There has been some increased Internet publicity about Netgear’s WN3000RP “universal range extender” which is intended to extend Wi-Fi coverage in to a network’s dead spot. Devices like this one are billed as being able to work with any 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network segment such as an ISP-supplied “Internet-network edge” wireless router.
But these devices work in a particular manner that may cause problems with network use. Here, they work as a wireless client bridge to the existing network and set themselves up as a Wi-Fi access point that is its own “extended service set” or Wi-Fi network segment. Most of these devices will typically have an Ethernet connection for use with Ethernet-ended network devices like PCs, network printers or games consoles and work as a Wi-Fi client bridge for these devices.
What can go wrong
Positioning in the wireless network
There is infact a lot that can go wrong in setting up and using these devices. One issue is how the device is positioned in the master wireless segment that is to be extended. You have to locate these devices just off the fringe of that wireless segment in order to avoid unreliable service from the client devices on both network segments. Usually, you would have to keep an eye on two indicator lights – one which shows reception quality relative to the master wireless segment and one which shows the quality of the wireless segment created by the device.
Operation of Wi-Fi client devices
As well, users will need to make sure that their laptop computers, smartphones or other devices point to the SSID associated with the range extender. In the case of the Netgear device that is set up using WPS to the “master segment”, the SSID will be a combination of “master_segment_SSID” + “_EXT”; like “BIGPOND-1234_EXT” for a hypothetical Telstra-supplied Wi-Fi router whose SSID is “BIGPOND-1234”. Of course, the WPA security parameters will be the same as that for the “master segment”. It may also require users to make sure their devices “latch on” to the SSID that is strongest for the area they are in; which may be a problem with laptop computers running some desktop operating systems; or some network devices like some Internet radios.
Bandwidth availability and advanced Wi-Fi setups
Another factor that is also worth considering is that the data bandwidth available in this newly-created segment will be smaller that that available in the master segment due to the device working from a weaker point of the master segment. Of course, never expect these devices to offer advanced network behaviour like client isolation for use with hotspots or support for multi-SSID access points for example. With the latter example, these devices will only work with one of the SSIDs available from these access points.
WPS network setup
A key point of confusion that can occur with Netgear’s wireless range extenders is the way the WPS “push-to-connect” function works. These devices have one WPS button on their control surface, which handles associating with the “master segment” or associating with a client device on its own segment. When you set up the range-extender for the first time with a WPS-enabled access point or router on the master segment, you are meant to press this button on this range extender to start the WPS cycle then press the button on the WPS-enabled access point to complete the process. Then you enroll a WPS-capable client device on this range extender’s segment by starting the WPS-configuration process on that device then pressing the WPS button on this range extender. What can happen is that a person who is enrolling the client device could press the button on the range extender before starting the WPS-setup process on the client and this could make the device assume it is connecting to another master segment rather than enrolling the new client.
What could be done to make these devices better
Firmware that suits multi-function operation
Of course the current firmware with these devices prohibits using them as a “pure” Wi-Fi access point with a wired backbone to the network. This is although they work properly as an access point for the new segment with the Wi-Fi “master segment” as their backbone. Rather, I would prefer that these devices have a “multi-function” firmware in place which allows at least three operation modes: a wireless range extender with one wireless segment as the backbone and another covering the area; a wireless access point with a wired backbone; and a wireless client bridge serving Ethernet-connected devices.
Improved designs could use a hardware switch that selects between the operation modes. This can then lead to a logical foolproof WPS operation mode with the WPS button only used for enrolling client devices in modes other than “Client Bridge” whereupon it would be used to enrol with the master segment. The user would be required to set the unit to “Client Bridge” mode when the want to establish a wireless backbone, then set the unit to “Range Extender” mode for operation as a range extender with a distinct satellite segment.
Improved WPS operation
Similarly, these devices could have improved WPS-button logic such as a “long press” for setup with a master segment and a “short press” for client setup. This can avoid further operation complications due to someone who intends to enrol a client device causing these range extenders to “hunt” for new master segments and affecting access to the network by established devices.
Conclusion and my opinion on these devices
If I was to extend the coverage of a wireless network segment, I wouldn’t necessarily use the wireless backbone method that is encouraged with these devices. Instead I would use access points run off a wired (Ethernet or HomePlug AV) backbone. This would then make sure that there is the full bandwidth available across the coverage of the network