I recently did some work extending the WiFi range of one of the largest houses I’ve ever worked in. Most properties in London are adequately served by a single wireless router. However this posh property, a gargantuan 6 floors in the middle of Central London, had some serious WiFi network issues. Despite deploying x1 Time Capsule, x4 AirPort Expresses and x1 AirPort Extreme, the owner could only get signal from their ground floor office up to the 1st floor, and the 3 floors above and the basement below were all out of luck. The previous IT support man wasn’t getting anywhere, and I was called in to put a stop to the problems and fix the issue once and for all.
Extending wireless signal without drilling holes
My solution needed to be effective and elegantThe owner was adamant about not doing any form of drilling, and he was right not to: the wooden finishing on this house is absolutely beautiful. When they refurbished the property, they took great pains to make sure there were no loose wires being shown anywhere and for everything to look perfect. Not only this, but the property was used as an upmarket base for meetings and sales. My solution needed to make sure that wireless signal was carried out throughout the house, but also without spoiling any of the interior design. An initial idea, of repeating wireless signal, proved to be ineffective at long distances, especially when repeated by 2 base stations.
Powerline (or power over ethernet) is an amazing piece of technology that allows ethernet signal to be carried from one power socket to another. It’s an elegant way of extending wireless signal without having to do any drilling at all – simply attach one point to the ground floor router, and then have termination points on every floor attached to a new wireless access point.
The problem with power distribution boards and powerline adapters
After liaising with the caretaker of the property, I was informed that the house’s power sockets were actually run from 3 different distribution boards. Roughly speaking, one distribution board powered the lift, whilst the other two were used for different floors. Therefore the powerline couldn’t be used to cover every single socket.
Luckily, after consulting the plans of the house, we discovered that the ground floor and the stairwells up to the 2nd floor ran from the same distribution board, therefore we could place an access point there and use repeaters to reach the 3rd and 4th floors.
Extending using AirPort wireless devices with powerline
The house already had a rudimentary Apple wireless system in place, so I chose to extend this existing system. Apple products tend to be quite costly compared to say Billion or Cisco, but make up for it in simplicity of setup and very solid reliability.
Extending an AirPort network is simple, simply use ethernet to attach to the AirPort Express or AirPort Extreme and setup the wireless network settings. We deployed x2 additional AirPort Extremes connected to 500mbps Billion powerline adapters to extend WiFi to the basement and to the 2nd floor stairwell, and rearranged AirPort Expresses to repeat wireless signal up to the 3rd and 4th floors.
The key to using powerline and AirPort devices is to make sure that they do not ‘Extend a wireless network’ – this will make the AirPort device ignore the ethernet and try to catch and repeat the wireless signal. Instead choose to ‘Create a new wireless network’ using the same name and password as the original WiFi signal.
With enough brainstorming and lateral thinking, most wireless signal problems can be solved cheaply and efficiently without having the drill holes. Furthermore, powerline is a real godsend, and can be used effectively in most properties.
Regarding distribution boards – if solid ethernet connections were required for every room on every floor, I would have seriously considered using powerlines to connect all 3 distribution boards to a single switch. This would allow every power socket to become a potential ethernet termination point.