Open Source Surfing

I recently replaced my old Linksys WRT-G wireless-g router with a new ASUS RT-N66U wireless n. I did this mostly to get some new features and better coverage as only a few of my devices support the newer n wifi standard. But the connection has been spotty on my new Dell Inspirion 2020 and the Linksys has never offered good signal quality and the ASUS had glowing reviews.

So I upgraded and things improved. But while the connection on the Dell is clearly better overall, it still frequently slows and stumbles—as in, when it works it works well, but it often doesn’t work at all for minutes at a time and it works well only occasionally. Not acceptable. I won’t bore you with my sleuthing, but it turns out my problem is mostly wall geometry and interference. Microwaves bounce off of almost anything and I’ve already moved my network equipment to the most central feasible location.

What to do? I could run cat-5 cable from the router to my office. I could buy a wireless-N repeater. There are even a couple of devices that bridge from wireless to USB or SD cards, though none of these offer much better throughput than what the old Wireless-G router would give, if only the signal quality wasn’t a problem.

So…I pulled out the old router, went to www.dd-wrt.com, and read over the long and complex instructions for switching to the DD-WRT open source firmware. To make this work, I had to install tftp, futz around with the Dell’s network settings a bit, and replace the router firmware with three different incremental versions. But finally, after about an hour, I had it done and followed these instructions to configure the old router as a wifi repeater.

That done, the old Linksys connects to my new router and I connect by Dell to the Linksys acting as a repeater. I did some initial testing. With a wireless G connection to the repeater sitting across the office on a high shelf, I was getting twice the throughput I had ever gotten on the Dell with its N connection and getting it consistently. Why? Because even through the WRT-G is older technology, it’s simply got a better radio and a far better antenna than the Dell. Plus, the Dell is an all-in-one design, so its unimpressive wireless chip is probably further hampered by noise–as is often the case when electronics are crammed in a small space.

Next I turned off the Dell’s wireless and plugged it into the repeater via a cat5 cable. Now, according to www.speedtest.net, where I was getting download speeds of between 2.5 and 4 Mbps, I now consistently get speeds between 9.5 and 11 Mbps. That’s actually the same as I get if I plug directly into my cable modem. In other words, I now have a solid 54Mbps connection, which is faster than what my cable provider can feed. So that’s as fast a connection as is possible at this time. No need to crawl through the attic with a 70-foot’ cat5 cable. No need to pay $50-$150 for a wireless n repeater.  Just a few minutes and some free software.

Ah, open source. It’s the future.

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