Wi-Fi for Dummies

You want a home wireless network, but you’re afraid it won’t work. Here’s how to do it right.

Wireless networking is the best thing to happen to the Internet since the browser, but whoever came up with it should have tested it at home first. The current crop of 802.11 gear (colloquially known as “Wi-Fi,” even when that’s not technically correct) can reach through a room or two, but many homeowners find it’s not enough to cover the entire house and yard. Wi-Fi uses a microwave radio signal to reach through walls, floors, and ceilings, just like a cordless phone. But these obstacles also dampen the signal just as they do with the phone. The advertised range for Wi-Fi is 150 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors, but in real life it often fails to reach from the kitchen to the living room, or upstairs to the bedroom.

Determined to exercise my inalienable right as an American to surf the Web from the swimming pool, I enlisted a Wi-Fi engineer who also owns a sprawling suburban home to make my system work. Our mission: Blanket the entire property with Wi-Fi, using only off-the-shelf consumer hardware and without running more cables. That meant setting up multiple Wi-Fi bases (“access points,” as they’re called) linked back to a single DSL line. Furthermore, we decided our access points all had to be the same model of hardware, rather than mixing one kind of central base station with different satellite units as we had seen some techie friends do. As a final restriction, our chosen gear had to be mass-market consumer hardware, not something sold to the “enterprise” niche of office IT professionals. That way, we could send homeowners to the mall with only one model of gadget to purchase, one for which they could find ample customer support. They could start with one, then keep adding more of them until they covered the whole house.

The only product that met our needs was Apple’s AirPort Extreme base station. At $199 for the entry-level model, it’s a bit pricier than most other home Wi-Fi bases, but it has all the right stuff for our project: It’s sold to the home consumer market. It’s designed to serve as home firewall and router as well as wireless access point. Most important, it’s the only home consumer base that flaunts its support for the Wireless Distribution System, which knits multiple access points together to act as a single network. An AirPort base plugged into the DSL or cable modem can bridge to up to four additional AirPorts, nearly doubling the network’s wireless reach in four directions at once. Even better, the method lets you put an AirPort right in the room with you, rather than trying to beam the connection through a wall. This approach vastly reduces the amount of squirming in your seat required before your laptop will pick up enough signal from the other room.

There’s only one major caveat on the AirPort: You’ll need a Mac to configure it. Since you’ll only need to do this once, though, it’s not a big problem. Only a small percentage of us own an Apple computer, but we all know someone who does and never stops reminding us. Not only will your Mac Buddy come over and set up your AirPorts, he’ll be hurt if you don’t let him. Go ahead, ask him and see. [Update, June 23, 2003: Apple now offers free software to configure the AirPort Extreme from a Windows 2000 or Windows XP computer. Download it here.]

To start, buy just one AirPort Extreme base, the $249 version that includes an antenna connector and a phone jack for dialup service in the event your broadband line ever goes out of service. You may never need an antenna, but it’s better to have the option. Set the AirPort up as close to the center of the house as possible, because wireless signal strength fades geometrically with distance. At twice as far away from the base, you’ll get only one-fourth the power. Position the base a few feet off the floor and away from metal cabinets or packed closets that might get in the way. Follow the instructions for configuring the AirPort (or let Mac Boy do it for you), then carry your laptop around the house to anywhere you can sit, as well as anywhere you stand while doing housework. It’s a sure bet that at some point, you’ll want to get online from there.

If the AirPort doesn’t reach everywhere you need it to, it’s time to start filling in the dead zones with additional AirPorts. The $199 version without antenna and phone jacks will do fine. Apple has a knowledge base entry that makes bridging multiple units easy.

Be sure to follow the instructions slowly and type in configuration numbers carefully. Unlike most computer setup operations, misconfiguring a wireless base can have dire consequences—including disabling all your wireless hardware. Jazzed on too much caffeine, we did this to ourselves and had to poke at the AirPorts’ factory reset buttons with a paper clip to start over from scratch.

The most important factor in Wi-Fi is location. Distance saps wireless strength, and so do most construction materials. Keep your base stations away from solid walls and doors, as well as any metal objects or computer equipment. Put them near windows or hollow walls instead. Our test home’s lightweight California stucco walls turned out to have impenetrable wire mesh inside them. To reach outside, we placed the unit in sight of a window facing the pool. Most home window glass is transparent to microwaves as well as light, so a window is better than a wall or a door.

We ended up with three AirPorts: One in the computer room plugged in to the DSL line, another mounted to the wall in the furnace closet (but placed above the heater for clearance), and a third in the rec room atop a PlayStation 2.

If you’re fortunate enough to live somewhere bigger, additional bases on upper and lower floors will stretch your network’s range. Apple sells two different models of antenna. The first costs $99 and flattens the AirPort’s spherical coverage pattern into a circular disk that reaches further horizontally, at the expense of vertical coverage to floors above or below. The other, a larger $149 device, focuses the signal into a flat beam for even longer runs across the yard to the guest house. Before you buy more hardware, though, it’s always worth moving the base station to a different spot, rotating it, or standing it on its side. The results may defy common sense, but go with what works.

Under our plan, blanketing your estate in Wi-Fi will cost at least $249 and could run to a thousand bucks or more for a castle in the Hamptons. But as with your first computer or first Internet connection, you’ll get a return on investment that can’t be counted in the household budget. The first time you dispose of a tedious backlog of e-mail while kicking back in your favorite lawn chair, you’ll know instantly your new network is worth every penny.

Webhead thanks Cliff Skolnick of Iron Systems.