Turn Your Old Router into a Range-Boosting Wi

Turn Your Old Router into a Range-Boosting Wi
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Turn Your Old Router into a Range-Boosting Wi-Fi Repeater
If you’re upgrading to a faster, stronger wireless
router, don’t chuck your older Wi-Fi box. With
the magic of DD-WRT, you can turn your older
wireless router into a range-expanding Wi-Fi
repeater to cover everywhere you need a
connection.
The advent of wireless home networks grew
slowly in the past decade, but reached the point
at which nearly every home with a high-speed
connection had a wireless router that shared WiFi connections throughout the home. Now Wireless N has become the standard at electronics retailers,
promising faster connectivity with your wireless devices, faster transfer and streaming speeds between
devices, and better connectivity. So what’s to be done with your home’s first wireless router?
Our suggestion is to install the open-source DD-WRT firmware on your router and turn it into a repeater
for your main router, expanding your Wi-Fi signal to reach
every nook and cranny of your house, and even into your
backyard or garage, if needed. You’ll be able to use the same
password and security scheme, you won’t need anything
except a power outlet for the repeater when you’re done, and
most of your devices will automatically switch between the two
signals when needed.
Of all the great DIY projects at this year’s Maker Faire, the one
project that really caught my eye involved converting a regular
old $60 router … Read…
We’ve previously run down how to install DD-WRT on a Linksys router to give it many, many more
features, including the repeater function we’ll cover here. If you’ve already installed DD-WRT, then, skip
to the section on repeater configuration. One notable difference in this guide, too, is that I’m installing a
custom build of DD-WRT, the “micro” flavor, on a Linksys WRT54G ver. 6, or “version 6.” Adam wrote his
original guide in 2006, with a fully-DD-WRT-compatible Linksys WRT54GL router, and at that point, those
who picked up a blue Linksys box without knowing about open-source firmware were pretty much stuck.
Now there’s a huge array of supported devices, and even my sadly restricted Linksys can run a Micro
build, and Micro now includes a repeater function.
Update: A Note on Speed
Some intrepid bandwidth watchers, Will Smith
among them, have pointed out that their own
experiments with repeating signals has left them
with slower connections. To be honest, I was
using the repeater mostly for Google Reader in
bed, and browsing and web working from
outside the house, so I hadn’t seen a noticeable
drop in speed. A few tests at SpeedTest.net tell
the tale. Pictured at left here is the result from
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my main router, a Buffalo model with Wireless N (detailed here), connecting from my upstairs office to
the downstairs living room, then Buffalo, NY to Toronto, ON.
This result is through the modified Linksys
WRT54G ver. 6 router about 10 feet away,
connected as a repeater to the Buffalo router
downstairs, and then tested again through
Toronto. There is, as you can see, a download
speed difference, and if I’d been using my
Wireless N modem, it might be even more
severe. So take a repeater for what it is—a slight
trade-off in speed for a greater reach, with your
mileage varying based on your hardware and
connection. You might also note, though, that
using SpeedTest’s Android app, I actually received better download speeds from my office through the
repeater than through the main router—for a smaller antenna, perhaps, connectivity can sometimes
win over latency concerns.
What You’ll Need
• Compatible router: Grab that old-but-stillworks router and flip it over. Get the model
number off the label, and write down the MAC
address, while you’re at it—the locations for
both, on a standard Linksys “blue box,” are
pictured above. Type the first few characters of
your model number into DD-WRT’s router
database, and look for your model to pop up. If
you get any kind of green “Yes” listed with your
model, you’re in the clear—even the most
pared-down DD-WRT build, micro, supports the
repeater function.
• Firmware files for your router: In that same router database,
click on the line that relates to your router model, then grab all
the files listed there. You may not end up using all of them, but
once you’ve taken your router offline, even if it’s not your main
router, you’ll want to have all your files available offline.
• Print-out of your instructions: There’s a good chance, if
you’ve got a fairly popular router, that you’ll have access
to specific router model instructions on the DD-WRT wiki. You’ll
usually see a link on the same page as your firmware files; if
not, go ahead and search the wiki. If you don’t have a printer,
or hate wasting paper, use a print-to-PDF tool like doPDF or the Nitro PDF Reader for Windows, or the
built-in PDF functions in Mac or Linux. The reason, again, is that you want to be prepared in case you
lose internet connectivity on one or more routers during the flash process.
• Ethernet cable & computer with Ethernet port: Enough cable to comfortably reach from your
computer to the router you’re working on, and a computer without any networking problems that you
know of.
