Airport Extreme bugs (and guest network performance problems)

The Airport Extreme is my favorite consumer grade access point.  I’ve had well over 10 different models go through myself or to various friends and family, and all of them are still running.

Unfortunately, while the hardware and firmware are great, I disagree strongly with the dumbing down of the airport utility software.  It’s actually gotten worse over time.

1. You can’t control the bands (meaning 2.4GHz or 5GHz) that the Airport Extreme transmits on or that it extends on.

2. You can’t control signal strength and you can’t limit connectivity to clients below a certain speed.

3. You can’t block older clients any more (like b or g).  Old clients are slow and take up a lot more airtime, so it’s nice to have the option to block them.

4. Windows software client has been abandoned and doesn’t properly configure newer Airport Extreme’s.

5. Airport Extreme’s like to use DFS wifi channels in 5 GHz, but many devices don’t actually work with these channels, so they will randomly appear incompatible.  The workaround is to manually select a non-DFS channel to transmit on.  The proper fix is to enable an options for automatic band selection that doesn’t include the DFS range.

So yeah, not perfect, and getting worse.

The latest problem I’ve discovered is that an Airport Extreme that is functioning purely as an access point and not the main home gateway will suffer severe performance degradation on the guest network.  Any Airport functioning as a pure access point handles the guest network by sending out guest traffic over VLAN 1003 instead of as untagged traffic, so all you need to do is pick up that VLAN at the router to enable the guest network.

Anyway, as far as performance loss, we’re talking 3 to 7 mbps of throughput as opposed to 300 mbps max.  Now, as it turns out, I don’t particularly care if my guests get more than 3 mbps of throughput, but it’s still engineered incorrectly.  I’m just writing this because very few people have noticed the problem and it was hard to find out why this was happening.

Despite all this, I still recommend the Airport Extreme for home users.  Most of the above helps optimize for dense wireless environments (like a condo or a office building) but isn’t fatal.  But there’s definitely room for improvement, and there definitely isn’t any reason these options should be removed or hidden for advanced users.

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16 Responses to Airport Extreme bugs (and guest network performance problems)

  1. Mario Dorion says:

    Hello. I’m experiencing exactly what you are describing: I have two airport Extreme, one as primary gateway and a second one, connected via Ethernet acting as an access point for a different floor.

    I don’t understand what you mean by “so all you need to do is pick up that VLAN at the router to enable the guest network”. Please provide more info …

    Thank you so much

    • richardykuo says:

      What I meant by that is that your gateway must be able to parse the VLAN 1003 traffic and do something intelligent with it (like treat it as the traffic of a guest network). In the case of an Airport Extreme acting as the router, it should do that automatically. In the case of another router, this needs to be configured manually.

      • Mario Dorion says:

        Ah! But it doesn’t. I’m getting stellar throughput on my primary networks (insane throughput on my 802.11ac instead) but getting almost nothing (your 3 to 7 mbps assessment sounds about right) on my guest network.

        My primary/gateway Airport is two years old while my bridged access point is the newer “tall” model.

        Any clue?

        Thanks again so much

      • richardykuo says:

        Your gateway IS picking up the guest network traffic on VLAN 1003 properly. It’s just that your access point (and mine) are unnecessarily slow at processing that traffic to begin with. That’s Apple’s issue. If you want to work around the issue, you can buy a second access point, connect it to a VLAN capable switch that will convert the traffic from that access point to VLAN 1003, and then send that to your gateway. Or hope Apple fixes the problem.

      • Mario Dorion says:

        OK … I though you meant this could be fixed via setup. Like you I don’t particularly care if my guests get slow email so I’ll leave it at this. Thanks for the prompt response. Great blog BTW … I’ll be back.

  2. Adam says:

    Ah thank you very much, finally a confirmation and explanation of this issue (slow speed on extender Airport guest network), almost thought I’m the only one with that issue and that I’m doing something wrong. I wonder why Apple still didn’t fix that after such a long time… should be possible I guess? Do they even know about that issue? Did you report it?

  3. johnny says:

    The real problem here is that Apple only supports Guest mode on their AP’s when a Apple Airport is used as the primary router. The instructions that the original poster outlined are correct, but Apple is doing something which is non standard, whatever that is, causes performance issues. If you try to talk to Apple about this, they will just say its an unsupported configuration and not be able to help you any further.

