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How to improve coverage of wireless with notebook systems in large home

Posted on 2006-07-02
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Hello,

I have a client who has a fairly large, two story home.  It is about 3,000 square feet and is a pretty wide but not very deep floor plan layout.  I have installed a wireless network that includes a wireless router, 4 wireless access points (via Cat 5 cable connections to the router).  The coverage doesn't seem to be very good at a number of points in this house.  The router and access points are standard Dlink consumer products.  They are all 802.11G products.  In one case where the wireless access point is in a bedroom and using a brand new Sony Vaio laptop with built in wireless I am able to get a good connection when I am literally within a few feet of the access point but if I move as little at maybe 10 feet away to the other side of the room the connection degrades to the point where it is lost.  There are also using a couple of Apple laptops being used in this household that have similar coverage issues too.

I would appreciate any recommendations about what possible changes to make in the hardware configuration to significantly improve the coverage of this network.  I have considered adding hi-gain antenna boosters to the access points and will probably try that.  The problem with doing this is that I probably can NOT get away with directional antennas since the people using this network want to be able to use their notebook computers in a variety of places throughout the house.  This means only omnidirectional antenna boosters will probably work.

It appears that 6-10 dB antennas are available via normal consumer outlets.  Are there higher gain antennas available at reasonable prices?  Would it make sense to look at adding PCMCIA wireless network cards to the laptops to improve coverage?  I have tested the coverage of the access points using a wireless strength meter and the strength seems to drop off pretty dramatically with moving short distances away from the access points.  Unfortunately, I don't know how much strength is actually necessary for a reasonable connection to be kept.  I wonder if the strength of the access points signal is actually OK and it is the notebooks that are not able to broadcast a strong enough signal back to the access point that is the problem.  That is why I ask about adding PCMCIA wireless network cards.

The hi-gain antennas I have seen in stores don't appear to use any external power source.  Are there antenna products that use AC power to cause a stronger signal to be broadcast that I should consider using?  Or would this even be important if the coverage problems are being caused because the laptops are not putting out a strong enough signal back to the access points?

Finally, are there any possible software changes that I should look at?  Are there settings in Windows or the software associated with the built-in wireless hardware on the Sony Vaio that could be tweaked?  Same question on the Apple laptops.

Thanks for any help you can suggest.

Mark
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Question by:mgump9
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by:tim_qui
tim_qui earned 25 total points
ID: 17030741
mqump9,


download netstumbler http://www.netstumbler.com/downloads/netstumblerinstaller_0_4_0.exe  and run it at the house to check for any interference.  What channels have you tried using?
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by:rindi
rindi earned 100 total points
ID: 17031426
Make sure there are no other things that could cause interferance, like microwaves, cordless phones (and their stations), etc., etc. And as tim is inclining, try using different channels. Another thing to check out is that the access points should be in view of your laptops. If there are thick walls or things with lots of iron, that will cause a dramatic signal drop.
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by:
shaharidzal earned 25 total points
ID: 17031804
Hello,
Based on my experience installing wireless at peoples house......... I stopped using DLINK product.
They are not a good product only decent coverage signal. Even I tried to do like you did which was hooking up the Router with a couple of AP's and making the AP as 'Repeater' mode, that does not help. I had setup one repeater at a family hall but less than 10 feet away is a room and I just could get even 10% signal.

What I proposed to you is that spend a bit more on Linksys, Belkin or 3COM product. They are merely 20-30% extra cost but it saves you the headache of getting signals.

Now I always use Linksys product. As what I did on the case above:
DLINK DL-624+ was replaced by Linksys WRT54G
2 units of DLINK DL900AP (1 at family hall upstairs and 1 at main hall downstairs) were stripped and were only replaced with Linksys WAP54G outside house downstairs to have coverage at pool side.
Signals never dropped less than 70%
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Author Comment

by:mgump9
ID: 17031831
Thanks rindi and tim qui for your suggestions.  I'll try out some different channels.  That sounds like a good idea.

Do you have any thoughts or comments about my questions regarding the use of PCMCIA wireless network cards in the laptops instead of relying on their built in wireless hardware?

Mark
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by:rindi
ID: 17035359
the builtin cards of laptops usually have pretty good antennas that are wires inside the the display. This is often better that the standard antennas of pccard wlan adapters. Those which do come with external attachable antennas of course are good, but they are more expensive and usually mainly used for specialised work, like wardriving.
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by:public
public earned 100 total points
ID: 17045492
>I wonder if the strength of the access points signal is actually OK and it is the notebooks that are not able to broadcast a strong enough signal back to the access point that is the problem.

That is often the problem, and power amplifiers just make it worse.
Indoor coverage is difficult because there are many conductive objects altering antenna coverage patterns.
A competent network installer should have a portable spectrum analyzer/field strength meter to conduct a site survey to place the access points, and after the installation check coverage.
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Author Comment

by:mgump9
ID: 17046004
Thanks for your comments "public",

I have tested this network with a strength meter.  I used a Wi-Net Window Wireless Scanner & Pinger (model WP-150 - http://www.test-um.com/product_detail.asp?itemno=WP150) device from a company called Test-Um Inc. out of Camarillo, CA to check the strength of the signal.  I don't know if there would be a more appropriate device to test with but I don't percieve the problem as being able to test further as much as trying to figure out what to do to get a stronger signal spread over a wider pattern.

