Wi-Fi dead zones: Extending your home Wi-Fi network

Wi-Fi dead zones: Extending your home Wi-Fi network

Summary: If you need to extend your home wifi coverage, examine all of your options before deciding. The first choice isn't always the best one.

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One of the major difficulties in setting up wifi networking in your home is the lack of signal strength in some areas. The weak signal could be a result of multiple walls in between the location and the wireless router, or the distance is too great, or there is interference from appliances, cordless phones, and other wifi routers in the area.

Sometimes the solution to wifi dead zones is to set up additional routers in these areas. But then the question becomes, "How do I connect these wireless routers together?" After all, you can set up a second router, but how does it access your internet connection and provide access to the rest of the devices on your network?

Sometimes you can get away with just using a wifi repeater from the same manufacturer as your wifi router. Or you can try what I did, which was get a second identical refurbished router and install dd-wrt on it. For those of you not familiar with dd-wrt, it is a firmware replacement for consumer routers, such as my Cisco Linksys WRT400N.

The concept here is simple: you use the wireless distribution capabilities provided by dd-wrt to create a wireless bridge between the two routers. One acts as a primary, and additional routers act as remote stations. The configuration isn't simple, but that didn't deter me since it's normally my job to handle complex configurations so the users don't have to deal with it.

Unfortunately the results were less than stellar. Initial connectivity worked great. File transfer speeds were greatly reduced--to one quarter of my normal internet connection--and with each massing minute they continued to degrade until the wifi bridge shut down entirely. Rebooting fixed it temporarily, but then it would repeat the failure.

It's my thought that the particular routers I have, which are based on the Atheros network chipset, were the reason for the failure. For one thing, the dd-wrt guides for my particular router say that this model isn't very cooperative with distributed wifi bridging, that it requires a special configuration for the wifi connection and it was not recommended that they be used in such a manner. However, Broadcom-based routers are a lot more reliable and recommended. Your mileage may vary.

Some homeowners have the option of installing ethernet cabling in their homes and putting an outlet in each room. If I had that kind of wiring in my apartment it would have been a non-issue. But I don't, so I had to consider other alternatives.

I had heard about powerline networking before, but always passed it off as a novelty. When it first came out, it was slow, prone to failure and not supported by major networking and technology device manufacturers.

After resigning myself to not being able to have wifi in my home office, and thereby a place to write my articles, I revisited the option after several people recommended it. I figured if it didn't work I could simply return the kit for a refund and write about my travails here on ZDnet.

A couple of things to consider about powerline networking. For one, you cannot plug the devices into a surge protector. The signals they send through your home wiring actually get filtered out. Also, do not share the outlet with any appliances such as an air conditioner, microwave or vacuum cleaner, as the use of such will drown out the signal on the power lines.

Old wiring in a building can be problematic, since corrosion can kill the signal strength. If the devices have to cross multiple circuits in your home, there's a chance that the signal can get cut off. Modern wiring, however, tends to negate much of this.

I spent several hours shopping for various starter kits. A typical powerline starter kit will come with two plug-in devices and ethernet cables. I was happy to see that there were plenty of devices available that had good ratings, but I also paid attention to the negative ratings. I wanted to make sure that if something did go wrong, it was important that it wasn't a show-stopper.

Eventually I settled on the Logitech HD Powerline 200a Starter Kit. It's not the cheapest solution available, but it was a name brand I recognized and trusted, the instructions online looked simple enough for any non-techie to follow, and the reviews were mostly positive. Setup really was a breeze. I plugged one device into an outlet near the primary router, and connected the two with one of the provided ethernet cables. Then I repeated the process in the back bedroom with the second router. I configured the second router to match the configuration of the primary, except for using different wifi channels and a different SSID so they would not overlap, and had it point to the primary router as the DHCP server and gateway.

I would like to tell a long, convoluted story about how I conquered insurmountable odds to succeed in my quest, but the fact is that this thing just worked. The network connection simply activated immediately, and I was able to connect to the wifi router in the back bedroom and access the internet without a single hiccup.

