Home Wireless Networking…

Our new apartment has a nice layout, but with regards to home wi-fi, there are a few key differences from our old place:

  • There are many more neighbors here who are also using wireless networks. They’re also closer to us than in our old place.
  • The construction of the building itself may be contributing to the reception problem.
  • The signal from our main access point is passing through a few walls. In our old place, it just had to go through a ceiling to get to our PCs.

The end result of all of this is that, in our home office, the wi-fi reception has been a bit dicey ever since we moved in. It would work, but the signal would occasionally drop out, or the response time would not be as good as I would like. With Battlefield 3‘s beta starting soon, I didn’t want to take any chances with a problematic network connection. I finally had a chance to do some tinkering and try and find a good solution to this problem, using components and parts that I already had laying around.

The first thing I tried was to set up a WDS (Wireless Distribution System), with a wireless router (my old Buffalo WBR2-G54) connecting wirelessly to my Asus RT-N16, which was situated in a hallway. The RT-N16 had better, unobstructed line of sight to the computers in the home office. The WBR2-G54 was running Tomato, and the RT-N16 was running Tomato USB. The conventional wisdom is basically that for WDS to work reliably/at all, the same hardware (or same wireless chipsets) must be used on all nodes. I can now report that the conventional wisdom seems to be true — I was able to connect using WDS, but not reliably. One minute, the network would be working very well, with strong reception between my office PC and the access point in the hallway, and good transfer rates. The next, it would be completely kaput, with a reboot of the router seemingly necessary to get it to respond at all.

The next thing I tried was to flash both of my routers with DD-WRT, and then try out its repeater bridge mode. This would purportedly allow me to have two separate access points, with the one in the hallway set to use the other one as its gateway, and with all machines on both sides of the network on the same subnet. This sounds nice in theory — however, I wasn’t able to get it to work, and the tools and documentation available for troubleshooting in DD-WRT are somewhat minimal. I double-checked all of the setup instructions on the DD-WRT Wiki, but didn’t have much success — I could connect to each access point separately, but the bridging didn’t seem like it was working reliably.

At this point, I was seriously considering just running some cable from the main access point in the living room to the hallway, and hooking the RT-N16 up there. It might be a bit ugly, but it would definitely work, and the interference problems would go away since the line of sight from PC to the access point would be much more direct and unobstructed. Some new Cat-6 and some cable covers, and everything would be golden…

Finally, I decided to try the basic repeater mode in DD-WRT. I also shelved the idea of using both the Buffalo and Asus wireless routers in this — I just set up the RT-N16 to repeat the signal of the main access point in my place. I also moved the Asus from the hallway to inside the office, in a place that may have clearer line of sight and less interference to the main access point in the living room. (The Asus is sitting near a window, which is across from a single exterior wall, behind which lies the main access point.) Once I straightened out all the little differences in setup (ensuring that the Asus was set to mixed B/G mode instead of B/G/N, due to the limitations of the main access point, ensuring that the wireless security settings matched, etc.), it all just started working. Devices in my living room can talk with those in my office, and the connection seems reliable and steady.

I could probably go back to using Tomato USB instead of DD-WRT, but at this point, now that it’s working well enough, I don’t want to mess with it for awhile. Maybe later down the line I will add another wireless-N router near my main (802.11g) access point, and see if repeating that signal will improve performance, but for right now I’m just happy to have nice reliable wireless networking going for my main PCs once again.

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