    • Adam says:

      It happens also if you use an Airport as main router and an Airport as extender (connected by patch cable to the main Airport router). The normal WLAN is always very fast on both Airports (250 Mbps real *net* throughput on iPhone 6 with 802.11ac). The guest WLAN is also very fast on the main airport. But on the extender Airport the guest WLAN is **extremely** slow (totally unusable). 100% Apple but they still have this dumb issue. And you can’t configure anything different/wrong with those devices. I got the latest Time Capsule (which is basically an Airport Extreme AC with HDD) as main router and the latest Airport Extreme AC as extender (extender = pure access point, in my case connected by ethernet cable to the Time Capsule). I tried a lot and even wrote to Apple – no reply. This is the only website I found, googling for hours, which really described this issue and why it happens. ANNOYING!

  4. Mario Dorion says:

    Just by chance I realized that guest network performance will be great if I only enable guest network on the primary Airport and not on the bridged access point.

    • Neema says:

      SOLUTION: Thank you Mario Dorion. You are completely right. By disabling Guest network on my extension (Airport Extreme, 3rd generation, cabled extension of my wifi network) and only having my router (Airport Extreme 802.11ac) transmit the Guest network, I was able to restore speed from 0.5 mbps to 55 mbps (WLAN & WAN). I admit that this is not a solution for everyone who needs GUEST network in all areas of the house and therefor depend on being able to extend the GUEST network. But I really only need the GUEST network in the office / kitchen / living room, and the main Airport Extreme (gen 802.11ac) has a fine coverage of all those areas. Thank you to everyone in this thread for providing useful insights to the problem.

  5. Doug Roemelt says:

    I have an Airport Time Capsule configured to provide ‘guest access’ to my roommate and ‘primary access’ to my home network. I want to do this to protect my privacy and my files as we have previously received warnings from Comcast regarding ‘bots’ on our network. My roommate is a chinese college student, his entire computer software is pirated (well used to be anyway), and he frequently accesses chinese gaming sites. I believe everything is configured properly but Airport Utility only gives me a single list of clients for the Time Capsule – how can i get this single list to be split into primary and guests clients. I also have an Airport Express in the house – to provide network access for my A/V receiver. If I’m reading this correctly, I should be able to configure the AE to provide ‘guest’ network and the Time Capsule to provide ‘primary’ network with no guest services but if i do that the guest network will take a significant performance hit. AFAIK he does not have the password for the primary network, but i want to confirm and keep traffic as isolated as possible

    • richardykuo says:

      No way to separate what clients are guest vs native in the UI. You could set up an entirely different VLAN and put a separate airport on that, as I mentioned in some other posts.

      • Doug says:

        Ok, thanks much for your help on this. At least I know he doesn’t have my permanent password.

  6. cdine says:

    Thanks for your post and comments, I of course came here because I too am experiencing poor AP to client performance in guest mode, after configuring my pfSense on a dedicated VLAN interface for the guest network. It’s curious that upstream (client to LAN/Internet) seems to be full-speed (several hundred Mb/s), but when I try to download anything I get pretty consistent 53-57KB/s.

  7. Wei says:

    Hi there, you mentioned “5. Airport Extreme’s like to use DFS wifi channels in 5 GHz, but many devices don’t actually work with these channels, so they will randomly appear incompatible. The workaround is to manually select a non-DFS channel to transmit on. The proper fix is to enable an options for automatic band selection that doesn’t include the DFS range.” I am experiencing a huge problem with this at the moment because all my Android phones (except a SONY Xperia), some windows laptops and my wireless printer do not support DFS, so they can not connect to the AIrport’s wifi network anymore. I used Airport Utility to change 5GHz channel from Automatic to channels like 36 or 149 under “Wireless Options”, but the problem persists. Can you shed some light on this please.

  8. MikeM says:

    Guest network performance is finally working at full speed now with the latest update from Apple below. I’ve tested this to be true with my two AE Gen 6s.

    About AirPort Base Station Firmware Update 7.7.7

    Firmware update 7.7.7 is recommended for all AirPort Extreme and AirPort Time Capsule base stations with 802.11ac. This update improves the stability and performance of your base station.

    This update:
    Fixes an issue which may prevent communication between clients on the same network
    Improves performance with an extended guest network
    Addresses potential naming conflicts with Bonjour Sleep Proxy
    For detailed information on AirPort base station firmware updates, including instructions how to install the update, please visit: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT1218

    For more information on using AirPort products, go to the Product Support Page at: http://www.apple.com/support/airport

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