If you’re upgrading to a faster, stronger wireless router, don’t chuck your older Wi-Fi box. With the magic of DD-WRT, you can turn your older wireless router into a range-expanding Wi-Fi repeater to cover everywhere you need a connection.
The advent of wireless home networks grew slowly in the past decade, but reached the point at which nearly every home with a high-speed connection had a wireless router that shared Wi-Fi connections throughout the home. Now Wireless N has become the standard at electronics retailers, promising faster connectivity with your wireless devices, faster transfer and streaming speeds between devices, and better connectivity. So what’s to be done with your home’s first wireless router?
We’ve previously run down how to install DD-WRT on a Linksys router to give it many, many more features, including the repeater function we’ll cover here. If you’ve already installed DD-WRT, then, skip to the section on repeater configuration. One notable difference in this guide, too, is that I’m installing a custom build of DD-WRT, the “micro” flavour, on a Linksys WRT54G ver. 6, or “version 6”. Adam wrote his original guide in 2006, with a fully-DD-WRT-compatible Linksys WRT54GL router, and at that point, those who picked up a blue Linksys box without knowing about open-source firmware were pretty much stuck. Now there’s a huge array of supported devices, and even my sadly restricted Linksys can run a Micro build, and Micro now includes a repeater function.
What You’ll Need
• Compatible router: Grab that old-but-still-works router and flip it over. Get the model number off the label, and write down the MAC address, while you’re at it — the locations for both, on a standard Linksys “blue box”, are pictured above. Type the first few characters of your model number into DD-WRT’s router database, and look for your model to pop up. If you get any kind of green “Yes” listed with your model, you’re in the clear — even the most pared-down DD-WRT build, micro, supports the repeater function.
• Print-out of your instructions: There’s a good chance, if you’ve got a fairly popular router, that you’ll have access to specific router model instructions on the DD-WRT wiki. You’ll usually see a link on the same page as your firmware files; if not, go ahead and search the wiki. If you don’t have a printer, or hate wasting paper, use a print-to-PDF tool like doPDF or the Nitro PDF Reader for Windows, or the built-in PDF functions in Mac or Linux. The reason, again, is that you want to be prepared in case you lose internet connectivity on one or more routers during the flash process.
• Ethernet cable & computer with Ethernet port: Enough cable to comfortably reach from your computer to the router you’re working on, and a computer without any networking problems that you know of.
• A pen and paper: The paper for notes, and the pen for both writing and pressing and holding down the reset button on your router.
• At least an hour’s time, and patience: Instructions for most routers are laid out in step-by-step detail, with very specific instructions. Even so, you do not want to rush things, or load the wrong file at the wrong time. Doing so opens the potential for a “bricked” router, one that doesn’t work and can’t be accessed or set back to its default, factory-fresh state. That’s not going to happen to the patient, cautious firmware flasher, though.
As stated above, different routers will take different paths to installing DD-WRT. There are some common procedures, and a general path, to getting it installed, though, so you can read along as I follow the DD-WRT Wiki’s instructions for a WRT54G version 6 installation.
• Do a hard (30/30/30) reset on your router: A “hard” reset, or a “30/30/30”, means locating the reset notch on the back of your router, then inserting a pen and holding it there for a total of 90 seconds — 30 seconds at first with the power on, then yank the power cord and wait another 30, then plug the power cord back in and wait 30 seconds, all while still holding the pen. It seems a bit excessive, but trust me — I’ve had friends with electronic engineering skills explain just how finicky, and sometimes random, physical memory chips like those in routers can be at holding their settings or otherwise not completely blanking out.
• Set a static IP address on your computer: Most DD-WRT guides want you to set your computer’s IP address, the one it draws from your router, to 192.168.1.7, and set a subnet mask to 255.255.255.0. How do you do this in your computer, without the router being accessible?
Now we’re gonna get serious. Connect the Ethernet cable between your computer and the router — be sure to insert the cable into one of the numbered ports, not the port labelled “Internet” that’s slightly distanced from the others. Turn off any wireless connection to your main router, unplug any broadband cellular modems and so forth.
