A Gizmo That Works: Wi-Fi Range Extender

By James Fallows

I realize that a Wi-Fi signal that doesn't quite cover the entire house epitomizes the "stop, you're breaking my heart!" rarefied complaint. By the way, please see Alexis Madrigal's very sensible takedown of the concept of #FirstWorldProblems.

Still, I can't be the only one who views in-home Wi-Fi coverage as an area for possible improvement. In our house, the broadband cable comes in on the top floor of one corner of the house, which conveniently is where my office also is. (Why cable connection on the top floor? It is fed straight over from a telephone pole.) But a Wi-Fi router placed up there sends a signal that doesn't reach the lower floors and the other side of the house, which is where we are a lot of the time. And placing the Wi-Fi router anyplace else would mean snaking Cat 5 cable down the stairway and through other rooms, which my wife has informed me we are not going to do.

Over the years I've tinkered with various solutions, including for a while an ingenious system that conveys internet signals over household electric wiring. But the solution I've recently tried is by far the simplest: the Wi-Fi Range Extender from Belkin, for $65 - $75. It is shown below in a tasteful holiday setting in our dining room. My wife was not around at the time of this picture; at her direction, the device spends much of its time in a less conspicuous place than this.

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The extender works by taking your existing Wi-Fi signal and re-propagating it to cover more of the house. Our existing dual-band router now sends out two signals, which I'll call Network1 and Network2. Nerds will know that one is 2.4GHz and one is 5GHz. The extender creates two new Wi-Fi signals, let's say Network1_xt and Network2_xt, which are broadcast from its new location. You just need to place it close enough to the original router to receive its signal -- and close enough to the now-uncovered areas to extend coverage to them.

Less than five minutes after I opened the box, no joke, the new gizmo was running*, and the two new networks extended coverage to all parts of our house. Now I have even fewer excuses for being so behind on email! Our original Wi-Fi router is also by Belkin, but the specs say that the extender should work with Linksys or other routers that produce a normal signal. Specifically, it requires an 802.11a/b/g/n router with 2.4GHz and/or 5GHz bands. That means: any mainstream Wi-Fi.

There may be other extenders that are cheaper or have some other feature; I didn't take the time for systematic research. I saw this on sale and decided to give it a try. Many people already use similar systems. But in case you'd been wondering whether they actually worked, I wanted to report that this one did, for me.

* The full set-up routine was as follows:
 - Plug the extender into a power socket;
 - Connect it with an Ethernet cable to a computer that is receiving your existing Wi-Fi signals;
 - Open a browser and confirm that you'd like to extend those Wi-Fi signals, and enter your existing passwords, if any;
 - Disconnect the Ethernet cable; put the extender where you want it; done.

Update. A physics professor writes:

Decent solution but not a great one. Trouble is that all wireless repeaters cut your bandwidth in half due to the need to speak to two clients simultaneously instead of just one

In principle yes. In practice no noticeable difference as I sit at the computer and prowl around the internets. And of course I could just unplug the extender when not needing the extra range.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/12/a-gizmo-that-works-wi-fi-range-extender/249811/