Make Your Wi-Fi Network Cover Your Larger Digs

By Ronald Pacchiano

December 09, 2005

Can a router that has been providing wireless Internet access to every room in a one-floor apartment adjust to life in a three-floor townhouse? We offer some pointers to make it work. Plus, why won't your boss's notebook connect to a wireless network?

For the last couple of years I have been living in a small, single-level, two-bedroom apartment. Thanks to my wireless network, I have Internet access available from any room. Over the years I've become very comfortable with this level of mobility, and it has proved quite valuable on many occasions, especially when professional colleagues visit and need access to the Internet or other network resources.

I'm moving into a three-floor townhouse soon. My office will be in the basement along with my Internet connection, and I'm worried that my router won't be able to provide connectivity to all of the rooms in my new house. It's important to maintain access to the wireless no matter where I am in the house. What's the best and least expensive way for me to do that?

The best and most economical way for you to go might be just plain old "patience." Wait until you get into your new house or see if the builder/seller will let you go in ahead of time and perform a site survey using your wireless router and laptop. Just place the router in what you consider the correct spot and see what the coverage is at different points throughout the house. You may be surprised by the results. Remember, testing is always the cheapest and most efficient way to design a network.

My network configuration is similar to yours. The router is in the basement, but I can access the wireless network from my third-floor bedroom with pretty good signal strength. That's using standard hardware, with the original antennas and no additional signal boosters.

If your coverage turns out to be weak, try placing the router in a more central location within the house. For example, install the router on the second floor, where it might better serve both the upper and lower levels of the house. It should be able to connect to any cable jack or phone line (for cable or DSL service) and, since it's wireless, it doesn't need to be physically stored in your office.

If the signal doesn't improve, then try a signal enhancer or a different type of network conduit like Homeplug networking. However, a simple repeater should be sufficient. You could also look into upgrading your router to a new MIMO/Pre-N-based one. Those have significantly more range then your standard 802.11b/g router and should easily provide you with the coverage that you need.

A few months back, I added a wireless network to our office. It didn't take long to set up, and it works flawlessly. We deal with sensitive data, and some of my colleagues (read superiors) were a bit concerned about the wireless network and asked me to secure it as best I could. So I turned on all of the security settings I could think of. I set the encryption level to 128-bit WEP, changed the default broadcast channel, enabled filtering, and I even disabled SSID broadcasting. Once the configuration was completed, my laptop had full access to our network, and I felt we were pretty secure. I was quite pleased with this configuration and amazed by how smoothly it all went.

Then one of my bosses came in with his Sony VAIO laptop. His VAIO is bit old, but it has a built-in 802.11b wireless adapter, and he asked me if I could configure it to work with our wireless network. Sure, no problem, I said.

It was at this point that everything went wrong. For some strange reason, I just could not get the VAIO to connect to our wireless network. I double-checked all the wireless settings (encryption level, broadcast channel, SSID, MAC filter and so on), and it just wouldn't work. The thing that bothers me the most is that I know everything is configured and functioning correctly because MY laptop works just fine with the network the way it is.

Do you have any idea what could be causing this problem? I'm fresh out of ideas and would appreciate any assistance you might have.

I had a similar problem about six months ago with a ThinkPad that belonged to a client. This laptop had two problems that made it difficult to get it online. The first was related to an IBM utility called the IBM Configuration Manager. Essentially this utility was overriding the network settings that I had set up through Windows.

Even though I had configured the IP address and WEP encryption information correctly, the IBM software was causing the system to ignore my settings and use an entirely different set of network parameters. Needless to say, nothing worked and it was very frustrating. I would set the IP address and then run an IPCONFIG to verify the setting and see something totally different than what I had set. However, I would go back to look at my settings and everything was fine. Weird.

If I remember correctly, Sony systems ship with something very similar. Check your system to see if you can find any utilities like this running on the VAIO. If so, then you'll need to modify your network information from within the utility itself or remove it entirely from your system.

If that doesn't pan out, then you might try something a bit far-fetched. Like you, I disabled SSID broadcasting in an effort to increase security, and it worked fine for all of our systems. After exhausting all other possibilities, I decided to try turning it back on, not expecting anything to change. Yet — wouldn't you know — it connected immediately.

I disabled the SSID broadcast once again and, as soon as I did, the ThinkPad lost all connectivity to the network. For some reason, it would communicate with the network only when SSID Broadcasting was enabled. I suggest you try this and see what happens.

On the outside chance that neither of these solutions works for you, then go back to the basics. It could be something simple like having configured the WEP key in the router with HEX and on the PC with ASCII. Or maybe the wireless card is configured in ADHoc as opposed to Infrastructure mode. Both of these scenarios would prevent the system from communicating.

After double-checking all the basics, if you still can't get the VAIO to work on the wireless network, I would check Sony's Web site for any updated drivers, BIOS updates or firmware revisions. If you find any, go ahead and update the system.

As an absolute last resort, you could always try buying a PC Card-based wireless adapter made by the same vendor as the access point. If the problem is caused by some esoteric hardware or software incompatibility with the existing wireless adapter, then this would almost certainly get around it. Particularly if none of your other systems are experiencing this problem.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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