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WiFi on a netBook - Part 4 - Upgrading to broadband


Living as I do in a rural part of the Berkshire countryside - albeit only about 35 miles from the centre of London as the crow flies - I was, until recently, deemed 'un-ADSLable' by BT. Hence I was using an unlimited dial-up account to get a 56K connection to the internet. Not ideal - but not much I could do about it either. However, I bought myself an Apple Airport access point (AP) off eBay a short while after writing the previous artcles/pages.

Apple Airport 'Snow'

The reason for buying this was because - unlike most plain AP's that just have an ethernet input connection - it also had a built-in 56K dial-up modem. The stated purpose of this modem according to the literature was to "act as a backup connection should the ethernet broadband fail". Except in my case it was my only connection! And it worked perfectly well with my various PCs as well as my netBook to give a WiFi connection over dial-up. The advantage of this over using a peer-to-peer setup as I described previously was that the main PC didn't have to be left switched on if I wanted to use my netBook (or another laptop, etc.) online.

In fact I wrote an EPOC shell program to run a small Java routine that would allow control of the dialing/disconnection of the Airport from my netBook itself. It wasn't great but it worked (see APDialer on the Software page if it's of any interest). This setup wasn't totally ideal for a couple of reasons (bandwidth connection aside):

The Apple Airport would only let you set one dial-up number at a time. So no big deal, right? You can only connect to one number at a time anyway! True, except that in an effort to improve their customers' experiences of getting connected over dial-up, many of the main ISP's (I was using FreeServe [now Wanadoo - soon to be Orange!] at the time) were giving out multiple dial-up numbers - usually via an intelligent piece of Windows software that automatically dialled the next number in the list if the 1st was engaged, etc. Fine - but no help if you have to manually enter all the configuration details into the Apple prior to using it and it's only got space for one number. Usually this wasn't a problem but at peak times the dial-up number was sometimes engaged and I then had to choose whether to try again later or to go through the palaver of changing the dial-up number in the Airport...

The range of the Apple AP wasn't great. It would generally stretch to a couple of rooms but that was about it. I bought an external antenna and connected it in through the case in an attempt to improve the range but I suspect that this had limited effect.

Of course, on the plus side, the Apple unit looked about as sexy as I imagine an AP can look! Almost made you wanna go out and buy that Apple Mac that you like the look of... A bit like the Bang & Olufsen effect of totally lusting after a gadget in a window - without necessarily knowing what on earth it does. All very well and good until your wallet manages to get a main-line connection to your brain!

Broadband arrives:

Happily BT announced early in 2004 that suddenly ADSL was able to reach further than before and that they'd be switching on this 'extra range' in September. Sure enough in September I found that suddenly our house could be reached (just!) with a 512Kb connection!

Now, we didn't actually use BT as our phone service provider; having opted instead for an 'all you can eat' landline deal from OneTel some months previously. It took OneTel a few weeks before they started offering this extended range as well but as soon as they did we signed up for a combined 'unlimited calls + broadband' package for a lot less than the equivalent from BT. In fact, there was a double-whammy saving for us since previously we'd paid for a 2nd phone line to use as a dedicated internet line and now we could switch that line off completely.

Give OneTel their due, the process of turning our line from a plain-Jane phone line into a super-whizzy ADSL+phone in one went entirely smoothly. We'd heard a few horror stories from friends and neighbours about BT trying to do it for them but in fact we didn't have any contact with BT during this process at all. OneTel's website tracked the process of our request on a daily basis, the 'free' equipment (i.e. a cheap USB ADSL modem, 2 microfilters, and software package) turned up in a few days and the line itself was live within abiout 10 days (less than the 15 specified on OneTel's website.

Extra equipment:

Now, a USB ADSL modem is just fine for a domestic broadband connection if you've just got one PC and it happens to be located near to your phone line. However, if you've got multiple PC's and laptops (and a netBook!) located all over the place and/or would like the flexibility of easily moving these around, then a WiFi connection is definitely a useful thing. And fortunately you can now buy AP's with built-in ADSL modems - they're typically called ADSL gateways (or combined ADSL routers/access points).

