Unlike our other “How To” guides for wireless networking, the solutions outlined here can cost a hundred dollars. for the sake of keeping this article a reasonable length, we assume you already have some basic networking skills. Now that Wi-Fi is becoming an integral part of just every new piece of consumer electronics. Unfortunately, the typical ISP’s simplistic model of providing a single “all-in-one” modem+router+wireless gateway for your site quickly breaks down when faced with the real-world challenges of serving larger, or sprawling, homes or apartments. This is especially true for buildings with lots of wiring in the walls, lath and plaster walls, or metallic heating or air conditioning infrastructure in the floor or ceiling.
Below we outline three common methods of extending a wireless network, and not all of them are equally reliable or cost effective :
Wi-Fi Range Extenders:
The very simplest approach to extending your Wi-Fi network is to add one or more range extenders. These small units plug into an electrical outlet and then can be configured to repeat the signal from your current Wi-Fi source. They are a wonderful solution if you don’t need much bandwidth, Some wireless extenders will extend the network under a different SSID (though the main router still handles DHCP, so all devices are still on the local network). For example, the SSID from the router might be “Audioholics,” but the SSID from the extender is “Audioholics_extended”. Other extenders operate under the same SSID as the router, so users never have to worry about switching between wireless networks as it’s done seamlessly. We tend to prefer using the same SSID to create a more seamless experience. It’s also best to match the wireless capabilities of the extender and the router. For example, if you have a dual band router, get a dual band extender.
Using routers as Access Points :
Some routers, like Apple’s Airport routers, have a built-in bridge mode, in which case you’d connect the one that will be used as an Access Point through its WAN port to your main Apple router. Re-using a router used to be especially valuable when standalone APs were much more expensive than consumer-grade routers. More than once I’ve bought a router specifically to use as an inexpensive AP. However, now there are a number of reasonably-priced dedicated AP options, so unless you already own a router you can re-use, it probably isn’t worth buying a new one for this purpose.
One other nice feature of using a router as an AP is that routers typically come with a number of LAN ports — allowing them to double as hubs. Dedicated APs usually only have a single Ethernet port, so if you have some wired devices to connect at the same location, you’ll also need a standalone hub.
Ethernet over powerline to wireless range extender :
There are a variety of products than can supply Ethernet over your existing in-home electrical wiring — a technology called Powerline. They are typically sold in pairs, so one can be used at the transmitting end, and one at the receiving end, and are sold by most networking vendors, including Netgear, Linksys, and TP-Link.
Sometimes these systems come as a complete kit (WiFi extender built into the Ethernet over powerline receiver), like the Linksys PLWK400 pictured above. In this scenario, the setup is nearly identical to that of a basic wireless range extender we have previously covered. There’s just one extra step. You need to connect the sending unit to the main router via an Ethernet cable and power on both the router and sending unit before setting up the wireless extender. For best results, plug both units directly into a wall outlet, instead of a surge protector. Note that the electrical wiring used by the sender and receiver needs to be connected to the same breaker box.
Ethernet to Wireless Access Point (WAP)
This is by far the best option available to increase wireless speed and range in a home. Instead of relying on powerlines to carry the signal to the wireless repeater or WAP, it uses actual Ethernet cable. Most new homes are already wired with Ethernet, but if you own an older home, chances are that you will need to run some cable. If you do need to purchase and run Ethernet, we recommend buying from Blue Jeans Cable (BJC) because they individually test every cable sold. We don’t know of any other cable company with quality control practices as high as BJC. If you are looking for a potentially even less expensive cable, though not as high of quality, check your local home improvement store for bulk cable.
Re-using a router used to be especially valuable when standalone APs were much more expensive than consumer-grade routers. More than once I’ve bought a router specifically to use as an inexpensive AP. However, now there are a number of reasonably-priced dedicated AP options, so unless you already own a router you can re-use, it probably isn’t worth buying a new one for this purpose.
A basic wireless range extender is the least expensive and easiest option, but it lacks the speed, reliability, and range capabilities of the other options. The final, and best option, is to connect and Ethernet cable from the main router to another router or WAP. We covered three different methods to accomplish this setup.