General wifi assistance

Discussion in 'Tomato Firmware' started by koitsu, Mar 31, 2012.

  1. koitsu

    koitsu Network Guru Member

    I'm not a terse guy, so I'll do my best to explain my situation to folks. I should note I'm a senior UNIX SA + mid-level NA, so I'm extensively familiar with IP, but 802.11/wifi stuff (and antennas, etc.) is something I have very little experience with. But you can talk tech to me, don't worry.

    Please read what I've written in full. Don't skim because I'm trying to cover all my bases here and give folks the necessary info they need to help me in my quest. I'll get to what I need / my situation after I explain my current setup.

    My current setup:

    I have a small network setup (very bare-bones/simple/KISS) in my flat. It consists of a Motorola SB6121 cable modem (Internet/Comcast) which hooks up to the WAN port of my Asus RT-N16 (running TomatoUSB + Toastman tomato-K26USB-1.28.7497.1MIPSR2-Toastman-RT-VPN.trx). I predominantly use the Ethernet (LAN) ports on my RT-N16 for my workstations (FreeBSD box and Windows XP box). Everything works flawlessly, with great gigE throughput.

    Wifi-wise, my RT-N16 set to support B/G Mixed and I use WEP128 encryption. The encryption cannot be changed because my Nintendo DSi hand-held device, which I use regularly/daily, does not support WPA or better.

    My current wifi devices are a Nintendo DSi (which only supports WEP/WEP128 -- WPA is not supported), and my Canon PIXMA MX860 printer. My DSi gets an excellent signal all throughout my flat (according to its own little bar/metre thing, usually 5 metres, sometimes 4). My Canon printer is about 30 feet away and claims a signal strength of 81% and link quality of 86%. I also have friends who do come over with laptops/handhelds that use wifi, so 802.11g is needed for them.

    I have my output power in TomatoUSB set to 80mW. I'm using channel 1 (2.412GHz), and my channel width is 20MHz (not changeable). I'm using the stock RT-N16 antennas. A noise floor analysis in TomatoUSB returns -84dBm (not sure if this is good or bad).

    Within TomatoUSB's "Device List", when my Canon printer is idling, it tends to report -48dBm for RSSI, and a quality rating of 36 (3 bars). Yes I know how this is calculated; noisefloor - RSSI = pos(quality rating), i.e. -84 - -48 = 36. And yes, I have read the Tomato page about RSSI and how its a pain in the ass given all the different NICs/vendors driver/methodologies. I get it. PITA. I understand. :)

    I have not done speed/network diagnostics other than what you see above. The most I've done is a "Scan" from Basic->Network, on channels 1, 6, 9, and 11. I'm in an area (SF Bay Area) where everyone and their dog has an AP, so pretty much every channel has craploads of APs seen.

    I do not own a laptop with a wifi card in it, so I can't run inSSIDer to get some analysis results. I do, however, have a laptop through my workplace (Microsoft) which I could borrow for a day to take home, assuming its wifi chipset is usable in inSSIDer. Please let me know if this would help, and what I should be doing inside of the tool (I've never used it), and if I should take readings from both inside my flat as well as garage (keep reading).

    Okay, so I think that sums up my current settings and situation there. Now on to what I'm trying to accomplish:

    I need access to my LAN from my garage. (My flat is on the 2nd floor, garage is on the bottom floor, but not directly below me). The distance between the two is about 120-130 feet, and there are a good 6-7 walls, plus (probably) water piping and other things like that mixed in. It's an old building (built in the late 40s). I cannot use things like native Wifi cards in my machines in the garage; Ethernet is the only choice (please don't argue with me on this. It has to do with OS drivers and so on; welcome to the world of FreeBSD! This is not negotiable for reasons I refuse to get into, thanks!)

    As such, my choices are using an Ethernet-to-wifi bridge or a router in Wifi Bridge mode. I chose to try the former.

    The first device I tried was an IOGear GWU627, hooked up to a single 1U rackmount server. This device more or less worked, except randomly during heavy network I/O, I would see the actual Ethernet (LAN) port go down, then come back up between 15-60 seconds later. The GWU627 was not rebooting (its admin page did not show packet counters resetting to 0), instead it would just drop its Ethernet link then come back up. Based on my own conclusions/analysis, the GWU627 appears to be a re-branded Trendnet device (a single-NIC version of Trendnet's TEW-640MB). These devices, when they lose wifi connection, reset the LAN/NIC as well. So to me this meant the signal level sucked.