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• A pen and paper: The paper for notes, and the pen for both writing and pressing and holding down
the reset button on your router.
• At least an hour’s time, and patience: Instructions for most routers are laid out in step-by-step detail,
with very specific instructions. Even so, you do not want to rush things, or load the wrong file at the
wrong time. Doing so opens the potential for a “bricked” router, one that doesn’t work and can’t be
accessed or set back to its default, factory-fresh state. That’s not going to happen to the patient,
cautious firmware flasher, though.
Get Started
As stated above, different routers will take different paths to installing DD-WRT. There are some
common procedures, and a general path, to getting it installed, though, so you can read along as I follow
the DD-WRT Wiki’s instructions for a WRT54G version 6 installation.
• Do a hard (30/30/30) reset on your router: A “hard” reset, or a “30/30/30,” means locating the reset
notch on the back of your router, then inserting a pen and holding it there for a total of 90 seconds—30
seconds at first with the power on, then yank the power cord and wait another 30, then plug the power
cord back in and wait 30 seconds, all while still holding the pen. It seems a bit excessive, but trust me—
I’ve had friends with electronic engineering skills explain just how finicky, and sometimes random,
physical memory chips like those in routers can be at holding their settings or otherwise not completely
blanking out.
• Set a static IP address on your computer: Most DD-WRT guides want you to set your computer’s IP
address, the one it draws from your router, to 192.168.1.7, and set a subnet mask to 255.255.255.0.
How do you do this in your computer, without
the router being accessible?
Head to Windows’ Network and Sharing Center,
usually by right-clicking on your network
connection icon in the system tray, or heading
there through the Control Panel. In the left-hand
panel, click “Change adapter settings,” then
right-click on your “Local Area Connection”
offering and select Properties. Under the
Network tab, select the “Internet Protocol
Version 4 (TCP/IPv4)” and hit the Properties
button. Now in the General tab, change the first
radio switch button to “Use the following IP
address:”, then enter 192.168.1.7 in the IP Address field, and 255.255.255.0 should fill itself in under
“Subnet mask.” Make sure you’ve got the IP entered correctly—Windows can skip the “7” part if there’s
only a single digit in the third section—and hit OK when you’re done.
Firmware Installation
Now we’re gonna get serious. Connect the Ethernet cable between your computer and the router—be
sure to insert the cable into one of the numbered ports, not the port labeled “Internet” that’s slightly
distanced from the others. Turn off any wireless connection to your main router, unplug any broadband
cellular modems, and so forth.
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In the case of my WRT54G ver. 6, I had to create
a customized flashing image for my router, with
a designated MAC address written in. The MAC
address is a supposedly unique identifier given
to all computer hardware that can access the
internet, one that allows networks to allow and
block hardware based on this address. Your
internet provider and the cable modem they
provided also tracks the MAC address of your
router, and can deny service if a different router
than the one the modem is used to servicing
suddenly appears. So I followed the instructions
for downloading GV5Flash.zip, unpacking its
contents, then running
the vximgtoolgui application and filling in the MAC address I wrote down from underneath my
router, and pointing the app at a place to drop the resulting .bin file.
Now you’re going to pull off one of those ”hard,” or 30/30/30 power cycles—hold down reset for 30
seconds plugged in, 30 unplugged, then 30 seconds again plugged in. When you’re done, wait a few
seconds, open your browser (making sure your computer’s still connected by cable), point it
to http://192.168.1.1, and you should get a prompt for a username and password. The default
for my router in this mode is “root/admin”—yours can likely be found atRouterPasswords.com, or in
your own DD-WRT instructions. After entering that combo, you should see the default router screen. A
Linksys default usually looks like this:
In most cases, you’re next going to head to the Administration section (circled in the pic), then click the
Firmware Upgrade sub-section. It’s usually a simple affair: a Browse button to find the file you want to
upload, and an OK/Apply button to set it in motion. From here on out, unless you have my same exact
router, you’ll possibly have a different set of one or two files to upload, in a very particular order—
follow your own DD-WRT customized instructions. In general, though, you’ll be doing a procedure along
these lines:
Uploading a “prep” file that gets your router ready for a new firmware.
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Waiting a solid five minutes—no cheating.
“Power cycle” the router (a simple unplug, 30-second wait, then re-plug).
Re-connect to 192.168.1.1, see the “Management Mode” window, then upload your (possibly
customized) specific DD-WRT image and hit Apply.
After seeing this nice little “Upgrade Success” message,
wait another full, honest five minutes.
