Help me get reliable WiFi over 280ft

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802.11n, the still-in-draft WiFi standard, makes it a snap to get faster wireless connections, but it still has the power to baffle and confound.

My scenario is simple enough. My office is about 280ft from my house, close to the limit of 802.11n’s effective range. Between the two windows are one woodframe dwelling and a victorian redbrick; no water-filled trees, but a few inches of wood and maybe a foot of brick. I get a signal – iStumbler reports about 30% with 20% noise – but in practice, its kinda funky. It’s slow, drops completely now and again, and seems to be causing parallel computing misbehaviors as applications’ net connections segue in and out of reality. It’s my first day at BBG, and I’ve spent most of the morning cursing, rather than writing about, Der Gadgets.

To welcome me and help me not get fired, BBG readers, recommend me one of the following solutions:• A directional antenna for my router, pointed at the office.

PROS: Likely to fix the problem, unless the problem is deflection from a hidden metal wall or lead-lined roof.
CONS: Difficult to install on the Airport Extreme 802.11n, which must be opened up with torx screwdrivers to access antenna ports; directionality will kill the signal inside my three-storey house, necessitating two routers.

• A USB WiFi adapter inside a parabolic reflector (“WokFi”) pointed at the router

PROS: Cheap. May work with 802.11g USB WiFi sticks already in the drawer. $2 mesh salad bowl only required upgrade.
CONS: Will sully Mac. Might not work at all.

• Just get DSL hooked up in the friggin’ office

PROS: Guaranteed to work (as far as anything springing from Verizon’s corporate loin is, anyway)
CONS: $50 a month, and it wants $100 for the modem. No deals: I’ve asked nicely.

• Take a step into the 21st Century and buy WWAN

PROS: Internet goes with me wherever I go; comes out no more expensive than DSL
CONS: Have to do business with a cellular provider; 2-year contract; speed not all that hot in practice.

• Make my own directional antenna for the router
PROS: Cheap.
CONS: I end up with a Pringles can slung under the lintel in my living room window. Allegedly harder to get working than WokFi at the other end.

• Return to the state of nature
PROS: Nakedness and barbarity
CONS: Disease. Lack of Ciabatta bread bacon sandwiches.

About Rob Beschizza

Rob Beschizza is the Managing Editor of Boing Boing. He's @beschizza on Twitter and can be found on Facebook too. Try your luck at besc...@gmail.com

 

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22 Responses to Help me get reliable WiFi over 280ft

  1. mmbb says:

    #8 GeekPDX, regarding option #2:
    What I have done in a similar situation is to also add a cheap timer (Intermatic, you know those ones with the 24h dial and little tabs that turn/off the outlet?), and set it up to powercycle at 3:00am for 15 minutes (the minimum amount of times that you can set the tabs up for). About $10, and the timers should be good for at least 3 year’s worth of continuous use.

  2. Rob Beschizza says:

    I’ve still got a Linksys WRT-series running DD-WRT, so am tempted to get hacking on it for the hookup. However, I taped a cake tray to the back of the Airport Extreme, and it’s massively improved the experience at the other end.

    Photos forthcoming. This hideous rig, sat on top of a tall shredder by the window and spewing cables, has a low life expectancy. But it proves that a cantenna or a manufactured uni will work for me, and I thank you all for your suggestions.

    SCIENCE, as Joel put it.

  3. technogeek says:

    As others have said: Cantenna. The coffee-can (side-fired) version is a heck of a lot easier to build than the original Pringles Yagi, and is ugly enough to carry a certain McGuyveresque klugemeister cachet.

    Websearch will find comparitive ratings of these and other designs, along with reports from folks who have used them together with parabolic reflectors scavenged from old satellite recievers and otherwise tweaked.

  4. Zan says:

    When I moved into my new apartment, I was able to pick up a really weak WiFi signal to connect to the internet from one of my neighbors (with their permission). Windows was showing “No Signal” (even though I am connected), and my link quality, according to my wireless card drivers, was around 35%. I purchased this D-Link antenna from NewEgg.com for $5 after rebates (it’s $17 now), and this allowed me to get the link quality up to around 60% (with windows saying the signal was between “No Signal” and 1 bar), but I was still getting dropouts.

    Then I found plans for a parabolic reflector at FreeAntennas.com. I modified the plans for the EZ-12 “Windsurfer” reflector to fit my much larger antenna by making the parabolic part much higher and using two cross-braces. Using aluminum foil, heavy paper, a glue stick, and some tape, I was able to build the reflector shown in the picture below. I couldn’t believe it, but it actually improved my link quality to 90-100%, and my signal to 3 bars. It’s ugly, but it works.

    http://www2.zansstuff.com:3390/images/windsurfer.jpg

  5. hackmaster says:

    I have had a (very) similar situation, and I solved it at a very low cost.