    I tried increasing the RT-N16 output power all the way to 200mW but it made no difference. With the GWU627, under Device List, I would see the quality usually around 1-2 bars at most. I do not remember what the RSSI was -- sorry.

    So I returned this device (given the Ethernet part of it going up/down -- totally unacceptable) and next tried to a Trendnet TEW-640MB, which had the benefit of offering 4 LAN ports. This device was the worst of the bunch. The first thing I encountered, even with the latest firmware and the device set to always have a static IP (, was that the device would randomly steal IP addresses from devices it saw on the local network. At one point it stole the IP address of my FreeBSD box (I confirmed this on all devices on my LAN by looking at ARP), and another time it stole the IP address of my Canon printer. This device went straight back to Amazon; such behaviour indicates a very, very badly written layer 2 and layer 3 stack. One other thing: the latest firmware for this device offered the ability to turn off LAN-port-reset when wifi went down. When disabled that annoyance, the device completely and entirely stopped working. Only a hard factory reset would make it usable again. It would lock up during boot-up. Wonderful consumer-grade quality.

    The next device I tried was a Cisco/Linksys WES610N, with the latest firmware. This device behaved very similar to that of the Trendnet device, although it tended to focus on stealing the IP address of my Canon printer. Whenever this would happen (and it would happen about 80% of the time, no joke), the WES610N would lock up. Visual inspection when this happened would show the device sitting idle except for one LED which was blinking at an *insane* rate: the wifi traffic LED. A power-cycle was required to get the unit working again, until it would behave the same way (after 10-15 minutes), lather rinse repeat. This unit also went back to Amazon. Like the Trendnet: high-quality consumer products.

    After all the above I said "fuck it" and invested in a 2nd Asus RT-N16. Well, what I ended up getting was an Asus RT-N16 Hardware Revision A1, which I did not feel comfortable keeping because it appears to have link speed negotiation problems with older revision SB6120 cable modems. (I wanted to use the Rev A1 in my flat and the older non-rev-A1 in my garage) You can read about my experience at the previous link. Because of this, I never got around to trying the unit from the garage.

    The next thing I bought (thinking maybe I could use my existing Asus RT-N16 in the garage, and use this new unit in my flat) was a Netgear WNR3500L. When it arrived, it was the WNR3500Lv2, which at the time only Shibby firmware supported (which I don't run; I run Toastman's firmware for a lot of reasons). In the past few days Toastman has gotten his firmware working with the WNR3500Lv2, but I haven't even unboxed the product yet. Toastman also pointed out that the WNR3500Lv2 appears to have an antenna/set that is about 2dB worse than the RT-N16, so that concerns me given what I want to do. So like I said, it's still in its box because if I need to return it to Amazon I'd rather it never be opened.

    Part of me is wondering if I'm just "flailing around" trying products/wasting time, or what I should be doing. Should I be considering alternate antennas for, say, an Asus RT-N16 in the garage? Should I be using directional antennas? Omni? What kind of connectors? Etc...

    As I said I'm not familiar with this type of hardware, so I'm hoping some other folks here can chime in and give me some good advice given what I'm trying to do. Honestly I'd just run Ethernet if I could, but I can't -- the garage as I said is not directly below my flat, it's below and over one unit, so diagonally distant from my flat/where my current router is, and my landlord will not let me drill holes or run cabling (I asked him and he looked at me like I must be joking/fucking with him. Seriously). So wifi it is.

    If folks could read this and let me know what a good first choice of action would be, that'd be awesome. If I need to use inSSIDer first to figure out what's a good "base environment" to start with, then move on to purchasing products (please provide links to hardware/etc. such as antennas, etc. that I can buy online), then that'd be awesome. This is a new, fun challenge that I need some insights into. :)

    Thanks folks!
  2. Toastman

    Toastman Super Moderator Staff Member Member

    Read your post carefully ... the situation in your apartment seems fine.

    I see the problem with regard to the garage. I would imagine the biggest problem is just lack of signal strength. That's quite a long way and the attenuation of the walls is not helping.