Now you’re going to pull off one of those “hard” or 30/30/30 power cycles — hold down reset for 30 seconds plugged in, 30 unplugged, then 30 seconds again plugged in. When you’re done, wait a few seconds, open your browser (making sure your computer’s still connected by cable), point it to http://192.168.1.1, and you should get a prompt for a username and password. The default for my router in this mode is “root/admin” — yours can likely be found at RouterPasswords.com, or in your own DD-WRT instructions. After entering that combo, you should see the default router screen. A Linksys default usually looks like this:
In most cases, you’re next going to head to the Administration section (circled in the pic), then click the Firmware Upgrade sub-section. It’s usually a simple affair: a Browse button to find the file you want to upload, and an OK/Apply button to set it in motion. From here on out, unless you have my same exact router, you’ll possibly have a different set of one or two files to upload, in a very particular order — follow your own DD-WRT customised instructions. In general, though, you’ll be doing a procedure along these lines:
- Uploading a “prep” file that gets your router ready for a new firmware.
- Waiting a solid five minutes — no cheating.
- “Power cycle” the router (a simple unplug, 30-second wait, then re-plug).
- Re-connect to 192.168.1.1, see the “Management Mode” window, then upload your (possibly customised) specific DD-WRT image and hit Apply.
- Open a TFTP program, usually provided among your DD-WRT files, and point it at 192.168.1.1 (your router). Select your specific DD-WRT firmware (a micro build, in my case), then set the retries to 99 — But! Before hitting “Upgrade,” power cycle your router, wait a few seconds after re-powering, then go for it. When your TFTP app has a green light and success message, wait another full five minutes, then come on back.
- If you can connect to 192.168.1.1 on your computer browser and see a setup page for DD-WRT, do a (final) 30/30/30 “hard” reset on your router, then check that you still see the DD-WRT setup. If so, you’re all set up!
Setting Up the Repeater
Now that you’ve got your oldie-but-goodie router set up with DD-WRT, you can set it up to pick up the signal from your primary router and re-broadcast it within its own radius. Here’s how to do that.
With your computer still hooked up to the now-secondary router, head into the DD-WRT setup screen. It will ask you to set a better password and username at first, so go ahead and do that — you’ll probably want to set up the same admin/password as your primary router to avoid confusion. Once you’re in, your setup screen will look something like this, as my Micro setup on my Linksys appears:
With the main Wireless tab still selected, head to the “Wireless Security” sub-tab to the right. You’ll see two interfaces again — a “Physical Interface” and a “Virtual Interface”. In the “Physical Interface” section at the top, fill in the same exact security settings as your primary router — the security mode, the algorithm (TKIP or AES, generally), and the password any device would use to connect. You might need to jump back into your primary router settings to confirm these — that’s fine, but do so from another device. Under the “Virtual Interface” section, set up the same exact security settings as your primary router, again. Hit the “Save” key at very bottom again and, again, avoid “Apply Settings” for the moment.
Unplug your computer’s Ethernet cable, turn on a wireless device, and see if you can find your new repeater bridge. Connect to it, use the same password you’d use for the main router, and you should have success. If not, run through the steps and double-check your settings. DD-WRT’s wiki page for WLAN Repeaters has a good deal of troubleshooting advice, so check there too.
You’ve now got a second Wi-Fi station in your house that picks up signal from the main router and offers it out to devices that are farther out. It’s likely not as fast a connection between devices — it’s wireless G, in most cases, as opposed to N. Then again, at this point, there are very, very few services or streaming applications that make full use of Wireless N’s crazy bandwidth potential, so your YouTube streaming, web browsing and other usual internet life will be likely unaffected.
How is your repeater working out for you? Do you have any suggestions on making the repeater more convenient, or another guide for DD-WRT, Tomato or another firmware? We’d love to hear your comments, questions, and tips in the comments!