phone as is. It would probably be best if they were a mentor just as a level of security (there could be some awkward situations using a member’s phone as a hotspot).

If you have personal devices on the school network (which it sounds like you do), a raspberry pi sitting on your home network can run a VPN/Proxy that probably wont be blocked by the school’s filters (at least not initially).

They do not…

That’s why I (a mentor) am looking at getting a hotspot. My phone is TracFone so there isn’t any such option to add onto my current phone service unfortunately…

Oh they’ve done some interesting things recently to just completely shut down all OpenVPN and Wireguard connections. I won’t go into how I know.

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Dang. Sysadmins like that drive me nuts.

Unfortunately, it appears that it is possible that some of the IT people at one of my previous jobs went to work at your school district. They somehow forgot that their department was overhead in the company and put in place all sorts of things that made it easier for them to do their job but got in the way of the people who actually generated the revenue that made their paychecks possible.

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Who do you have “on your side” at the school? School admin, district admin, one teacher, janitors?

If you’ve got an admin on your side, and they like having the team representing the school, point 'em to R701 and R901, and then mention that because these versions are hosted on Github, which IT has blocked completely, you will have major difficulty in being legal to compete–and because that version number can change midseason, it’s not just a one-time thing. See if they can work out an agreement with IT–and the computer science teachers–to allow specific devices to access Github.

Why the computer science teachers, you ask? Well, I’d bet a small amount that one or more of them know about Github, and don’t want their students just going there and pulling code that happens to do what the assignment is. If I’m right, then there’s a legitimate educational purpose for that block, and y’all are just civilian casualties–so if you can prove there’s a legitimate educational purpose to NOT have the block, then you’ve got a better chance of getting an exception.

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A lot of good advice and helpful speculation in the thread already, little that I’d disagree with. One thing to point out:

I think I’d tend to agree. Go in assuming 100% of what you’re doing is A) stopgap to keep your team moving and B) an attempt to get the attention of the people who can help you.

Be ready to show them around the shop during a meeting, sell them on how cool the thing you’re doing is, be super friendly and make friends, have a reasonable and concrete list of requirements (websites required, PC’s involved, etc) so they can walk away with something actionable, give them your contact info and be prompt whenever they have questions or issues, roll back anything they have an legit concern about ASAP, etc.

If doing all that doesn’t work, you were SOL anyway.

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I found the Mobile Internet Resource Center (particularly their data plan reviews and hotspot reviews) quite helpful for understanding the available options and caveats a few years ago when a family member asked for help selecting a hotspot and data plan for use has her primary Internet connection. MIRC’s RV-related considerations didn’t apply to her, and probably don’t apply to you, but the rest of the content was spot on.

In my case, we ended up with T-Mobile prepaid. The service has been reliable, although the account management web site is sometimes strangely half-broken. (Though usually after encountering an error, clicking back and re-clicking the link you want will fix the glitch.)

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time building hotspot-like devices for a lot of applications.

I can generally say that AT&T prepaid is the most robust in terms of quality of connection where I live and have been testing (mid-Atlantic USA), but most of that is completely dependent on the cellular survey of your area. OpenSignal’s app will generally help with that for your location.

There are some plans out there from Google Fi and T-mobile that will even give you the hotspot device for free, so if any of their networks are in your site survey that’s the most economical option.

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Hehe, a bit on the “not safe side” but hear me out-

We repurposed an old FRC Radio and found that you can load a different firmware onto it to turn it into an access point. We then plugged it into our schools ethernet ports in the wall which already had PoE and got “unrestricted” access to our schools network. Sites that are universally blocked still dont appear until we use our server vpn (DigitalOcean VPS running free Cloudron with Wordpress and Openvpn installed), but any devices can get past their MAC Address filtering. We’ve been doing it for 5 years now and IT Admins haven’t called us out on it!

Help Center I think this is what we used*

I won’t go far into how I know, but it may or may not have had something to do with this contraption.