So even before the ADSL got connected, I went looking for one of these little gizmos. I wish I had carried out more research in that early stage because I chose poorly. I ordered a Linksys WAG54G - based almost entirely on Linksys's reputation and experience I'd personally had of some their other products previously.

Linksys WAG54G

With hindsight I wish I had some some basic research first. A quick look online at many of the forums that talk about such things reveals that these models - especially the 1st generation versions - were notoriously unreliable. My unit was typical of the 1st generation breed it seems. When it was working, it was fine. However, I had a number of problems with the WiFi signal itself dropping for no apparent reason and even more problems with the unit dropping the ADSL connection on a regular basis. I upgraded the firmaware for the device on a regular basis (alarm bells should have rung when I realised just how many firmware upgrades Linksys were releasing for it!) but at best I wouldn't say that things ever improved beyong 'flaky' at best! At one stage, it got to the point that I was having to reset the unit 2 or 3 times a day. Sometime this would fix the problem. Other times the unit would forget all its setting and these would have to be re-entered or re-loaded before attempting connection again. Indeed I would have returned the unit to the original supplier as being 'unfit for purpose' had not that original supplier been bought out by another company.

In the event, I ended up selling the WAG54G a few months after getting connected and - after carefully researching the options this time - bought a Netgear DG834G. Thus far I'm happy to report it has been rock-solid only requiring a couple of simple resets over the couple of months that I've now had it.

Netgear DG834G

I have to admit, using WiFi on a netBook over a broadband connection is an extremely liberating experience! Being an 'always on' technology, there's no waiting for a dial-up connection to be established. All you have to wait for is the quick handshaking between your 802.11b WiFi card in your netBook and your access point or gateway - a matter of literally a second or two. Then everything begins to flow! My Buffalo WiFi card stays permanently in my netBook's PCMCIA slot these days so it's extremely quick to check email - just flip it open, Email app. Ctrl+C to choose the account, connect, Ctrl+D to close the account, and close the machine!

It's interesting to see what applications on a netBook can actually make best use of the speed. Email is reasonably fast (although, if you have to use something like SmtpAuth when sending then this slows things down somewhat). Opera does get faster - but the speed at which it can render pages and graphics is basically its limiting factor, not the speed of the data. Probably the best application for seeing the speed increase is nFTP (although this kind've assumes that you've got some sort of web space that requires you to use it). I find that I can get a consistent throughput (i.e. on large files) of about 15Kb/s when uploading to my website. Given that of course a 512K ADSL connection normally only gives you 256K upstream (the 512K figure is a measure of the download speed), this seems reasonably good. I'm not certainly but I think it's my ADSL speed that's limiting the netBook here as I've uploaded files over faster connections in hotels whilst travelling on business and I think I've seen faster speeds - I'll try and pay more attention to that next time!

Security shmecurity:

I think I may have mentioned earlier somewhere that I live in 'the sticks'. Wireless security is - if I'm honest - not of massive concern to me. Without wishing to be ageist; I seriously doubt if the neighbours on either side of me would know how to turn a PC on - let alone know what WiFi is. That's no critisism - it's just the type of people they are. And so - unless the cows in the field behind us are secretly hooking up to the internet using a 'cantenna' pointed at my house - I doubt whether anyone is listening in.

And if someone is trying to slurp off my connection, I'm really not too worried - I'm on an uncapped connection after all. Although they'd pretty much have to be sitting on my drive in order to be doing it! And not a great deal of what I send via email or browse could really be considered sensitive. Yes, I use internet banking and order stuff online - but all those financial type transactions are all encryped using SSL so they're pretty secure anyway.

In reality I do take some security precautions. All my connections are MAC filtered - in other words, only WiFi cards with an authorised MAC addresses built into them are authorised to connect to my Gateway. The Gateway itself has all its standard security features turned on - true firewall, SPI, DoS protection, etc. And all the standard passwords are changed and rotated of course...

