How To Streamline A Messy Wireless Network Setup

Wireless networking is complicated, no question there. And it’s easy for some people to find themselves with a Frankenstein of a home setup, because they’ve been adding devices, and access points, and routers, and switches, and who knows what else in an effort to get a decent connection around their homes. Suddenly, they find themselves with a lot of gear that all has to play nicely, but their wireless experience still has issues.

This week, Lifehacker reader Phil is going to describe his complicated setup at home, and we’re going to help him—and you—deal with some hardware bloat. He writes:

My situation deals with getting things to work after new equipment is brought into the equation:

  1. Our home is equipped with Ethernet lines and I have three Apple Airport Extremes plugged in throughout the house. They are all on the same SSID and password.

  2. ATT Wireless had a wireless router embedded in the modem; didn’t need or use their wireless network.

  3. Now with Spectrum, and their Arris TM1602A MTA is a modem only. We tried lugging the modem into a Gigabit Switch (we have three of these connected to the Ethernet lines and security cameras).

  4. But that didn’t work for some reason. The technician said the Airport Extremes would have to be reconfigured(?). Not wanting to inject that variable into the equation, he offered to install an Askey Wave 2 wireless router - and doing so resulted in my Airport Extreme working again.

  5. I tried substituting a Portal wireless router because I like their “Fastlane” feature – but while my Airport Extreme network came up, I couldn’t view our Logitech Alert cameras (it was if I was not at home on the local network). Ugh.

  6. However, I’d like to ditch their wireless router and the $US5.00 ($7) / month expense. What’s preventing me from getting our Airport Extreme network to work correctly without a superfluous wireless router?

Please advise of any ideas.

I’m cracking my mental knuckles before I dive into this one. Here’s what I’d do, which is also good advice for anyone looking to configure their home networks in the most optimal way.

First, I’d ditch whatever modem it is that you’re getting from your ISP. Odds are good that you’re probably paying a rental fee for it, and purchasing your own modem should pay for itself (and then save you money) after a year, if that. I, and many others, like the Motorola MB7621, which should be compatible on Spectrum’s network for service up to 400Mbps. If you’re paying for gigabit service, you lucky dog you, you’ll need the Netgear CAX80 (whenever it comes out).

From there, you’re going to want to take one of your Airport Extremes and connect it to your new modem. This will be your network’s primary “router,” and any other devices you use to extend a wireless signal will be your “access points.” I phrase that as I do both to keep this article straightforward and to remind you that you’ll only ever want to have one device on your network operating as a router. Other “routers” you connect to your network should have their routing functionality disabled so you aren’t creating internal chaos with multiple firewalls and multiple routers assigning IP addresses to devices—including other routers you’re using.

For the AirPort Extreme, you’ll do this by pulling up AirPort Utility, entering your device’s configuration screen, and setting its “router mode” to “Off (Bridge mode)“ on its Network tab. Remember, you’ll only want to do this for two of your AirPort Extremes. And these two Airport Extremes should be connected, via Ethernet, to the single AirPort Extreme you’re using as your primary router. (This AirPort Extreme will probably be right next to your cable modem, I’d imagine.)

You can keep whatever other router it is that you were encouraged to purchase, if you want. As before, if you want to use it as your primary router, make sure any other “routers” connected to it are functioning as access points—bridge mode, for your AirPort Extremes. And if you want to use your AirPort Extreme as the primary, you’ll need to turn this mysterious other router into an access point (which should be spelled out in its user guide, if it doesn’t already have an “access point mode” you can set). You’ll then connect it to your primary router via an Ethernet cable.

It’s easy to be confused by this process, because you can also connect an access point to a router wirelessly—giving wired devices connected to the access point a way to access the rest of your network (or giving your access point a way to extend your Wi-Fi “bubble”). This is known as a wireless bridge or a wireless extender, respectively. Resist the urge to do this if you can, as it’ll be slower than if you hardwire your access points to your router via Ethernet—which it sounds like you’re able to do.

And while we’re chatting, I would also recommend that you give each of your wireless networks (from your various wireless access points—your AirPort Extremes) a separate SSID. This tends to fly against convention, but I like having finer control over what my devices connect to. For example, I keep my wireless-ac devices on my 5GHz network, and anything else that doesn’t need that much speed (or needs a slightly longer range) gets 2.4GHz. At minimum, consider setting up “Phil_24" and “Phil_5" Wi-Fi networks around your house, since having a separate SSID for your 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi networks on all three of your AirPort Extremes might get unwieldy.

Oh. And I almost forgot the one detail you buried in your question. Don’t connect a switch directly to your cable modem. In nearly all instances, your home network should look like this: Cable modem > Router >> EVERYTHING ELSE. Think of your router as the master gatekeeper and controller of your network. Don’t put anything between it and the sweet, pure connection it has with your cable modem, because that will cause all sorts of grief if your cable modem can only assign an IP address to a single connected device—which should be your router, who then works magic to give every other device in your network its own IP address. (Hence its name: a “router.” It routes data. Get it?)


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