Published Nov 19, 2009

I live in a cool house. It’s not large, except apparently by the standards of WiFi networking. For an urban elitist liberal like me, being separated from my Gmail or Photobomb1 for as much as a few hours would be… disastrous. Plus, I work out of the garage, so I have to get e-mail2 there. Thus, my quest: cover the property with WiFi.

There’s a little backstory here, too. My last place was a tiny little house, barely 400 square feet, but I set up WiFi as soon as I moved in back in 2003. And it was all great for about a year and a half, until my neighbors discovered that I had unsecured WiFi and all started using it. Then, everything was glacial. So I got a new router, one with actual password security on it, and locked everyone out. And then the Internet was all mine, and fast, again.

Which was great for about a week, which was how long it took 8 or 9 of my neighbors to set up their own WiFi networks. Now, I lived in one of those high-density urban neighborhoods, with about 170 people within a 100-foot radius of my house, so those 8 or 9 networks were all right on top of mine, and the interference from everyone’s WiFi routers slowed everything right down again. Kind of like when you hear your neighbor on the baby monitor, but, in this case, when your neighbor talks that kicks you off of Autocomplete Me.

So I did the only thing I could do: I decided to have the most powerful network in the ‘hood.3 I bought a repeater and attached a separately-powered high-gain antenna and I just burned through all of my neighbors’ Gnutella downloads and IM sessions. I won’t lie, it made me feel a little big.

And then I moved here, which was great, because, what with all of the neighborhood being houses, there wasn’t much interference, and the repeater and high-gain antenna did just fine. Until they didn’t. Starting in about June, and starting at about 10am, reception just dropped off a cliff. I measured the speed a bunch of times and it was seriously about as fast as a 56k modem, if you remember back in 1997. Come 4 or 5 pm, bam, back it would get to normal broadband.

Now, there’s speed that’s too slow to watch MMA Depot, and there’s speed that’s too slow to check e-mail, and we were in that latter bucket. So I did the only thing I could think of: I boosted the power of the network.

That got throughput to peak at ISDN speeds, if you remember back in 1999. So then I decided it was time to pretend I knew something about radio and make up a solution to the problem.

I was pretty sure that this was a problem with interference, not a problem with my cable Internet — when things were slow, I couldn’t even ping other computers in my house, much less reach the Internet; if it had been Time Warner’s fault, then I would’ve easily pinged other computers in my house. So, when you have interference, you switch frequencies, right?

So I switched from the older 802.11g WiFi protocol to the newer 802.11n protocol. What’s the difference? I don’t know, they seem to use the same frequency, but n is supposed to be faster so I assume they use that frequency differently. Still, no luck.

OK, so I switched my 802.11n frequency completely from the lower 2.4GHz of 802.11g and n to the 5GHz of 802.11n and a, since n (unlike g) allows that. Great, right? Things were fast. Except that higher frequencies penetrate physical objects much worse than do lower frequencies. And, even with a repeater, the WiFi signal barely made it to the living room, much less my garage.

Bereft of ideas, I prostrated myself upon the altar of Steve Jobs, who makes products that seem to Just Work, and went out and bought every single Airport Express they had at the Fox Hills Mall Best Buy4 and set them all up as repeaters of my 802.11n network at 2.4GHz and… it just worked.

On the one hand, I feel a little dirty, like a good geek would’ve rigged up a directional aerial out of tinfoil and paper towel rolls. On the other hand, it just works. I may not like how the man tucks his turtlenecks into his dad jeans, but that Steve Jobs makes surprisingly good products. And that means that I can read Uni Watch in the office and find out about amazing sites like this one. And that makes it all worth it.

1 Or Awkward Family Photos, or Ugliest Tattoos.

2 Or “Pandora.FM”“:

3 This was, indeed, the ‘hood

4 That is, two.


Thus far, I have had pretty good connectivity from my Time Capsule downstairs, to my bedroom upstairs. The only person who’s reported a problem connecting, at times, is the roommate whose room is closest to the TC — and I think he actually has a software problem, where after the computer wakes from sleep its IP stack is corrupted. Christa had a similar problem on XP, a few years ago, until an update fixed it. He’s also on XP, and does not use the Windows Update service — like, ever. I attempted to explain to him that this is a) stupid, since it’s free and can be set up, in about five minutes, to run automatically with no effort on his part, and b) leaves him open to all kinds of malware, but he’s having none of it. He’s irrationally afraid of stuff that updates his software over the internet without his control, but considers dealing with the periodic pop-ups asking him to approve updates to be too much effort. :-P

The only thing I love more than having in-house tech support is that it’s you!

@Auros: I cannot believe that your roommate never uses Windows Update! Actually, I bet there’s a publishable paper in there somewhere. “People who would rather give a Romanian access to their bank account than give a server in Redmond access to their Windows installation.”

@Courtney: The nice thing about being in-house tech support for the right person is that it’s fun to do!