April 19, 2007


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Expand your wireless network
You need more radio waves through your head
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Boy, wireless networks are awesome, aren’t they?

You can grab your laptop, handheld game system or WiFi-equipped music player and roam wherever you want, still connected to the precious, precious Internet.

That is, if the signal is strong enough. All too often, your wireless router or access point is connected to your DSL or cable modem, which has to be right next to the cable or phone jack. That might not be optimum placement for consistent wireless coverage within your domicile.

You can always run a long cable to your access point and place it where you want, but that just moves the problem. What you really want is to make your wireless network cover more area in total. Are there ways to do that? You betcha.

• Bigger antennas: This might be a duh, but something as simple as attaching a bigger antenna to your router or access point can increase its range significantly. See, vendors include pretty much the cheapest, lamest antennas they can in the boxes with their home wireless equipment. They’re adequate for most people, but if your connection is in your basement or if you want to use your laptop in the gazebo down the enchanted wooded glade in your back yard, they might not do the job.

Better antennas start pretty cheap — under $10 online. Make sure you’re getting one with the right connector, though. Linksys and Cisco devices generally use what’s called a TNC connector, while other brands use SMA.

• Reflectors: Startech makes something they call a signal reflector, which you drop on your existing antenna to direct the signal. It’s essentially a right angle, so signal that would normally broadcast in 360 degrees instead gets concentrated in just 90 degrees. If it works, and I haven’t had any personal experience with this thing, you should get quadruple the signal strength and double the range. If your router or access point is in one corner of your home, it might be worth a try.

• Extra access points: Another duh, perhaps, but connecting more access points will expand your network’s coverage. Each access point will have to be wired to your first one, though, so unless you have a huge area to cover and an easy way to wire it all, it’s not quite practical.

• Repeaters: These are basically extra access points that don’t need to be physically wired to your original connection. Some routers have a repeater or extender mode, so if you have an extra router lying around, you might already be in business. Some people will tell you that repeaters cut your network’s bandwidth in half, since the radio has to both receive and transmit. That’s true, but modern 802.11g wireless networks transmit at 54Mbps, and even the fastest broadband access tops out at around 8Mbps, with 16Mbps the next big upgrade. Communication between computers on your network might not be as fast as it could be, but your connection to the outside world won’t be affected — other than to, you know, exist, since without the repeater you couldn’t connect, remember?

You can also try hacking up a repeater out of two routers, if you have a graveyard of them like me. Make sure one supports “client mode” and configure it to receive the signal from your main access point. Plug that into your second spare router’s WAN port and voila, a repeater. It might take some experimentation with settings, but you’ll feel like an ubergeek afterward.

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