Extending the range...:

One slight issue I found was that - whilst the wireless performance of Netgear DG834G was fine (and in fact its WiFi range was similar to the other 802.11b units I'd used before) - it didn't quite stretch to all points within our house. Our house might loosely be described as an 'extended bungalow'. I.e. some rooms upstairs but predominantly on the ground floor - and hence with a tendency to sprawl! As a result, the signal strength at the bottom half of our lounge was marginal and effectively non-existent in the main bedroom (although this mainly due to the hot water tank being in a direct line between the bedroom and the DG834G - it's complicated!).

In theory of course you can now get 802.11n MIMO units that effectively extend the range of your WiFi. However, this wasn't a viable solution for me since a) I didn't want to have to replace a bunch of 802.11b adapters/cards/etc. that I'd already invested in, and b) it was a non-starter for my PCMCIA-only slot netBook!

The other solution was to bring my Apple Airport unit out of semi-retirement in order to act as a 2nd access point elsewhere in the house. Fine in theory but how to get the signal from the Netgear DG834G to the Airport? Certainly, trying to route 10-15m of ethernet cable around our house was going to go down like a lead balloon...

The solution turned out to be (IMHO) quite elegant. I purchased a 'homeplug networking' starter kit - specifically a Devolo MicroLink dLAN HomePlug Ethernet Starter Kit (!). This is a fancy name for ethernet over power and basically amounts to two reasonably bulky power plugs with some LEDs on them and an ethernet port on each.

Devolo MicroLink dLAN HomePlug Ethernet Starter Kit

In normal use you'd connect one of these to your ADSL modem (the DG834G in my case) using an ethernet cable and plug the unit into the mains. The other unit gets similarly plugged into the mains next to your PC and connected to it using an ethernet cable again. They're pretty self-configuring and so within a few minutes of testing this I had a good ethernet connection to my ADSL box through the mains (a slightly weird experience!).

Since what comes out of the 'receiving' Devolo plug once it's set up as above is effectively just a standard ethernet signal connected to the internet, it's perfectly feasible to plug this signal into another Access Point (AP) so that it effectively acts as a 'repeater' to extend the range of your WiFi coverage (although see the 'Additional Notes' section below). And this is exactly what I did - using the Apple Airport as the AP.

And I'm very pleased to report that this setup has worked perfectly since I installed it 3 or 4 weeks ago (at time of writing) - it's not given problems once. The Devolo kit reports a connection speed of about 8 or 9Mb/s - which I consider to be quite extraordinary considering that my Netgear DG834G gateway sits right next to the main house fusebox and it (and hence the 'transmitting' Devolo plug) are plugged into a spur directly off this - presumably pretty dirty (from a mains noise point of view) - supply and it then sends around the looping mains wiring over a distance of I guess 20-30m. Certainly that speed is nowhere near being a limiting factor for me since a) 802.11b has a (theoretical) maximum speed of 11Mb/s, and b) my ADSL connection is only 512Kb/s right now anyway!

Additional Notes:

1) When I initially set up the 'receiving' end of the Devolo link, I plugged the unit into the multi-plug adaptor that my home desktop PC, monitor, printer, and about 10 other peripherals and gadgets were also plugged into. It didn't like that much and had problems getting a reliable link to the other Devolo unit. However, when I then plugged it in to it's own separate socket (away from any peripherals, etc.) it worked perfectly. My assumption is that I have a particularly 'dirty gadget' somewhere (no wisecracks please!) and that it was generating so much interference on the line nearby. A point worth noting.

2) When setting up two AP's to work together such that their coverage may overlap in places, you need to ensure that their 802.11 channels don't interfere with each other. To do this, you keep the channel numbers at least 3 apart. In my case, my DG834G was already on channel 3 - so I set my Airport to channel 6.

Part 5 - Extending the network

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Friday, 5 May 2006