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Issue #796: October 23-29, 2022

Q: Love your column and read it every week. You’ve been asking for some questions so here is one for you that I’m having trouble with. I volunteer to run a small computer network for a non-profit and run 4 computers hard wired and a Wi-Fi printer that is used by all. Each computer is running at least a 7th Gen Intel I-5 processor and Windows 10 Home. The other side of the building is slightly beyond the range of the current router’s Wi-Fi, but people who work there would like to have a solid internet connection available to them. CenturyLink just installed a new router, but it still doesn’t provide a strong enough signal to the far side of the building. I would like to extend the Wi-Fi signal to the other side of the building (about 50 additional feet from the current range) to increase their signal strength. I am considering using one of my older routers as an access point. I know there are other options available and would like your opinion whether using a spare router is superior to purchasing a range extender or similar device. The cost of extending coverage is a consideration. Also, if using a router is a reasonable solution, I would like some hints on how to modify it to be an access point rather than a router.

 – Fred W.
Shalimar, Florida

A:  Thanks for responding to the call, Fred!  For the record, I’m always in need of questions, so please everyone, keep them coming. Fred, you provided an excellent description of the setup you’re dealing with, to include the PCs and your Internet Provider.  But at the end of the day the question doesn’t involve most of that stuff.  It is simply a matter of how to extend your network– particularly your available Wi-Fi coverage area.  I see price is a concern, so let’s run through some options, starting with the least-cost.

It also sounds like your network gear might be located on one side of the building, resulting in a lopsided coverage area.  You might get full coverage just by moving everything to a more central location.  This would be a zero-cost option and one that could potentially provide coverage to a much greater area, if not all of your building.  This assumes, of course, that your current coverage is indeed lopsided, and relocating your gear is an option for you.

Depending on how the building in which you are working is built, it might be practical to run one or more new wires to the other side of the building. Many buildings have hollow walls and drop ceilings, and it is very common to run networking wires up the wall to the space between the ceiling and the roof, pull it to the new location, and then back down the wall.  The new drop could connect to a network switch that makes it into multiple connection points, or to a Wireless Access Point (WAP) that provides a new Wi-Fi pool.

Your specific question involved converting what you called an “older router” into an access point.  That is possible in many cases, but not knowing what brand or model you’re considering, there is really no way for me to know whether it supports it.  I presume that if you’re networking-savvy enough to even suggest the possibility, that you know how to get into the router’s settings to make the change.  Some hardware supports this function directly, like flipping a switch and it changes from a Wi-Fi router to a WAP.  On others, you may need to replace the factory firmware with new firmware that completely changes the personality of the device.  If this is possible with your model router, you can download the new firmware from the Internet. 

The process of converting a router to a WAP is non-trivial, and is different for each router, so it’s not something I can cover in my short column.  However, if you visit, you’ll find a more practical guide to doing what you want to do.

One word of caution, particularly if you’re planning to use that “older” hardware.  Modern broadband speeds far exceed the speed potential of older hardware.  You might succeed in extending your network only to find that the overall experience is frustratingly slow for those who connect to it.  It may be more practical to buy a relatively inexpensive Wi-Fi signal booster, or switch to a mesh router, which is one that’s designed with multiple access points that can be distributed throughout a building, to maximize coverage.  I hope all these options have given you something to think about!  Good luck.

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