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My desktop's PCI wireless card is always scanning for available wireless networks, but I only rarely use it. Can I keep the radio turned off until I need it?

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up vote 1 down vote accepted

There are at least two Upstart jobs that affect the default wireless state:

  • /etc/init/rfkill-restore.conf restores the soft block state for all radios to what they were at last shutdown, as recorded in /var/lib/rfkill/saved-state.
  • /etc/init/network-manager.conf starts Network Manager which in turn restores its idea of wireless state from /var/lib/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.state.

If you look at those two job configurations you will find that they have no temporal relationship, which seems like a design flaw to me. I'm guessing this race condition is rarely a problem because /etc/init/rfkill-restore.conf is much simpler and has fewer start conditions.

All the solutions to enforcing a wireless-off default that I've seen try to use /etc/rc.local, including the "modern" solution that @Lekensteyn and @rubo77 came up with. Unfortunately, that solution does not work for me on either of two laptops I have tried. This is not particularly surprising because /etc/rc.local also has no temporal relationship that I can find to either of /etc/init/rfkill-restore.conf and /etc/init/network-manager.conf. Throwing in a lengthy sleep in /etc/rc.local prior to issuing an rfkill block wifi is an ugly workaround for this race condition mess, but it works if the delay is long enough.

A better solution would be for us to impose our desired states in /var/lib/rfkill/saved-state and /var/lib/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.state before those two Upstart jobs are even permitted to run. We can achieve this by creating our own Upstart job. In actual fact, we'll need two job configuration files to achieve the timing we need.

Our first job configuration does the actual file modifications we need. It will run as early as possible and will only run once. Create /etc/init/radio-silence.conf with this content:

# radio-silence - Ensure radio silence on startup
# Override default startup behaviour of radios to ensure they are all
# disabled until the user deliberately enables them. This job requires
# radio-silence-wait to delay start of any services that may depend on
# resources manipulated by this job.

description "Disable all radios by default"

start on local-filesystems

pre-start script
  sed -i -re "s/^(.+[[:space:]]+)[01][[:space:]]*\$/\11/" /var/lib/rfkill/saved-state
  sed -i -re "s/^(WirelessEnabled=).*\$/\1false/" /var/lib/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.state
end script

As I prefer total radio silence when my laptop starts, I soft block all radios, not just wireless, but you can modify the first sed in the above to limit this job's impact to whichever wireless devices you wish to soft block.

Our second job configuration is responsible for ensuring that neither of the rfkill-restore and network-manager jobs will start before radio-silence has completed the file modifications. Create /etc/init/radio-silence-wait.conf as follows:

# radio-silence-wait - Helper task for radio-silence
# Delays the start of all jobs that may depend on resources manipulated
# by radio-silence job. Avoids the need to modify job configuration of
# those other jobs.

description "Assist radio-silence by delaying jobs it affects"

start on (starting rfkill-restore or starting network-manager)
stop on (started radio-silence or stopped radio-silence)

instance $JOB
normal exit 0 2

  status radio-silence | grep -q "start/running" && exit 0
  start radio-silence || true
  sleep infinity
end script

With this solution I am no longer seeing race condition problems, although I have not addressed the theoretical race between rfkill-restore and network-manager.

For more detail on how these jobs work together to achieve our temporal goal, refer to my question and answer, "How do I create a single-execution Upstart job guaranteed to complete before two other jobs begin?"

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"Modern" solution using Network Manager: simply uncheck the Wireless Enabled option at the Network Manager applet (KDE: Network Management). The command nmcli nm wifi off is equivalent. Continue reading if you sporadically enable Wi-Fi, but would like to revert it to disabled on reboot.

The wireless state is remembered in the file /var/lib/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.state. To disable Wi-Fi at boot, ensure that the key WirelessEnabled stays at false. You could do that by editing the init script of Network Manager, or by using the /etc/rc.local trick below. The command you need is:

sed s/^WirelessEnabled=true/WirelessEnabled=false/ -i /var/lib/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.state
rfkill block wifi

Put this before exit 0 (as described below). The rfkill block wifi command is still needed due to a race with startup of Network Manager (NM). Once NM has started, changes to the state file have no effect.

