Solving One Problem and Opening a Can of Worms

July 17, 2005

Technology, Wireless

I live at home with a wonderful wife and four great teenagers. My oldest daughter is a nineteen year-old college student. And as the first of four, she often feels “entitled” to special treatment. That’s not her fault. After all, she is the oldest. And much is expected of her. But she can (sometimes) be a real pain. And so begins the saga…

Meredith has been complaining that the wireless signal strength in her room is not very good. Actually, she compains that she can’t stream the music she wants to hear w/o running into periodic network disconnects. And she seems to think that the Microsoft “Repair” option is the best way to fix any network problem. Consequently, I started yesterday committed to the proposition that I would eliminate the reason for her griping.

Situation Analysis

As of yesterday morning, I had the following wireless infrastructure. I use a Linksys WRT54G. In fact, I am using one of the very first WRT54G’s that Linksys built. And I have used a number of different firmware builds over the years. I started with the stock Linksys builds. I then moved on to the Sveasoft builds. After becoming frustrated with the politics of the Sveasoft firmware, I moved to the HyperWRT build. I really like this build as it is the Linksys software with only a couple of minor tweaks – most notably, a power boost feature. So I’ve used HyperWRT for quite some time.

But Avenger (the firmware author) has been working on other things for the past couple of months. So I decided to try a few different builds. For the past few months, I’ve been using the DD-WRT build. This firmware is based upon the Sveasoft Alchemy base. And it adds some nice custom features – including a captive portal (Chilispot). It’s been an interesting build to play with.

In addition to the WRT54G (w/DD-WRT), I have four desktop systems in the house. All four systems use Windows XP. Fortunatley, all four systems have WinXP SP2 installed. Therefore, all three have the Windows Zero Configuration (WZC) support installed. In addition to these systems, my wife and I each have a laptop supplied by our employer. My system runs WinXP SP2 while my wife’s system still runs Windows 2000.

Attempt #1

I tried to reposition my daughter’s computer to get a better signal. This worked. But she wasn’t wholly satisified with the outcome. Actually, she was upset that she had to move anything, but that’s another matter. So I tried moving the wireless router so that I could get better coverage. This worked fairly well, but I couldn’t move the router too far away from the new cable infrastructure that was installed this past Thursday.

In the final analysis, moving stuff around helpd slightly. But for relocation to work, I would have to do some drastic rewiring and movement of the access point. So on to the next option.

Attemp #2

I decided to try the newest stock firmware from Linksys. The currently available version is 4.00.07. Based upon the release notes, Linksys had changed the wireless drivers. So I thought that the new drivers might provide better signal management – and maybe fix the problem. So I went and downloaded the firmware from Linksys and installed it on my router. Since I was using the DD-WRT firmware before, I had to first load a base Linksys firmware build, cold-start the unit (thus wiping out all firmware flotsam and jetsom) and then load the new Linksys firmware (also cold-starting after IPL).

And I love the new firmware from Linksys. It is quite nice. First of all, the new firmware supports WPA2 encryption. From the “Wireless -> Wireless Security” tab in the web UI, I noted all the fancy new options – including WPA2 PSK. So I just had to use this firmware. But there is more to WPA2 then just the router firmware. I needed to get WPA2 support onto all of the client systems.

On my Windows XP systems, I had to first ensure that they were using XP SP2. Fortunately, they all were. I then had to make sure that each system had the Windows zero config (ZCW) support for WPA2. In April 2005, Microsoft released Knowledge Base article #893357. This KB article includes the necessary patches to support WPA2 in the “Wireless Networks” tab of the “Network Configuration” dialogs. So I installed these updates.

But that was only the start. I needed to get new drivers that would support WPA2. Since most of my home systems use Linksys devices, I just had to get the right firmware loads/drivers from Linksys, right? Uh, wrong. Linksys does not provide support for WPA2 just yet. So I had to track down the drivers from Broadcom. BTW, you have to get the Broadcom drivers from a third-party. Fortunately, you can get the drivers for the Broadcom chipset from HP. They can be found here.

Of course, one of the cards was a more recent hardware build (the Linksys WMP54G v4). Apparently, Linksys abandoned the Broadcom chipset in faovr of equipment from RaLink. The drivers for the RT2500 chipset can be found here.

At this point, I installed the drivers on all the machines. Voila. I now had WPA2 support on all of my home systems. And it was easy to get WPA2 support on my office system. I use a Dell D600 with an Intel Centrino chip. I simply downloaded the most recent Intel drivers and I was in business.