Even better was the transfer speed. My internet connection is around 30mbit down and 6mbit up when I am connected via wifi to the primary router. When using the secondary router, my internet speed was about 27mbit down and 5mbit up.

The powerline adapters are rated at a 200mbit connection, and the Powerline Network Utility software I downloaded from Logitech showed I was achieving 188-190mbit. If I had any concerns about the wiring in my apartment, they were now gone.

Some folks that are concerned about security can use the free Logitech software to configure passwords on each device, and lock out portions of the network if they choose. If you are just doing this in your single home or apartment and don't have to worry about bad roommates, then there's really no need to enable password encryption on your powerline adapters. The signal isn't wireless so it can't be picked up over the airwaves.

I was really skeptical about powerline before I attempted this; I'm a true believer now. You can have up to 16 powerline devices with the Logitech series, although I can't imagine any home user needing that many. This is an excellent way to extend your existing network and I would recommend it to anyone that needs to expand the coverage in their home.

Topics: Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

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52 comments
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  • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

    I tried this with the Netgear product a few years ago. It worked great in the beginning, but because the units couldn't go behind a surge protector, I had to replace one end almost annually. I gave up fished cat5e. Hopefully, they have improved the internal protection since then.
    rksand
  • DD_WRT FTW

    Bought a used Router for $10, installed DD-WRT on both routers, set it up as a repeater. Works great!

    I also set up a guest network that can get to the internet but not see my personal computers and even a open SSID that routes people that are looking for a free open WiFi connection to a web page that warns them their information has been logged and stealing WiFi is illegal. Any Page they try to go to gets redirected to that. Of course I am not logging anything I just like to mess with people.
    bobiroc
    • Message has been deleted.

      ParsonsJon
      • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

        @ParsonsJon
        Why is this here, it's spam?
        Walthy
    • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

      @bobiroc I need to set up a guest network. How difficult was it? Of course, I could make Scott come to my house and do it for me!
      loooney2ns
      • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

        @loooney2ns

        It depends on your router. Some newer routers have that ability built in using the stock firmware from the manufacturer so if you have one of those the steps would vary depending on brand and model.

        Now if you are going to install and set up something like DD-WRT you need to have a compatible router as not all routers can run DD-WRT. Here is a list of supported routers for DD-WRT:

        http://www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/Supported_Devices

        From that it depends on your level of tech experience and the DD-WRT website has plenty of nice tech documentation and a forum of users that seem very helpful. When I was setting up my first DD-WRT I was a bit unsure of what to do and found the information on that site relatively easy to follow but I am an IT guy so it may be a foreign language to some.
        bobiroc
    • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

      @bobiroc
      That's not very nice!
      kstap
      • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

        @kris_stapley@...

        I know.. I got sick of people trying to access my WiFi in my neighborhood. I would get alerts that some people were trying to break in or guess the password so that is why I did that. Just trying to remind them that what they are doing is illegal and let them know that I know that they are out there trying. Its not like I am sending them to a bad site or trying to harm them or their computer in any way. I am not that evil.... Or am I? Muahahahaha!!
        bobiroc
  • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

    I bought a Pepwave Surf Mini a year ago and used it to extend my wifi. It can be used to receive a wifi signal and re-broadcast it. Seems to me it has more power than the usual wifi transmitters too. You can even set it up with an iphone.
    Dave.57
  • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

    Little effective solution to either Cat 5 or Powerline adapters. Both are relatively easy, even the Cat 5 with the right crimping tool. Hiding Cat 5 cabling is a doddle.

    Wireless bridging to extend the range is a frustrating waste of time, esp. to the untechnical.

    If you have a wired desktop in the house, adding a wireless USB adapter and some free software like Virtual Router is another way to leverage your existing infrastructure.

