The closet in the office of my home was filled with nearly twenty years worth of outdated computer hardware. Over the past few months, opening the closet’s door would set off an avalanche of old video cards, mother-boards, and an assortment of audio/video cables. Depending on your reflexes, and how fast you opened the closet door, the aforementioned parts could land either on your head, or your feet. As my reflexes became sharper, I would not obtain any significant damage to my person 50% of the time; but still, there was that “other” 50% of the time to consider. Then one day, it hit me (yes………quite literally) that maybe I should set aside a few days, and clean out this closet. After updating my Will, and insurance policies, I tied one end of a rope around my chest, and attached the other end of the rope to the leg of my desk. Then, after some spiritual reflection, I opened the closet door, and was hit square between the eyes with an old game controller. Undaunted, I continued my mission. The very fact that I am writing this article today is proof that I did make it through this project in, more or less, one piece. I gave away and discarded boxes and boxes of what is known today as electronic waste. My closet is neat and no longer an environmental hazard. Hurrah!!!
While rummaging through my collection of historical technology (electronic waste) in my closet, I found my old Linksys WRT54G wireless router. I replaced this router because over time, this series of Linksys router was pretty easy to hack, – and not “hack” in a good way. I also remembered that a few years ago I read an article about some open source software that would turn a “$60 router into a $600 router”. Great thought, but I didn’t need another router. What I did need was a “repeater” (a device that will give a WiFi signal more distance). Using my iPad and cell phone in my front room often ended up in time wasted (not to mention a great deal of frustration) generated by dropped WiFi signals that often caused my devices to “reload” the same data again. The problem was not in my D-Link router, rather it lied in the juxtaposition of my office to the front room of my home. The WiFi signal from my D-Link has to travel through two walls, a closet, two glass windows, and two doors to end up in my front room. By placing the repeater on top of a hutch in my dining room, the signals reaching the repeater are only traveling through two walls, and from the repeater, there is no obstruction to signals going to my front room. If I could find some open source software to transform my old Linksys into a repeater, I would be “in business”.
After some research, I did find such software: DD-WRT. Basically, this software replaces the operating (system) software currently installed on your router. After this “brain surgery”, my old router went to sleep with a Linksys operating system, and woke up with DD-WRT. From that point, I could have configured the DD-WRT software to make the device into a super router or a repeater. I chose repeater (Note: You can also configure the device as a repeater bridge, which extends both WiFi and ethernet). Like most things in life, the router’s transformation does not take place without some struggle, and yes, there is some chance in “bricking” the router. Proceed at your own risk. BE CAREFUL.
To begin, you need to know if your router is supported. Back in the day, DD-WRT software pretty much dealt with Linksys routers. Currently, many different brands and models are supported. This link will lead you to a page that displays supported routers: http://www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/Supported_Devices The page will also show you what version of DD-WRT you will need for the project. Next, depending on the brand, and model of your router, there are different ways DD-WRT can be installed. The easy way is to download the necessary software, point the router’s already built-in update function to the file containing DD-WRT , and presto-chango, the transformation is done. Of course, my installation was not this “easy way”. My router had to be “prepared” to take the new software, and very detailed instructions had to be followed. The good news is that the instructions were very good; the bad news is that there were a number of different versions of instructions for the same router, and process. Which one do I use? Fortunately for me, Lifehacker had reported on this conversion, using the exact same router as I own for their example. So, I used DD-WRT’s instructions primarily, and verified I was proceeding in the right direction by cross referencing with the Lifehacker article. Another point here, this software is developed by people that really really really know routers. Follow their instructions. As you read about the process, depending on your computer skill level, and what has to be done to your router, you may find that the whole thing looks a little daunting. As long as you follow the instructions to the letter, you should be OK. For computer power-users, again let me restate that the people that created the software and its instructions for installation are experts. If they say “Leave the router alone for 5 minutes”……. DO JUST THAT. Resetting and/or flashing the router’s chips require that the router do certain things, and you may not be aware of what it is doing. To proceed to another step and not follow the instructions for timing (leaving the router alone for a specified amount of time) could “brick” your router. But alas, should you “brick” the router, there are instructions in the DD-WRT WIKI for un-bricking in some situations. Again: As long as you follow the instructions to the letter, you should be OK.
At this point, I am not going to go through a step by step instruction process on the software installation and configuration. There is plenty of information “out there” on how to do it, and written by people far more knowledgeable about this than myself. What I will do is supply you with links that will provide you with most, if not all of the information and answers you need:
- This link is an important overview of some of the processes you may need to complete to install the software on your router: http://www.dd-wrt.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=51486
- Supported routers are shown in another database, along with software needed and install instructions. Sorted by router and model: http://www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/Supported_Devices#Supported_Devices
- An example of software instructions: http://www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/Installation
- The Lifehacker article I used (referred to earlier): http://www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/Installation
- Repeater configuration: http://www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/Wlan_Repeater
Depending upon the type of installation you encounter, you may need to use tftp.exe. Once your router is ready to receive DD-WRT, this software is the delivery mechanism. To me, in the whole transformation process, this was the trickiest part. It appears that tftp.exe connects your computer to the router, and then uploads the software to the router. In my case, making the connection was the issue. I could not get tftp to connect. There was some kind cycling occurring on the router side. This cycling seems normal as evidenced by the fact that the tftp GUI allows for up to 99 attempts to connect, and if no connection is made, you start the connection process all over again. After 50 or more connection “rejections” by the router, I pinged it. Sure enough, the router rejected the first ping, but would accept all those that followed in sequence. In the instructions, you power on your router, and wait several seconds before attempting to connect tftp. It took a number of times before tftp hit the correct cycle in the router, and connected. Uploading DD-WRT was a snap, – maybe 15 to 20 seconds, tops. From that point on, everything was pretty simple.
One question you may be asking yourself is, “After doing all this, how well does it work?” In a word, “WOW!!!” You now point your WiFi devices to the repeater rather than the main (in my case D-Link) router. The repeater uses the same login security encryption as the main router. Using my iPad in my front room, signal strength is now at 100% – a 32% improvement. The repeater has been running now for over a week, and the signal strength also has not varied. Be aware that in the instructions, users are cautioned of a potential performance lag caused by a reduction in bandwidth brought about by the increased communication between the router and the repeater. There well might be a reduction, just nothing that I notice.
Summary: If you need a more secure and robust router, or if you need a repeater, DD-WRT is a terrific solution. However, there is still the possibility that the transformation won’t work. Though the software is well designed, and most variations have been used for a number of years, there could still be as yet unknown issues in how the software relates to your specific router, or you might have issues with the condition of the router’s hardware (after all, in my case, I was using an “old” router….). I looked at it this way, the old router was serving no purpose except taking up space in my closet, the software is free, and my only investment is time. On the “risk/reward” scale, I had a low risk in getting a pretty big reward. I am glad I did it.