    I have some routers in a switch room also about the same distance away, one floor down, and with probably similar number of walls than you have. They are concrete block walls. I just enabled wireless on the routers to see if they were reachable from my apartment. And the answer was, not really.

    I have a ceiling mounted AP on the balcony right outside my apartment, giving it a big advantage as it is well in the clear. This AP actually has (almost) line of sight to the switch room, with far fewer of the walls in between. I can see the signal from those routers only occasionally, and at a level (-85 or so) that would not support a data link.

    Given that you have absolutely no choice there, there are a few things you could try.

    1) The use of directional antennas at both ends. Whether that would work, and be sufficient to overcome the other routers in the area you would only find out at the time.

    2) An intermediate relay using WDS maybe, somewhere between the two locations, landlord permitting.
  3. koitsu

    koitsu Network Guru Member

    Thanks, as usual, for the excellent insights Toastman.

    When you refer to WDS (something I'm not completely familiar with, but I have read enough manuals/general stuff on the web to understand the model), are you referring to this kind of WDS (which results in halved bandwidth), or are you referring to using something like the Netgear WN3000RP (a "wireless signal booster")?

    The signal booster is something I've considered -- and it's do-able, since the closest wall to the garage (within my flat) is within my kitchen which has lots of free AC outlets -- but I don't know how well those devices work. They seem somewhat magical, but I guess that's because I don't understand wifi much. :)

    Also, regarding use of directional antennas: wouldn't this greatly diminish my signal strength when it comes to using my Nintendo DSi? I don't know if directional antennas are incredibly accurate in their direction (i.e. straight line) or if they're more "cone-shaped" in their dispersal.
  4. Toastman

    Toastman Super Moderator Staff Member Member

    I don't know much about the signal boosters, whether they can be used with Tomato for instance. But any booster acting as a relay must be sending and receiving in both directions so the bandwidth would be halved. Since you can try WDS or Wireless Ethernet Bridge on any Tomato enabled devices, it wouldn't cost anything in the event it doesn't work.

    What I would do next is to try sticking a router next to that wall in the kitchen and see what the garage signal is like on a wireless survey.

    Yes, the directional signal would indeed affect the devices on your apartment, you could get around this by using a dedicated router (as an AP?) just for the link to the garage.
  5. koitsu

    koitsu Network Guru Member

    Well as my post shows, these Ethernet-to-Wifi bridge devices are total crap. I'm not talking about, say, an RT-N16 in Wireless Bridge mode -- haven't tried that yet -- but the generic devices that solve this sort of thing seem to be garbage. I'm pretty firmly set on the idea of having two routers: one for my flat (acting as a generic AP), and the other for the garage (acting in Wireless Bridge mode, since I have no wifi devices (laptops, handhelds, etc.) in use in the garage -- all that I need there is Ethernet).

    I'm trying to avoid actual WDS mode due to the halving of bandwidth. But the distance / signal is what concerns me -- and solving that may be as simple as buying different antennas (for the garage only, which I am 100% cool with).

    Question about antennas: is it plausible to, say, keep the omni antennas (stock RT-N16) on my router in my flat, but then buy a directional antenna for the router in the garage? Would this work how I imagine? (Meaning, would it help address the distance and signal quality issues?) I imagine two routers both using directional antennas would be best, but that's more for a "long range link" setup -- which is great if that's all people are using wireless for. In my case the router in my flat needs to remain omni given that it has other devices (DSi, printer, and the occasional laptop). I'm just not sure if I can use omni on one router and directional on the other.
  6. Toastman

    Toastman Super Moderator Staff Member Member

    Yes, a directional antenna on the device in the garage *might* give you enough gain to make it work better. Obviously, one at each end would be even better, not only for strength, but to exclude some of those external routers that you have nearby. I know it's not a tremendous distance, but the walls are the main factor here I guess. Semtex might be the answer :)
  7. koitsu

    koitsu Network Guru Member

    Hmm... well I have a couple other ideas first.

    Tonight I'm going to haul home my work laptop and try to get inSSIDer to work on it. Then I can take some general samples of things around my home (I can't wait to see the SSID scan + channel graph. I imagine it's going to show around 100 APs if my estimates are right), and in the garage. That might give folks a better idea of the situation.

