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Tips for replacing an Apple AirPort network

Apple’s AirPort Base Station was a revelation in 1999. While it cost $299 plus required a $99 AirPort Card in every Mac you wanted to use with it, this was much cheaper than all other options and it came with the friendly AirPort utility for configuration—far easier than competitors’ tools. (Apple actually licensed the hardware and software to package in its unique way.)

Apple abandoned its Wi-Fi base stations years ago, it seems preferring to not compete in a market that increasingly produced inexpensive—but difficult to configure—base stations. And it sat out the mesh-networking revolution, which dramatically simplifies Wi-Fi network setup, but can cost two to four times comparable old-style Wi-Fi routers.

airport extreme Apple

Apple AirPort Extreme

I increasingly get email from readers who have failing or kaput AirPort base station equipment and want to set up a network with the same simplicity, but at a lower cost than mesh options. Such readers are in the same situation I am in: we have some ethernet wiring or have strung some ethernet cables in the house to connect base stations and just want to swap out what we have for the latest. Mesh may sound great, but why not use the wiring we have?

Readers ask for what was a breeze with AirPort configurations: a single network that allows devices to roam seamlessly without awkward handoffs between base stations. Any device that has a Wi-Fi adapter that lets it connect to a network—whether an iPad, laptop, Nintendo Switch, Android phone, or smart fridge—automatically roams among base stations that share the same network name and encryption setup, including password. Apple made it easy to set up a series of base stations that could have unique individual names (to identify them for configuration), but could be set to share the same network name to allow devices to roam.

(Because this roaming is dependent on individual devices, you can see different performance among them. Roaming devices should switch automatically from a weak signal to a stronger one, but iPhones in particular seem to sometimes stick to a weak signal even when it provides a very slow link and much closer routers are available.)

The tricks to setting up an ethernet-connected AirPort replacement network are straightforward:

  • One of your Wi-Fi gateways needs to act as the “main” unit. It connects via its WAN (Wide Area Networking) port to your broadband modem.

  • The main network takes the Internet Protocol (IP) address handed off by the broadband modem and creates a private network range and passes out addresses to Wi-Fi- and ethernet-connected devices. (This the combination known as NAT and DHCP: NAT manages the private network range; DHCP hands out addresses.)

  • Connect each additional router via ethernet to the LAN ports on the main router. You can also insert ethernet switches for convenience or to span greater distances between the main router and additional ones.

  • Configure each additional router as a bridge or access point. The terminology varies by Wi-Fi device maker. You want these routers to neither create a private network nor pass out addresses. Instead, they pass through the NAT/DHCP combo from the main router.

  • Name each additional router’s network the same. This name, the SSID (Service Set Identifier), is what you see in a list of Wi-Fi networks in a menu. (Name the base stations themselves uniquely in whatever way the device lets you to identify them for configuration.)

  • Use the same network password for all Wi-Fi networks, too.

That’s generally all that’s required. The only exception is if the broadband router handles network assignment with DHCP and NAT. In that case, configure your main base station as a bridge/access point, too.

For a configuration like this, some manufacturers have finally got the religion of simplicity. I’ve gradually switched from Apple to TP-Link for the three Wi-Fi routers on my network. The first still required an ugly and complicated Web administrative interface to configure. But later two use TP-Link’s Tether.

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