Open a TFTP program, usually provided among your DDWRT files, and point it at 192.168.1.1 (your router). Select
your specific DD-WRT firmware (a micro build, in my
case), then set the retries to 99—But! Before
hitting “Upgrade,” power cycle your router, wait
a few seconds after re-powering, then go for it.
When your TFTP app has a green light and
success message, wait another full five minutes,
then come on back.
Undo the static IP setup you put in place on your
computer from the Network and Sharing
settings. Unplug and re-plug your cable, then
open a browser. If you can connect to
192.168.1.1 on your computer browser and see
a setup page for DD-WRT, do a (final) 30/30/30
“hard” reset on your router, then check that you
still see the DD-WRT setup. If so, you’re all set up!
Setting Up the Repeater
Now that you’ve got your oldie-but-goodie router set up with DD-WRT, you can set it up to pick up the
signal from your primary router and re-broadcast it within its own radius. Here’s how to do that.
With your computer still hooked up to the now-secondary router, head into the DD-WRT setup screen. It
will ask you to set a better password and username at first, so go ahead and do that—you’ll probably
want to set up the same admin/password as your primary router to avoid confusion. Once you’re in,
your setup screen will look something like this, as my Micro setup on my Linksys appears:
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First up, click on the Wireless tab, then choose Basic
Settings. Switch “Wireless Mode” to “Repeater,” and the
“Wireless Network Name” to the same as the main
router you’re going to be re-broadcasting. Don’t worry
about the bridged/unbridged radio buttons—they’ll set
themselves later. Hit the “Save” button at the very
bottom, but do not hit “Apply Settings” just yet.
In the “Virtual Interfaces” section, below that main
“Wireless Physical Interfaces” section you just modified,
hit the “Add” button, then enter a new name for your
repeater—don’t use the same as your router, or else
suffer the wrath of confused devices. Adding “Repeater”
or “2” to the end of your main router’s name is pretty
sensible in most cases. If you prefer an access point that
doesn’t broadcast its name, save that for switching off
later—while we’re testing our repeater, we’ll be using
basic settings to make sure the connection goes
through. Hit the “Save” button at the bottom again.
With the main Wireless tab still selected, head to
the “Wireless Security” sub-tab to the right.
You’ll see two interfaces again—a “Physical
Interface” and a “Virtual Interface.” In the
“Physical Interface” section at the top, fill in
the same exact security settings as your primary
router—the security mode, the algorithm (TKIP
or AES, generally), and the password any device
would use to connect. You might need to jump
back into your primary router settings to confirm
these—that’s fine, but do so from another
device. Under the “Virtual Interface” section, set
up the same exact security settings as your
primary router, again. Hit the “Save” key at very
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bottom again and, again, avoid “Apply Settings”
for the moment.
Jump over to the Setup tab at the very top, then
scroll down to the Network Setup section under
Basic Setup. The main thing to do here is slightly
alter the “Local IP Address” from what your
primary router is. If you connect to your main
router at 192.168.1.1, for example, set this
repeater router to something like 192.168.2.1, or
another number that you can remember in the
second-to-last position. Hit (you guessed it!)
Save.
Finally, head to the Security tab up top, and in
the Firewall section, disable the “SPI Firewall,”
and un-check everything under the “Block WAN
Requests,” except “Filter Multicast.” Hit “Save”
at the bottom one last time.
Finally, head over to Administration, doublecheck that you’ve got your administrator
password written down or remembered, and hit
“Apply Settings” at the very bottom. Your router
will reset itself now, so give it time to do so.
Unplug your computer’s Ethernet cable, turn on
a wireless device, and see if you can find your
new repeater bridge. Connect to it, use the same
password you’d use for the main router, and you
should have success. If not, run through the
steps and double-check your settings. DDWRT’s wiki page for WLAN Repeaters has a good
deal of troubleshooting advice, so check there
too.
You’ve now got a second Wi-Fi station in your house that picks up signal from the main router and offers
it out to devices that are farther out. It’s likely not as fast a connection between devices—it’s wireless G,
in most cases, as opposed to N. Then again, at this point, there are very, very few services or streaming
applications that make full use of Wireless N’s crazy bandwidth potential, so your Hulu streaming, web
browsing, and other usual internet life will likely be unaffected.
In my own case, my wife and I don’t have to use modern-day divining tricks in our very non-linear
Victorian home to keep a spotty Wi-Fi signal to an iPod touch or Android phone, and a side patio has just
become a preferred secondary home office for the summer. As a bonus, my closest neighbors now know
that I’m a serious, serious nerd when they fire up their laptops. Here’s hoping you find similarly fun and
free uses for a Wi-Fi repeater.
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