Oct 2013

Extending My WiFi Network - A Breakthrough

I’ve had WiFi in my house ever since we moved in. First there was the regular WiFi built in to the Verizon FiOS router/modem combo unit, which was OK, but it soon became apparent that this would not be sufficient to cover the whole home. There are 4 levels from the basement up to my office and no way would the signal from the base station on the top floor reach all the way down to the basement, or even the ground floor.

The solution? Extend the WiFi signal using some kind of repeater or similar technology.

Replicating WiFi signals using wireless repeaters (or access points set to extend mode) is like the old game of Chinese Whispers. You start off with a good signal and at the point where it starts to taper off you install a wireless repeater that picks up that signal and re-broadcasts it. That signal in turn is picked up by the next distant repeater and so on and so forth. The problem is that the signal degrades at each point, but more importantly due to the nature of how most of them work the wireless repeaters basically half your bandwidth at each point. You end up with an unreliable network with a fraction of your potential full bandwidth.

This is not a good solution.

The alternative is to extend your wireless network through wired means. This may sound silly -- why would you even use WiFi if you had wired connections available? But think iPads, iPhones, laptops with no Ethernet connector and other mobile technology. You need WiFi.

Utilizing wired connections would usually entail running lengths of Ethernet cable down through the wall spaces. If this is feasible you would then attach additional wireless access points (WAPs) where the cables emerge, the other end connected directly to your router or through a switch. These access points should be configured using the exact same parameters (same technology [A/B/G/N], same SSID, same security settings etc) as the primary one. In theory then you’re good to go.

For most people, me included, running cables through walls and floors is impractical though. I needed another way to “wire” my house.

The solution? Powerline adapters, also known as HomePlug devices.

Now I’d always considered any device that attempted to push network traffic over your home’s electrical circuits to be absolutely last resort and unreliable and slow at best. That may have been the case many years ago but I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that things have come a long way in recent years with this technology. NetGear amongst others sell some really good Powerline equipment. You plug one in to an electrical outlet near your primary router, connecting it to that router with an Ethernet cable. At distant locations in your house you plug other adapters in where you need network access and you essentially then have the ability to plug a network cable in at that point and connect on up to your main router, wired fashion.

So now I had networked my home, extending the wired network using Powerline adapters. All I needed to do to extend WiFi throughout the house was to, as previously mentioned, attach additional wireless access points to the adapters where I most needed them. Set each one up with identical parameters to the main base station and we’re done.

I thought I’d figured it out. I thought I had it all working. I had a nice Apple AirPort Extreme acting as the primary WiFi base station plugged in to my Verizon router/modem combo. The AirPort Extreme was set to work in bridged mode to avoid any double NAT issues. I then had a number of Apple AirPort Express WiFi access points plugged in to the Powerline adapters and carefully configured identically.

I was happy. It all seemed to work OK.

Frequently however, I experienced really poor network connectivity, specifically on the iPads and iPhones when streaming video for example. I’d read horror stories of issues with Verizon FiOS and YouTube, Verizon’s home router/modems and Google’s Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and put it down to any of those possibly being the problem. But my other non-WiFi hard-wired systems at home didn’t seem to suffer from these issues. Perhaps it was the AirPort Expresses acting up, or maybe the combination of access points and Powerline adapters. Or maybe it was just the Powerline adapters themselves being unreliable after all. Maybe I’d been too hasty in my endorsement of them. But I never really took the time to fully investigate what the cause of the poor performance was.

Eventually I became annoyed at the inability of the iDevices to reliably stream video over WiFi and took another look at the WiFi access points.

All of them were identically configured, the same as the AirPort Extreme primary base station. All of them were set to use “automatic” radio channel selection so that shouldn’t be an issue, right? I mean … “automatic” I would assume to mean something like ”look to see how busy the channel is that I’m trying to use and if it’s too busy use another one”. At least that was my naive interpretation of how I thought it may work.

Out of desperation and recalling mentions of channel interference between WiFi devices and other household appliances I changed all of the WiFi access points to have individual unique manually selected radio channels.

And you know what? BINGO. Super speed, super reliable connectivity!

So may takeaway on all of this is that perhaps in my home, my wireless access points were just far enough apart that maybe they didn’t “see” one another most of the time and so the automatic channel selection chose the same common channel, but when I was somewhere in the house inbetween points my connection was unknowingly trying to fix on to what it thought was a single signal from one device but was instead rapidly bouncing around from one device to another in a desperate attempt to gain the best connection.

Bottom line -- don’t trust automatic channel selection and instead manually select unique individual spaced-apart channels for each wireless access point.