Adventures in home WiFi

I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with different home WiFi setups.  I really can’t count the number of times I’ve had different routers go out on me or just get flaky.  But I’ve settled on a solution that works and I’m going to share it with you now to save the world some time.

Here’s my recommended setup.

For WiFi – Use Airport Extreme’s or Express’s as standalone WiFi access points by putting them into bridge mode.  Hardwire where you can and use identical access point options … otherwise known as a roaming network.  WiFi clients will roam seamlessly between access points with the same SSID and security settings.

Place additional Airport’s strategically with the “extend a wireless network” option to get whole home or yard coverage.  This feature works remarkably well on the Airport’s and is a very good way to cover an unwired home.  While “extend a wireless network” does impact total throughput, it’s far better to use it to improve coverage to eliminate dropouts than it is to worry about theoretical performance.  You just don’t want to use it instead of a hardwired ethernet port when one is available.

For the gateway – WNDR3700 with OpenWRT as the router/gateway.   All I can say is that I’ve hammered this thing with pretty much everything you can throw at it and it’s been very stable and full featured to boot.

If you aren’t a tinkerer and don’t need anything special in terms of home router/gateway features, then just use an Airport Extreme as the gateway and be done with it.  Excellent choice if you just want to set up the parents and not get calls about the internet being down.

Note that recent generations of the Airport allow for simultaneous dual-band transmission.  Defaulting to the same SSID for both bands allows devices to roam to the best band for the job … 5 GHz for increased bandwidth and less interference from neighboring access points, but a seamless fallback to 2.4 GHz at range.

The problem with using the same SSID is that the operation of what is going on is obscured somewhat.  When using iOS devices, you can’t even tell what band you are on.  So it is sometimes desirable to use the option that names the 5 GHz band with a different SSID.  This is useful mainly in situations where you want to test the explicit performance on 5 GHz with different devices or compensate for a dumb device that doesn’t know it should connect to 5 GHz over 2.4 GHz in your house.

I used to name the bands separately, but I recently decided to switch to identical SSID’s and see how it goes.  When I walk out to the elevator here, my iPhone won’t aggressively switch down to 2.4 GHz unless the SSID’s are identical, which means the connection just dies.  And, you know, tech is supposed to make our lives easier, so I figured I would try to have a little faith in them.  I’m almost all Apple here, so I have reasonable confidence that the devices will be smart about selecting the correct band for the situation.

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