Your comment "power amplifiers just make it worse" causes me to wonder why that would be.  Are you indicating that devices that amplify the signal can cause noise in the signal to be amplified too which might make it harder on the receiving devices to filter out that noise?  Please explain further.

Thanks.

Mark
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by:public
ID: 17053898
>power amplifiers just make it worse" causes me to wonder why that would be

because radio links are bidirectional. If the AP spews out excessive rf energy it can overload nearby receivers. It still will not be able to hear weaker tx signal from clients.
Coverage problems are best addressed by reducing AP power, using directional antennas, and selective location of APs.
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by:phototropic
phototropic earned 100 total points
ID: 17065320
Have you considered replacing the router with a pre-N wireless router?
This is a new format from Belkin which claims "• 800% greater coverage than standard 802.11g - "

http://catalog.belkin.com/IWCatProductPage.process?Product_Id=184316

I installed one of these recently for a client with a big house, and he was very impressed with the increased coverage. It was a little complicated to install, but it solved his problem, which was that he and his sons could not access their network in all parts of the house.
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Author Comment

by:mgump9
ID: 17065390
Phototropic,

Thanks for the suggestion about using a pre-N router.  I had considered that but due to the fact that the house is fairly strung out and the router location is at one end on the lower story and one of the places that is having trouble with reception is on the second story at the opposite end of the house from the router, I don't figure there is much chance a pre-N router would get a decent signal that far.  I also put a pre-N (Netgear) router in another client's 2 story house a while back and didn't see much improvement to a second story bedroom that was much closer than this present client's situation so I can't say I am terribly impressed with pre-N's performance improvement over 802.11G.  What you say is interesting though.  Do you know if there are access points using the pre-N technology that might work in this situation?  A problem with using pre-N at all though is that then I would have to add pre-N PCMCIA cards to the notebooks.  Right?

Does anybody else have any comments on using pre-N technology and experience with significant coverage improvements over 802.11G?

Mark
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by:phototropic
ID: 17066123
mgump9,

When I configured the client's pre-N router, I didn't change any PCMCIA cards or alter any on-board settings in any of the 5 laptops in the house. No one reported any problems with receiving a signal.
The client was impressed at the extra signal strength, and when I left he was planning to put one of his sons in the back of his car with a laptop, and then drive away from the house and see how far he got before the signal dropped!
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by:bluepointx
bluepointx earned 100 total points
ID: 17153799
There's no way that the Pre-N router will work better that the current G routers. Pre-N proved to offer lower performance that the G. Just consider that if the performance would've been as advertised, the prices would've been rather inaccessible to the home user for about a year or so.
Anyway.
The best solution is to replace all that messy Wireless Distribution System with a Linksys WRT54GX wireless router with true MIMO capabilities. You don't even have to buy MIMO compatible adapters from Linksys, it will proove it's amazing performance with standard 802.11g (not MIMO) devices too.
You will be amazed. The most peculiar thing is that with SRX, the farther away you are, the more speed advantage you get.
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Author Comment

by:mgump9
ID: 17156263
bluepointx,

Thanks for your input.  I may try the Linksys WRT54GX router but I did try using a MIMO router in that other client's house and I was NOT impressed at all by its range.  (I wrote earlier about this but said it was a pre-N router and in thinking about it I now remember that it was a Netgear MIMO router)

Maybe a Linksys brand will work better or maybe they have improved the technology since I tried the Netgear about a year ago.

The industry is doing a pretty poor job in developing and truthfully marketing these wireless network devices.  Not that this is anybody here's fault but as the newest and quickly becoming the default network configuration solution, the industry should clean up its act!  My 2 cents worth.

Mark
0
 

Author Comment

by:mgump9
ID: 17156306
I have added an external 10dBi omnidirectional antenna to the access point in the master bedroom of this house and that has helped some.  I tried several locations and settled on one that seems to get better coverage in the areas the laptops are used most.  It did not seem to be a dramatic improvement but enough to somewhat satisfy the client for the time being.

I also bought a Dlink High Speed 2.4 GHz Wireless Range Extender (DWL-G710) device that I thought might improve the coverage.  I have not installed this yet so I can't report on its effectiveness.  I will report back after trying it out.

Has anybody had any success using these "range extender" types of hardware?

Mark
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by:public
ID: 17157440
>Has anybody had any success using these "range extender" types of hardware?

Only useful in niche applications. These are half duplex devices.
A better way is to use multiple low power APs in surveyed locations.
The MIMO devices just pollute the spectrum by using multiple channels.


