Hands-on: Solving my home network problem

Mix wired and wireless networking in a four-floor home, add a lot of inertia to be overcome, and you get a rather interesting case study.

Sometimes I deviate from my usual hands-on Linux blogposts for a new kit write-up, or some first-hand problem solving experience. This post is one from that last category — nothing at all to do specifically with Linux, just a description of a long-standing problem in my own home, and how I finally solved it. And as is all too often the case, the most difficult step in solving the problem was not a technical issue, it was overcoming a lot of inertia and prejudice.

First some history. My house is now about 15 years old. That means when it was built, wireless networking was very new and very limited. The house is four floors, from the entry/basement to the loft where my office was originally located. It is specifically wired so that the phone lines, where the internet router needs to be located, are in the loft. That gave me convenient access to the equipment, and I had empty pipes in the walls running from my office to each of the other rooms in the house.

I suppose that all sounds very quaint in this age of wireless networking, but at the time the house was built it was the best and most practical solution. Over the years, as I needed to add more network connectivity to various parts of the house, I initially tried using some of the earliest power line networking adapters, and found them to be difficult and unreliable in terms of setup, reliability and speed.

Once I started using wireless networking, I tried quite a few different wireless routers, concentrating specifically on units that were supposed to have very good range, and at the same time trying various wireless network adapters which were also supposed to have good range, in both desktop and laptop systems. I recall one in particular which had an antenna array which looked like a helmet from The Lord of the Rings.

I also tried one or two early "wireless repeaters", and I was never satisfied with them either. Again, I found them to be difficult or tedious to set up, nowhere near as reliable as I thought they should be, and generally disappointing.

Over the years, wireless networking technology improved to the point that it was just about good enough for my needs. The signal was strong enough on the ground floor that it was usually not a problem to get connected, but speed was not great, and there were still occasionally problems with losing the connection.

Add to all of this the fact that my WPA2 key is obscenely long, because when I originally set it up Windows insisted on setting the password itself, and once that was defined and copied to a file on a USB stick then inertia took over. It was never worth the trouble for me to change it on all of my equipment, I could copy/paste it from the stick for new equipment, and when various teenagers were visiting and wanted to connect their mobile devices, I was able to ignore their protests as they typed in the very long hex string to get connected. (Hmmm: maybe that explains why a lot of the kids think that I am an eccentric, cranky old man...)

Of course I have heard from friends that powerline networking equipment has got a lot better, a lot simpler and a lot more reliable. So last week I finally decided to try to solve these problems again. I was not terribly optimistic at the outset, but it turned out to be a lot easier than I had thought, or at least feared.

Zyxel 1232
Zyxel Powerline-WLAN Kit

After looking around on the web for a while, and then going to a local electronic shop, I settled on a Zyxel Powerline-WLAN Adapter Kit. This actually includes two devices. One is a simple wired-network-to-powerline adapter (PLA4201), which I connected to the internet router in the loft and then plugged into the wall socket. The other is a powerline-to-wired-and-wireless adapter (PLA4231), which I plugged into a wall socket in the living room.

The PLA4231 has two 10/100 wired network connections, and it has a wireless extender which can either be configured as a repeater for an existing wireless setup, or can be manually configured with its own unique SSID.

Installation was dead easy. For the wired network I did nothing at all, just plugged the two adapters into the wall sockets and gave them a minute or so to recognise each other and configure themselves. I had a very simple test — the adapter in the loft had a wired connection to the internet router, and the adapter in the living room had a wired connection to a Logitech Squeeze Box. The stereo set was on and ready to play, and about a minute after I plugged them in, I got music! Hooray!

Wireless configuration took slightly more effort, but that was only because I wanted to solve the second problem (WPA2 key) at the same time. If you have a WPS-compatible wireless router, and you are happy to set up the Zyxel as a simple wireless repeater, the wireless setup will be just about as easy as wired was. Because I wanted to create a new wireless network, I had to connect a laptop directly to the PLA4231, and then go through a couple of steps to define the SSID and WPA2 Key. That took less than five minutes, though, and it was really very easy.

So, for an investment of about CHF 100, and less than an hour of work including unpacking, reading what little documentation was included, and actually plugging in, connecting and configuring everything, I have now solved a couple of long-standing problems. 

As I said in the beginning, inertia is a very strong force. I should have done this a long time ago, but "good enough" won out over the effort and uncertainty of trying to make it better for too long. If you have any kind of similar situation, and you have been putting off doing something about it, I would strongly encourage you to stop procrastinating, stop hiding behind things that didn't work or weren't reliable the last time you tried them (probably a long time ago), and give it a shot.

Not only has technology improved a lot, but prices have come down substantially at the same time, so the cost of trying this is not large. My partner and lots of our friends and house guests are going to be really pleased that I did this. My only regret is that I didn't try it sooner.

Further reading