    The next idea -- and this just hit me -- would be to talk to our maintenance guy rather than the landlord. The landlord is just one of those 60-something guys (I'm mid-30s, and yes I do respect my elders :p) who's all about money and is extremely reluctant to change of any kind. The maintenance guy is younger (late 40s) and is more reasonable and will help solve problems as long as it doesn't involve drilling or whatnot (that requires landlord approval). I just remembered that there's a 5-6 inch space under the hardwood floor in my flat (100% hardwood), and that my coax (for cable) actually goes down there, kinda towards the garage. My water pipes to my bathroom also go directly into my garage, so I'm thinking there might be some way we can run some CAT6 from where my router is down to the garage -- and if I move out, I can simply have him help undo that cable run. That solves the thing entirely without drilling, but I'll need to talk to him. I'll give him a call this weekend.

    The next idea would be to invest in some higher gain omni antennas like the Rosewill RNX-A8 for use in my flat. That's based on this review where an individual greatly increased everything simply buy buying these antennas. Now what I can't find is what the horizontal vs. vertical distribution range/percentage is (not sure of the terminology here). I know some antennas operate predominantly with a horizontal range and others vertical, while others are 360-degree (as in a sphere, so 360 vertical as well as 360 horizontal). Anyway, if use of the RNX-A8 stuff improves things, then maybe an RT-N16 in the garage with those same antennas would be good enough. I'm not looking to get insane speeds, but 20-30mbit would be really great given that the garage is to be used for building servers, and most of the work there involves heavy network I/O to my own LAN as well as to the Internet.

    What's a little confusing to me on the RT-N16 is that there's 3 antennas; I've never been sure why there's 3. I kept thinking "maybe two are for 2.4GHz and one is for 5GHz?" but I really don't know. I also always found it odd that in Tomato (and TomatoUSB) on the RT-N16 for antenna selection all you get is being able to assign Receive/Send antennas as Antenna A and B. But there's 3 on the RT-N16... *confused*

    Re: Semtex: congratulations, you just made me spit water out of my mouth while at work. Yes, Semtex, my landlord would love you. I wonder how I'd explain that one... "Well, err, you see... hey wait a minute you have a laptop and wifi at home, right? Welllllll...." ;-)
  8. Toastman

    Toastman Super Moderator Staff Member Member

    The maintenance guy is the key. Offer him a substantial benefit, say a Big Mac or something. I can't help thinking that any kind of wireless link to the garage is not going to be so wonderful I'd want to use it for anything "heavy". A 1 gigabit ethernet connection, on the other hand - no contest :p
  9. chocsoup

    chocsoup Networkin' Nut Member

    Have you considered changing tack and trying ethernet over power? Given the way electricity is installed in the US it may not work at all, but you don't seem averse to trying and returning things. I've never used it, but my 5 minute search indicates you could get 20-40 mbps throughput (over devices with a claimed 200 mbps).
  10. koitsu

    koitsu Network Guru Member

    I hadn't considered it until this morning. Two folks over on the DSLR forum recommended exactly that. Sadly this solution won't work because of how the electrical was done in this building. You can read my explanation over on DSLR. It's too bad it won't work because ideally that would be the perfect solution (and one I hadn't thought of). Frustrating indeed!

    I just left a VM for the maintenance guy asking for 15 minutes of his time to talk about the possibility of running plenum-grade CAT6 down to the garage, and if that's even possible or not. I don't know for sure what he'll recommend for alternatives, but he's super helpful so I imagine he'll have some ideas. Things like running external CAT6 (i.e. on the outside of building) is probably do-able, but would require my landlord's approval (I'm betting), and my landlord is... well, let's not go there.
  11. Toastman

    Toastman Super Moderator Staff Member Member

    You know, for some reason that simple solution just never popped into my befuddled brain. I never used one either, but they are now appearing in the shops over here for the first time.
  12. koitsu

    koitsu Network Guru Member

    Yeah me either. In fact a colleague/peer of mine on DSLR did a review of one recently. My concern with them (from the beginning) was latency and packet loss. You can read his review here. The latency appears extremely low, and the bandwidth quite good, even with AES encryption enabled -- and no packet loss. They even make gigE ones now (though I imagine you probably don't get as good throughput as actual Ethernet). Quite awesome devices nonetheless!
  13. chocsoup

    chocsoup Networkin' Nut Member

    I read your reply on DSLR and I don't think your power outlets have to be on the same circuit, but they do need to be on the same phase. From what I have read about ethernet over power, you will probably find that it will work in some of the power outlets of your some of your neighbours, and it is possible that it will work in adjacent buildings too. I have also read that it is possible for the signal to jump phases in some cases.