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by:phototropic
ID: 17158055
bluepointx,
"...There's no way that the Pre-N router will work better that the current G routers."
This was not the case with the installation I described above. The client paid me to configure a pre-N router which he had bought specifically to increase the range of his home network. I installed it and we tested it. He immediately reported increased signal strength and coverage in areas of his property where there had been no coverage before. If there had been no improvement, he was the kind of guy who would have taken the thing back to where he bought it and demanded a refund. As it was, he was more than happy.
The cost of a pre-N router is about 30% more than a G router here in the UK. It costs more, but it is not "...inaccessible to the home user."
I have not been employed to install/configure another pre-N router yet, but based on the evidence of the work that I did, I would say that the pre-N router definitely works better than the current G routers.

mgump9,
In the UK the jury is still out on "range extenders". I have not yet been asked to fit one - although if they actually deliver what their advertising claims, they should be getting very popular very soon!  
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by:bluepointx
ID: 17162459
phototropic,

My point about the selling price of the Pre-N routers was: If the performance would've been really as advertised, it would've mean a dramatically improvment in the speed and range of the wireless networks.
Don't you think that the hungry producers would've keep the prices very very high, making them available only to the business market? The prices would've eventually drop to the point where the real consumer would've been able to buy those.
The producers did this everytime they made a breakthrough.

However, I can see that they are in fact 30% more expensive than the current G routers, don't you think that for that 30% more we are paying only the feeling that we have a newer technology (one that doesn't do pretty much anything more than the old one)? I am not against newer thechnologies, I'm just saying that the pre-n is just a marketing trick making us believe that this or that company are bringing new things on markets.

Read an expert opinion about pre-n here: http://www.tomsnetworking.com/2006/06/01/draft_11n_revealed_part1/
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LVL 23

Expert Comment

by:phototropic
ID: 17163670
bluepointx,
 
Thanks for the link. Interesting reading.

All I can say about this particular subject is what I described in my post above. I fitted a Belkin pre-n router for a client. He reported increased network coverage. That's it. I offer this information to mgump9 as a contribution towards addressing his network coverage issue. I don't have any other opinions about the pros and cons of pre-n routers. All I know is that I installed one, and the client said it made a difference.



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Expert Comment

by:bluepointx
ID: 17165836
I don't argue over this. I haven't played with a pre-n router so far so I can not speak from my own experience. All I know about them is from that (I can say trusted and reliable) source. I guess your client was very lucky.

Cheers.
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Assisted Solution

by:dooleydog
dooleydog earned 25 total points
ID: 17224090
If you get a higher end router, you can quite often replace the standard antennae with larger, higher gain antennae.

In addition, you can get a signal booster, which is really a repeater, and put this in another location in the house to help enlarge the footprint. If you enlarge the footprint too much, then you may be offering service to neighbors as well!

do not make this harder than it really is...

Good Luck,
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by:phototropic
ID: 17306950
mgump9,
Did you resolve your client's problem?  If so, what worked for you?
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Author Comment

by:mgump9
ID: 17307603
I think I improved the client's coverage by adding the 10dBi omnidirectional external antenna to the access point in the master bedroom.  Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get back and check it much but the client has not called to complain (which she usually does) so I think that must have done the trick to some degree anyway.

Mark
0
 
LVL 66

Assisted Solution

by:johnb6767
johnb6767 earned 25 total points
ID: 17393254
Personally, I use Proxim at home. Just out of the box, it was about 50% better signal strength. I didnt replace the router though, still using a wrt54g.

It is all about paying to get the right performance....Bottom line.
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Author Comment

by:mgump9
ID: 17530227
rindi,

Thanks for looking at this question again.  I don't like to abandon my questions but in this case I don't feel like I have actually gotten the resolution I was looking for.  I have reread all the posts and see that many opinions and suggestions were offered but as far as I am concerned none of them really gave me a rock solid solution.  Not that there weren't some interesting comments.  Maybe there is no technical solution to this problem so it might be unreasonable to expect somebody to give one.  The thing that bothers me is that it seems like there must be some way to create better coverage in environments such as the one I describe.  It just seems like there are too many environments that are laden with other conflicting electronics and physical obstacles for there not to be some way to provide decent coverage.  I keep wondering about what large corporations must do to overcome this kind of situation.

Maybe it's just wishful thinking but I was hoping someone would come up with a suggestion for using equipment that provided higher powered signals that would overcome the coverage problems.  With the conflicting comments about G, pre-N and MIMO performance, I don't feel I got any ringing endorsment of anything that would be the "magic bullet" that I was looking for.

I suppose to be fair, the points should be split.  I would suggest splitting them equally between all respondents with giving a slightly larger share to "public", "phototropic" and "bluepointx" who seemed to have the most to say about using other standards like MIMI and pre-N.  As far as grades go, I would be hard pressed to suggest an A because I don't think there was a real solution offered.  I would recommend a B but I hate to see somebody get a B if they really tried to help so maybe and A for effort would be appropriate.

Thanks for your participation as well as everyone else who offered ideas.  If nothing else, we had a good exchange of thoughts on the subject.  I hope the industry can resolve this kind of issue with technological advances soon.  It has to be an issue with way too many people to not be addresses and resolved.

Mark
0
 

Author Comment

by:mgump9
ID: 17548133
rindi,

OK.  I closed the question and split the points.  I graded the answers B not for lack of effort but rather because I don't feel the question ever got a solid, definitive answer.  I appreciated all the ideas though.

Mark
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