    My dead-spot is the patio our conservatory is on - just on the edge or WiFi reach - it comes and goes.
    neilpost
  • Great Products

    I have use about 4 linksys models in houses built with very thick (3 ft) coralstone walls (in the Caribbean). The walls stopped the WiFi like a champ. Solution - power line adapters. No CAT5 required - and imagine trying to get that through the 3ft walls!!!
    BajanMike
  • Netgear WN2000RPT range extender

    I recently moved and had the same problem. The local Best Buy had the Netgear WN2000RPT in stock, but the sales guy said most of them were being returned. It was the only immediate option so I tried it.

    Instructions were limited, but the setup was easy enough. Performance was great with virtually the same speed as the primary WiFi network. This worked great for about two days. After that the box required daily rebooting and finally died completely after two weeks.

    Best Buy exchanged it without question and the replacement has been working perfectly for about two weeks now. It's possible that the replacement is an upgraded model - it was shipped with the current firmware release, where my original had an older firmware out of the box.
    anonymous
    • Re: Netgear WN2000RPT range extender

      @rstoeber I got one of these for my living room, so I could connect my Blueray and Tivo without buying device-specific Wifi adapters. I've tested the extended Wifi and I can't tell a difference from connecting directly to my router. The only down-side I've found is that it creates a 2nd SSID for the extension.
      dougsyo@...
  • A tip to save $$$

    I live in a very long apartment @100' end to end. I put my wireless router in the middle room, and as expected, when I moved the router away from the window to the opposite wall and that gave a fair wi-fi signal in one end where previously there was no reception. So, I recommend trying different placements before investing in new hardware.
    mark16_15@...
    • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

      I agree. The solution can be as simple as location, location, location. I live in a 4500 sq ft three story home and found that by placing a single wireless access point in a centrally located room on the second floor I get very good coverage throughout the house. It did involve running a single Cat5 cable from my router to the AP but it allows streaming audio and video from anywhere in the house. I also have wireless printservers on the first and third floors that run fine on the same network. The AP is an "ancient" 802.11g D-link model circa 2005.
      rpcohen
  • Message has been deleted.

    fr_gough
    • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

      @fr_gough

      We had this setup for some time here at work (except using two Airport Extreme units). The issue we had is the incredibly high latency - a ping to the server inside the building (i.e. still on the same LAN and subnet) was over 450ms.

      Most wireless extension networking of this nature inherently requires a store-and-forward approach to packet transmission. For some people, this is fine. For others it can be challenging.

      Also, Scott indicated that he installed DD-WRT on a Linksys router. I know people who have had success with that setup, but also note that Buffalo makes some pretty good routers that come out of the box with DD-WRT without any hacks or mods required.

      Joey
      voyager529
    • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

      @fr_gough I tried that at one point with my Time Capsule and an AirPort Extreme (both dual-band simultaneous models), and ended up doing a wired connection from one device to the other (with Cat6) instead since connectivity was low. I just wish someone made a wired switch that matches Apple's Time Capsule, but an 8-port Linksys gigabit switch does the job just fine.
      Champ_Kind
  • additional routers as "peers"

    With each router having it's own SSID, systems in the building on different segments will not be able to communicate with one another. eg if you have a printer in an office and connect to a secodary wifi network, you can't see that printer.

    The better way to do all this is run cable to the additional router)s) or use the main power lines as you describe, and plug the wire into one of the regular peer (LAN) ports, NOT the "WAN" port.

    Before doing this, go into the router's configs and turn of it's DHCP server. No need to install dd-wrt or the like.

    With the wifi router plugged in as a peer on the primary network, any client that asks the router for an address will be passed along back to the primary router, firewall or what have you. All devices will be on one subnet. (one LAN)

    It's basically like a repeater but with a hard wired connection back to the sole DHCP server at the location. Much easier, and in my opinion more functional that having numerous, isolated networks.
    pgit
  • RE: Wifi dead zones: Extending your home wifi network

    Road Runner modem in basement at primary computer. Lots of dead spots upstairs. Set up a Netgear "N" router on 12 foot cable -straight up stairwell. Now can laptop for 100 feet in all directions... even on hammock in back yard.
    @ rksand - Yes they are better ... 3 years running with no glitches at all.
    curiousgeorge1940