My wife’s system was a little bit trickier. She has an older Dell system. And it is running Windows 2000. Fortunately, she is using a Linksys PCMCIA card (WPC54G). The most recent firmware for this card includes a WPA supplicant for Windows 2000. So with the installation of the Linksys code, I was in business.

So after all this research and several software upgrades, I was hoping for success. But there was no change in signal strength. While the WPA2 support is welcome, the new wireless drivers for the WRT54G did not solve my problem.

Attempt #3

I decided to take a different tack and change antennas. Yeah, yeah, I know. Changing antennas might have little impact on the problem. 2.4GHz signals are heavily attenuated by walls, foil-clad insualtion, and other building materials. But I thought it was worth a try. So I went to my local Best Buy and picked up the Linksys High Gain antenna kit. And while my hopes for success were high, the antennas didn’t provide the help I needed. In fact, signal strength dropped within the house. I would note that I had fewer dropped packets (as noise levels were much better). But in the final analysis, I didn’t want to spend that much money just so my neighbors could hear my signal better. So it was time to move on.

Attempt #4

At this point, I was getting a little frustrated. Since I’ve been running this same router for a number of years, I was starting to think the issue might be associated with the radio in the older unit. I had to return the antennas, so I figured that I would just exchange the antennas for a new WRT54G. I was very tempted to get some MIMO gear instead. But I let that craving pass.

So I went to Best Buy and picked up a shiny new WRT54G. I figured that I would be spending less – after the rebates – then I was willing to spend for the antennas. Of course, this meant that I would have to go through rebate purgatory with Best Buy. If you haven’t had to do a mail-in rebate with Best Buy, don’t try it. Fortunately, Best Buy will be phasing out their rebate program sometime during the next five years.

At the end of the purchase experience, I had a new router. And this v3 hardware has some real advantages to the previous hardware. First of all, it’s newer. So the radio signal is more stable. It seems “stronger” as well. Second, there is more memory in this device. This will make my custom firmware woes a little easier for the next few years.

So I got home and configured my brand new router. I first set it up with the stock firmware. I then upgraded it to the new Linksys version. While signal strength was not immensely better, it was good enough to keep working at it.

Attempt #4 – And Then Some

The more I started to think about the problem, the more I was getting frustrated. While the new router helped marginally, nothing was seeming to help in any substantive way. Then, I had a revelation. Approximately two months ago, I switched from HyperWRT to DD-WRT. And that was when my daughter returned from college.

By itself, this shouldn’t mean much. But then I remembered that some settings can be held in NVRAM between firmware loads. And more importantly, different firmware authors have different views on power settings. Linksys believes that power settings should be quite low – usually between 19mW and 21 mW. And Avenger sets the default for HyperWRT at 42mW. But the Sveasoft folks have always liked 28mW. And since DD-WRT is based upon Sveasoft Alchemy, it is set to 28mW by default. So when my daughter came home from college, I had unintentionally switched from 42mW to 28mW.

I could certainly boost the power setting for the DD-WRT firmware from 28mW to 42mW. That would solve things at least for a while. But that just wasn’t good enough for me. I had seen the new Linksys firmware. And I wanted to use the new WPA2 protocols. So I really wanted something with WPA2. After all, I had spent all that time upgrading the client systems to support WPA2. But the Linksys code wouldn’t provide the power boost that was neeeded to solve my daughter’s problems. I really wish Avenger had some magic up his sleeves.

>

Well, the folks from the HyperWRT team have come to the rescue. One of the great things about open source projects is that they are open. People can pick up where others have left off. And while Avenger is extremely busy with his “day job” responsibilities, Rupan has been able to pick up where Avenger has left off. He has taken the Linksys 4.00.07 firmware and added the HyperWRT power boost features. The saga of the last few weeks of HyperWRT development can be found in the “HyperWRT and 4.00.07G” topic at the HyperWRT forum. The bits [for the WRT54G only] can be found here.

So I loaded up the HyperWRT beta bits. And they are meeting my needs in every regard. Many thanks to the Linksys/Cisco folks for choosing to open up the firmware on one of their most successful products. And many thanks to Avenger, Rupan and the rest of the HyperWRT team. You guys rock!

Summary

Did I need a new router? Probably not. My real problems revolved around switches between various firmware levels and the default power settings that various authors used. But the new router is welcome nonetheless. The new radio is much more reliable and should provide an excellent duty cycle. Further, the additional memory will allow me to load all sorts of new features onto the router. And in addition to having a shiny new router (for only a couple of bucks, after rebate), I have also upgraded the entire household to WPA2. All in all, it’s been a successful weekend.

-CyclingRoo-

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One Comment on “Solving One Problem and Opening a Can of Worms”

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