    Distance and old wiring are going to hinder its operation, but I wouldn't write it off just yet. Of course it's completely possible (but unlikely) that two outlets in the same room and only a couple of feet from each other won't work because they are on different phases.
  14. koitsu

    koitsu Network Guru Member

    Ah I see, hrm, well I don't know what "same phase" means exactly with context of actual breakers/etc. -- I'm not an electrician, and AC power is something that tends to scare me (turning the breakers off and doing inside wiring = no problem, but anything live = scares the hell out of me).

    Anyway, good news regardless -- the maintenance guy (who is a licensed electrician) came out today and we had to bother a couple neighbours to open their garages, but with absolute 100% certainty we can run about a hundred feet of CAT6 from my living room to my garage. :) We found all the necessary conduits/etc., and I got a quote for the work (very, very affordable) too. I also asked if I needed plenum, and he said "for this absolutely not, standard CAT6 would be within spec, don't bother with STP since there's no power lines that this will run parallel to". Just need to order the cable and do the work.

    Oh, that said -- I did get my work laptop and take readings with inSSIDer from all over my apartment, as well as down in the garage. (The maintenance guy thought this was amazing -- he's not technical at all, so he kept asking me tons of questions about networking, it was pretty fun actually). I can post those readings if people want. Pretty interesting results -- I'm actually surprised by how major of a signal drop there is just from my living room to my dining room (25 feet with partial wall blockage). I believe the degradation (for that wall anyway) is because that's where my gas wall heater (from the 1980s) is. Lots of metal, all sorts of gas lines running around there, etc... so I imagine that causes quite a bit of interference. Once you hit the kitchen (~70 feet away from the router, and its right above the garage), the signal is pretty bad. Once you go downstairs into the garage though, it's just atrocious.

    Footnote: one of my neighbours (whose garage we'll need access to to run the CAT6 up to my living room) seems to be a techy. "Running Ethernet?" "Yeah, wanted to see if that would be possible rather than dealing with wifi" "Ugh, wireless... slow, spotty. Yeah, just run Ethernet man". :)
  15. chocsoup

    chocsoup Networkin' Nut Member

    That's great news and certainly the best outcome. Fingers crossed it all works out. Maybe consider putting two runs of cable in to future proof?

    I guess the AC phase thing is only academic now, but in case you're interested, let's start with single phase. In Australia and the UK everything domestic is 220-240V - lighting, power outlets, fridge, stove etc. In the cable coming into the electrical panel in these countries there are 2 wires, a 240V ''hot'' or ''live'' line and a neutral. Touch the neutral and nothing happens (unless the wiring is faulty). Touch the hot and you'll get a 240V shock. Put one of each into a device and you have 240V power.

    In Canada and the US there are also plenty of things using single phase power, but these are all 110V. Same idea as before, but a 110V line and a neutral. However if you look at the electrical cable coming into your electrical panel there are three wires. A neutral, and two 110V lines, or phases. So if you want 110V you can use either one of the 110V phases (wires) and the neutral. When I say the same phase it means it is the same piece of wire. In your flat, one phase will be used for some 110v things, the other phase for the rest. So as long as the outlets in your garage and your flat were using the same 110V phase, then (to generalize), ethernet over power would work as the wires are connected together somewhere upstream. However if the outlets are using different phases then ethernet over power wouldn't work, because the signal wouldn't be traveling over the same piece of copper wire.

    As an aside, when you put both 110V phases into the same device then you get 220V, like in your oven, stove, hot water heater and maybe your clothes dryer. They don't add together, they ''kind of'' oppose each other, sort of like the difference between +110 and -110 is 220.
  16. CardinS2U

    CardinS2U Network Guru Member

    good idea i did the same thing. I the router in the living room to my room. I get pretty good signal, but with all the ap's around this apartment 45 aps total. Its insane!I gave up and just ran cat's to the room's. so happy to move out to a duplex soon.
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