Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sixty Bucks for a Better Internet

Warning: there's a high level of technical hardware geek-speak in this post. Skip to the last section for the good stuff.

A bit of history

I've been using my old TP-Link TL-WR740N routers for about four years. Yes, I said routers, plural. Part of my home network involves having multiple access points so I can move from room to room and my devices will automatically switch to the signal with the best strength. This approach wasn't bad, and at about thirty bucks a piece when I bought them, it was a cost-effective means of putting together a reliable home network.

I use the DD-WRT open source router firmware on my devices, and it's incredibly powerful. All sorts of awesome settings and advanced features. That means I can have many routers (at one point I had as many routers as there are rooms in my apartment), using one main router to distribute IP addresses and network connections.

The Problem?

This is actually fewer networks than I usually see.
My apartment building is built with concrete walls. Great for structural integrity, but not so good for WiFi connections. Compounding that is the sheer number of WiFi networks competing for space. Think of it as rush hour - so many packets of information all competing for the same bandwidth operate in a similar fashion as cars competing for lane space. Even with my networks on the less popular channels, I was still getting slow connections.

I finally decided it was time to take action. My tech situation is different from when I purchased my old routers: I have many devices that support 5GHz WiFi now, so it was time to upgrade to better network hardware. There were a few things I wanted to check before I made any purchase:
  1. It has to be low cost. I wasn't interested in dropping a hundred bucks on a router just to see faster connections.
  2. It has to support DD-WRT. I've gotten accustomed to a certain level of control, and going back to stock firmware isn't an appealing option. This also ensures that it will work properly with my existing hardware.
  3. It has to be dual-band. Not all my devices support 5GHz, but to get to the area of the wireless spectrum with less traffic, it's gotta be 5GHz.
  4. The device needed to use the Atheros wireless chipset. Again, this was to ensure full network compatibility with my other hardware, but DD-WRT has some limits when run from the Broadcom chipset.

My New Device

I settled on another TP-Link device (since I've found they're really quite good, and very cheap), this time going with the WDR3600. A few factors influenced my decision, listed in order of importance.
  1. It was cheap, at around $60 CAD. 
  2. It supports DD-WRT. You can find out if yours does by visiting their router database.
  3. It got good reviews.

Protecting my Network with OpenDNS

One of the things I discovered during the flashing and setup process was that I can use the free OpenDNS Family Shield DNS servers to block access to inappropriate sites. This is a great feature, since my two children are starting to spend more time on devices. It was pretty easy to set up, and with the advanced control of the open source firmware I installed on my router, I can force all network traffic to use the filter. Check out instructions at this link.

The Result

My new network, all alone!
Faster, more reliable connections throughout my apartment. Secured access for my children. A bonus network-attached storage device I can access from anywhere in my local area network. The biggest hassle was remembering all the devices I needed to adjust to connect to the new network.

At the farthest point in my apartment from my new router, this is the signal strength. It's not bad, and with three concrete walls between the access point and my phone, I'm pretty happy with the result.

Next Steps

I still haven't shut down my previous network. I'm running two (actually, three) networks concurrently. I'll be tweaking settings here and there, and once it's exactly how I want, I'll shut down the old network. I also want to set up configuration for a guest access network, with restrictions on throughput, so when my friends come over I can share something with a less-complicated access key. I'll be able to turn it on and off at will, so when no guests are over, the network will be disabled.