Your business is humming and everyone is feeling productive thanks to your office’s wireless network. But maybe you are feeling some growing pains. Perhaps some parts of the office have a weak wireless signal. Or there are so many users on the wireless network that people are complaining of sluggish speeds or not being able to connect at all. It’s time to grow that network.
It’s easy to expand a wired network. Your network setup probably resembles something like this: a router connected to the modem provided by your ISP, such as a cable modem, DSL modem, or even a high-speed FiOS line. Once you run out of ports on the router, you can just connect a network switch to one of those ports, and then start connecting your devices through the new switch. Now you cover more devices, and if the Ethernet cable is long enough, more distance, as well.
Enlarging a wireless network is not as simple, because wireless ranges vary on a number of factors, such as walls, electronic interference from other devices, and the strength of the wireless antenna on your router. In this Working Without Wires, we show you that if you know how to set up a wireless network, you can easily extend it, too. We go over mesh networks and wireless extenders so that you can decide which option works for you.
Expand with APs
If you bought a business-class wireless router (and not a consumer-grade one), odds are the manufacturer has access points (APs) that can work with your model. These access points connect seamlessly with the original wireless router and just repeat the signal. It’s your easiest step, and another reason why small businesses should make the initial investment to a business-class router instead of consumer models.
If APs are not in your future, you can look at a wireless extender. These devices are designed to grab an existing wireless signal and repeat it. Many models just plug into the electric outlet on the wall, making them easy to deploy throughout your space. Because it is repeating the signal, it needs to be well within range of the original wireless router, but because it amplifies the connection further, it extends your coverage area. They are generally not as robust as APs, but work pretty well if you are just trying to extend the network to the back area of the office or another room. They won’t help you if you trying to increase the number of users, though.
Some wireless extenders will just repeat the same wireless SSID, and others will show up on the network as a different SSID. When setting up the extender, just check the options. The extended SSID won’t be handling any of the network functions, such as DHCP, but will just pass the traffic directly to the original router. Just a note that when you are shopping for an extender, try to match the specs: if you have a dual-band router, get a dual-band extender.
Before setting up an extender, configure your original router to a fixed channel instead of the default auto (you will see this option on the router’s configuration interface, in the section for wireless). You will also need to know the security type of your wireless network. If you are still using WEP, I highly recommend (insist) that you switch to a better protection scheme such as WPA2 at this time.
Using a Spare as an Extender
If you happen to have a spare wireless router (perhaps an older model) lying around, you can repurpose it as an extender. You need to first assign a channel on your main router (instead of auto, remember?) and make a note of the security type. Check also, for its DHCP range. You can find this under DHCP, where it displays a range like 192.168.XXX.XXX to 192.168.xxx.xxx (or 10.xxx.xxx.xxx to 10.xxx.xxx.xxx). Set up the new router, which is now the slave router (to the original, which is the master router), by connecting it directly to a PC and accessing the router’s configuration interface.
Just set it up as you would a regular wireless network, except assign a fixed IP address that is legitimate, but far enough that your master router will never assign the address to another device. So if your DHCP range is 192.168.1.2 to 192.168.1.49, then assign 192.168.1.50 to the router. It’s still a valid address, but not one the DHCP server will use. If you are using MAC filtering on your network, you can just assign the slave router’s MAC address to a specific IP address, and specify that during setup.
Make sure to turn off DHCP on the slave router’s interface…your master router is the only who should be handling all network functions. You should be able to assign the same SSID to the router to seamlessly broadcast your wireless signal.
If your router is one of those models locked down so that this method doesn’t work, consider installing the open source firmware dd-wrt or Tomato. Installing a firmware on the router isn’t as scary as it sounds, and the administrator interface afterwards doesn’t look too different from the router interface you are already used to.
Mesh networks are powerful and you may have heard them in relation to municipal networks and other large-scale networks. They create multiple connections between devices and routers, so that if one network segment fails, other devices continue to work. They are more expensive to deploy, but Meraki (now Cisco) and Ruckus Wireless are among a handful of companies with SMB-friendly products. Meraki in particular is really easy, as it lets you deploy and manage the access points through a cloud portal. If you anticipate growing your business rapidly, making the investment to mesh will pay off.
Your wireless network is an important part of your network infrastructure. Make sure you are thinking to the future as you expand and grow.
For more, check out previous Working Without Wires columns:
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