    1 (or optimally 2) DD-WRT Compatible routers (I use Linksys WRT54GS). Place the one at the internet source (office) and crank the transmit power way up. The unit may get a bit warm, so a simple small pc fan works great. The other end can be the same thing, but with the DD-WRT configured to bring the WiFi in and send it to the 4 Ethernet ports. Spread directional antennas through out the system and you have screaming internet system.

    I was able to get my system to blast my network for over 1000FT, through an office building, with network slowdowns barely noticeable.

    One note: make sure you get the older Linksys models with removable antennas. Linksys does sell a model of router designed for alternative firmwares like DD-WRT that includes many features to make this easier.

    on a side note, it seems that someone ought to sell a package of all this set up together. it seems like a common problem.

  6. SleighBoy says:

    Combine:
    1 Purchased OpenBSD CD Set (4.3)
    2 Soekris net5501 boards w/ case
    2 MiniPCI 802.11 cards
    2 64MB CF Cards
    2 Cantennas

    Will let you whip up one nice wireless bridge or secure tunnel that any host can use. Plus, you’ll have learned a lot about OpenBSD and the CD purchase supports development, so you can sleep at night.

  7. dculberson says:

    Cantennas?? For 280 feet?! When I had a very similar situation for my dad between his home and office, I got two nice omnidirectional antennas – about 5″ tall with a lithe magnetic base. The office is the origin. The omni antenna at the house picks up the connection just fine. The office gets a nice solid connection broadcast all over it.

    I promise a few db of gain at each end will give you a good connection in both locations. I bought my antennas from eBay, complete with the right connectors at the end.

    I started with a coffee cantenna – it worked, but it completely cut the office off from wireless. And if anything – and I mean anything – passed between the can and the house, the house’s connection went down.

  8. Anonymous says:

    A lot of fancy ideas. Too bad nobody here has mentioned duct tape and tin foil:
    http://www.freeantennas.com/projects/Ez-10/

  9. Rob Beschizza says:

    I think I’ll try the cantenna first, but I like TP1024’s idea for trialing it. Cheers!

    I actually thought about running black exterior CatV on the utility poles, and hoping no-one would notice.

  10. Dan Tentler says:

    You’ll need a few things
    1) a router/bridge at home that allows for an external antenna
    2) a router/bridge at work that allows for an antenna
    3) antennas for each.

    I’d suggest either two panels, or two 15 degree yagi antennas.

    The whole setup should run a few hundred dollars, but You’ll end up with a stable reliable connection at home.

    Also, if done properly, you could simply use a wireless bridge, and not need internet at home – poach it from work!

  11. asegar says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Wi-Fire from hField Technologies ($79). This little beauty plugs into a USB port on your Mac or PC and extends access significantly. The Mac software is a little klunky, but it works great. I’ve used it successfully on access points up to 800′ (line of sight) away.

    http://www.hfield.com/wifire.htm

  12. geekpdx says:

    Ditch the airport.
    Get two routers capable of running DD-WRT or Tomato.
    Make sure that the routers have multiple detachable antennas.
    Upgrade the firmware.
    Use the goodness of the new firmware to boost your transmit power.
    Attach a simple cantenna or omni to one of the detachable antennas on each router.
    Write an article about your super badass WAN.

    OR

    Buy a nice router for your house.
    Buy two nice range extenders.
    Meet the neighbor in between your house and office.
    Find out what sort of technical help they need so that you can offer them some help with technology in exchange for plugging in a wireless repeater in their attic.
    Connect second repeater at your office.
    Get frustrated when the repeater in the middle needs an occasional power cycle.

  13. jasmeet says:

    This just came out, if you’re still looking for a solution. And have line of sight:

    http://www.engadget.com/2008/05/22/318-wifi-network-bridge-connects-two-locations-up-to-5-miles-ap/

    Pricey, but who knows, it might work.

  14. tricotomy says:

    The easiest way is to move into your office. Install your sleeping bag under your desk. This is by far the cheapest option.

  15. Rob Beschizza says:

    Thanks, Jas. I’ll give that a whirl.

  16. Benny says:

    Ciabatta bacon sandwiches are overrated anyway, accept cannibalism’s cruel yet gentle embrace.

  17. monopole says:

    Quit your whining and get a cantenna and a yagi:
    http://www.3nw.com/pda/wireless/wi_fi_pringles_can_yagi_antenna.htm
    or turn in your geek credentials.
    I’ve made some wifi yagis several meters long. Quite handy.

  18. markhaas says:

    One word: Cantenna.

  19. Narual says:

    Sell the freakin airport on ebay, get a linksys or senao,use the profit to buy a good directional antenna and a good omni

  20. mdhatter says:

    #13 – that is pure geek art.

  21. Camillo Miller says:

    Disguise yourself as a construction worker and place cables underground between your home and your office with the help of the heavily light polluted Pennsylvanian night.

  22. tp1024 says:

    You can try to find out if a directional antenna might work by putting a sheet of metal (like the lid of a metal cookie box) a few centimeters behind the normal antenna. This reflects at least some of the signal and leads to marked improvements. If your problem has to do more with interference then you’ll at least know you’re out of luck with that line of thought.

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