(old answer that involves editing file /etc/rc.local with an explanation of the rfkill command)

A bit hacky, but it should work. A wireless card can be disabled using the rfkill command. All devices used by rfkill can be shown using rfkill list. Sample output:

0: phy0: Wireless LAN
        Soft blocked: no
        Hard blocked: no

Hard blocked is dependend on a hardware setting, e.g. a wireless switch on a notebook. Soft blocked can be controlled by the OS (Ubuntu).

How does it work? It does not have a manpage, running rfkill provides a help text in this case:

Usage:  rfkill [options] command
        --version       show version (0.4)
        list [IDENTIFIER]
        block IDENTIFIER
        unblock IDENTIFIER
where IDENTIFIER is the index no. of an rfkill switch or one of:
        <idx> all wifi wlan bluetooth uwb ultrawideband wimax wwan gps fm

Ah, now we get somewhere. You need to run rfkill block wifi as root to disable the wireless device. (wlan is an alias of wifi, see the source code of rfkill).

Now, if you want to disable the wireless functions at boottime, add the command to /etc/rc.local by running sudo nano /etc/rc.local. Use the arrow keys / page up/down keys to navigate to the line before exit 0 and add rfkill block wifi, so that the file end like this:

# By default, this script does nothing

rfkill block wifi
exit 0

When finished, press Ctrl + X, then press Y to save it and press Enter to accept the filename.

If you decide to activate the device later, run: sudo rfkill unblock wifi. Do not forget to remove the line from /etc/rc.local if you decide to use the wireless card.

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Thanks. I don't understand why, but it looks like I don't need to use sudo for rfkill to work. – ændrük Feb 4 '11 at 14:16
You do not need sudo in /etc/rc.local as the script is run with root permissions. It's very unlikely you can disable wifi without root permissions. If I try rfkill block wifi or rfkill unblock wifi, I get "Can't open RFKILL control device: Permission denied". – Lekensteyn Feb 4 '11 at 20:41
On both my ThinkPad X60 and my desktop with a PCI wireless card, running $ rfkill block wifi causes the NetworkManager applet to display "Wireless is disabled" and $ iwconfig to display Tx-Power=off. $ rfkill unblock wifi undoes this effect. – ændrük Feb 13 '11 at 23:22
I solved it with a delay: It seems like in Ubuntu 14.04 you need to wait some seconds before you disable wifi in /etc/rc.local. Use this instead: /bin/sleep 10 && rfkill block wifi – rubo77 Jul 1 '14 at 19:06
@rubo77 Here (Arch Linux, Network Manager, there exists a /var/lib/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.state file which persists the settings, WirelessEnabled=false is one of those. I'll post in your question.. – Lekensteyn Jul 1 '14 at 19:30

The easiest way to disable your wireless card is to right-click on the NetworkManager indicator (small icon on top-right on the panel), and untick the Enable Wireless. This brings down (ifconfig wlan0 down) the interface and it does not perform scanning anymore.

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Checking this menu item does not affect the default behavior. The next time I turn on the computer, the wireless radio is active again. – ændrük Jan 31 '11 at 23:22
At my Ubuntu 14.04 it stays off as desired after a reboot if I turn it of in the network manager applet – rubo77 Jul 1 '14 at 15:42

Personally I use Jupiter the power management applet to disable the wireless on my laptop as it is controlled by a special button. I don't think is in the main repo I had to add a ppa from Andrew at Webupd8 to get it.

Hope this helps.

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You could add

ifconfig wlan0 down

to /etc/rc.local, but first,

ensure that, if you're using NetworkManager (I have version 0.8.4~git.20110319t175609.d14809b-0ubuntu3), you go to menu "Edit Connections" -> "Wireless" tab, click on the connection, click "Edit", and make sure that, in the "Wireless" tab, the "Connect Automatically" checkbox is NOT checked.

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While this will bring the interface down, it won't save as much power as disabling the radio using rfkill. – gertvdijk Feb 3 '13 at 20:48

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