Wi-Fi tweaks for speed freaks

How to get the most speed and reach out of your wireless network.

Repeaters: Taking it outside

Now that my home and office are bathed in Wi-Fi, what about the patio? One of the best ways to coax Wi-Fi into new places is to retransmit the signal. It generally works, but the setup and configuration are a little more complicated than just playing around with antennas and signal boosters.

Manufacturers use different terms for their devices, but extenders, bridges, expanders and repeaters all do essentially the same thing: send the signal into new parts of your building (or outside it). For instance, the Linksys WRE54G range expander (US$80) receives the router's signal and retransmits it with the full power of an access point.

Placement is critical. Unfortunately, my first choice, right by the back door to the patio, was out of range of the router. As a result, the configuration software couldn't find the device.

I moved it closer to the router, and the software went through its configuration sequence without a problem. After I entered my network's details, the repeater started sending the signal an extra 150 feet into my yard.

Repeaters can be frustrating to use if you let the router pick its IP address. The device will need to be restarted fairly often. My advice is to give the repeater a static IP address using the router's setup screens. To avoid IP conflicts, pick an address that's not likely to be used; my favorite is 192.168.1.240.

Another approach is to use a powerline repeater, which sends the data over the building's AC power lines and then broadcasts a fresh signal. These systems have two parts: a sender, which plugs into a network port of your router and a nearby AC outlet, and a receiver that plugs into an outlet where you need the Wi-Fi signal broadcast. In other words, the systems use a combination of Ethernet cable (from the router to the powerline sender), AC wires (from the sender to the receiver) and Wi-Fi (from the receiver to the remote computer).

Like wireless repeaters, powerline repeaters won't work everywhere. Because they rely on the HomePlug AV standard, communication between the sender and receiver is limited to about 200 feet of behind-the-wall electrical wiring. The result is that, particularly for old buildings, rooms that are on different circuits might not be able to communicate.

It's also important that the sender and receiver are plugged directly into their respective AC outlets, because surge suppressors can interfere with putting the data cleanly onto and taking it off of the power line.

I tested Netgear's WGXB102 (US$130 for the kit). Rather than coming with Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) automatic IP addressing enabled, the WGXB102 comes set up with the static address of 192.168.1.121, which should be just fine for most users. Just change the configuration to your network name and security settings, and it's ready.

Well, almost. I tried plugging the receiver into the same outlet that worked for the Linksys wireless repeater, but it was a nonstarter. Ironically, the outlet closer to the back door and farther from the router worked just fine. It turns out that while the outlet next to the router and the one by the back door are on different floors, they share the same circuit breaker and are able to connect cleanly, extending my network an additional 175 feet.

In my tests, the powerline extender gave me a slightly greater range but a slightly slower speed than the wireless extender, as shown below.

Note that the data throughput is slower outside than inside the house. For one thing, the directional antennas and amp are set up for maximum effect inside the building, not outside. We're also now quite far from the router, and you lose some bandwidth by running the data through an extender. Using the Hawking 300N radio client, which clips right onto the notebook, helps a bit, but you still won't see the kind of speeds you do indoors.

Warning: There's a dark side to extending a network. Now that the wireless signal extends past my physical home or office, I'm more vulnerable to a rogue hacker stealing my bandwidth or -- worse -- taking over my network. It's doubly important to use the router's security abilities to their fullest.

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)
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