Friday, May 10, 2013

WiFi as WAN Utilization and Tips

WiFi as WAN has become a "hot" feature lately, and it's available on many routers and wireless bridges. It's a very useful feature, but many users aren't familiar with what it is or if they need it. Simply put, WiFi as WAN (WAW) means that the router or bridge can pick up the WiFi signal from an external source (for example, campground WiFi at an RV park, free WiFi at McDonald's, or even the hotspot feature from a smartphone like the iPhone or Android Phone) and create a new secure, private network from it. In other words, the router or bridge is using the external WiFi network as the internet source instead of utilizing a wired connection like cable or DSL or a cellular connection like a 3G or 4G USB modem.

Even if you have your own cable, DSL, 3G or 4G internet connection, WAW can come in VERY handy. Below is a list of some applications for which WiFi as WAN is popular:
  • Augmenting the network from hotspot devices: hotspots like the MiFi offer limited WiFi range, only allow a few users to connect, and don't provide an ethernet port for connecting hardwired devices like desktop computers. A router with WiFi as WAN can receive the WiFi from your hotspot and create a network from it with a much wider range, higher user limit, and access for ethernet equipment. 
  • Unexpected internet outage: if your primary connection goes down and there is an open WiFi network in range, or if you have a smartphone that can be used as a WiFi hotspot (like the iPhone and many others), your router can be configured to quickly connect to WiFi and your network will be back online in moments. 
  • Alternative to 3G/4G while traveling: RVers know that no matter how much the mobile broadband carriers improve their coverage, there are still some areas where signal isn't great. With a WiFi as WAN-capable router, you can take advantage of campground WiFi or other open networks in areas where your 3G or 4G coverage isn't up to par. 
  • Conserve your 3G/4G allowance: most cellular carriers have a limitation on how much data you can use each month before you start incurring overage fees. If you have access to an open WiFi network, you can connect to that and save your 3G/4G allowance for when you really need it. 
While WAW is definitely a very useful tool, it does have its downsides. One unfortunate truth of WiFi as WAN is that the speeds will always be slower versus connecting directly to the source network. This is primarily caused by two factors: environmental noise and distance from the source.

First, since there are so many WiFi networks being used these days, there can be a lot of RF noise in the environment (unless you’re in a very rural area with very few WiFi networks around!). In addition to all these other WiFi networks, computers, printers, phones, and even fluorescent lights can all interfere with WiFi transmission. Now, think about what happens when you add a WAW connection into the mix. WAW routers utilize a single WiFi radio to both receive a WiFi signal AND to broadcast its own WiFi network, creating even more noise in the environment. All of this noise causes WiFi signal to degrade and speeds to slow down.

Distance from the WiFi source also impacts the speeds you’ll see from a WAW connection. The further away your WAW device is from the source (the campground WiFi, Starbuck’s network, or whatever it may be), the weaker the WiFi signal is going to be and bigger hit your speeds are going to take. For example, let’s say you’ve got a large home and your WiFi router isn’t broadcasting the signal far enough. To extend the WiFi range, you get a WAW device like the Pepwave Surf Mini to pick up the WiFi signal from your primary router and rebroadcast it to the area of the house the router isn’t reaching. When you connect your PC to your primary WiFi router, you see download speeds of 20mbps and upload speeds of 5mbps. After configuring the Pepwave Surf Mini, you connect your PC to the Mini’s WiFi network and see that you’re only getting download speeds of 10mbps and upload speeds of 2.5mbps. You lost 50% of the speed just by using WiFi as WAN!

Again, connecting via WiFi as WAN is always going to be slower than connecting directly to the source. In most cases this isn’t a huge deal, and often there aren’t any real alternatives (for example, if your goal is to be able to use your iPhone’s hotspot as the internet source for an Ethernet-only device like an IP phone, you’re going to have to use a WiFi as WAN router since there’s no way to connect an ethernet cable to the iPhone!). But of course you will want to minimize the speed loss as much as possible. Here are a few tips and tricks for maximizing your WAW connection:
  • Minimize noise and interference. Try changing the WiFi channel on the router and eliminating or moving other electronics that are interfering. This will be a trial-and-error process as you try to determine which equipment might be interfering with the WiFi signal (any electronic equipment can interfere, but the most likely offenders are computers, other routers or access points, cordless phones, baby monitors, and wireless cameras.) 
  • Remember that distance counts! The further away your WAW router is to the WiFi source, the more speed you’ll lose; conversely, if the router is TOO close to the source you will have added interference between the two. In certain applications, you won’t have much control over this factor — for instance, if you’re using WAW to pick up your neighbor’s WiFi (with his permission, of course), the best you’ll be able to do is position your WAW router near a window facing his house. If you’re using WAW for an application within your own home or office, though (like to extend the WiFi range from a primary router as in the example above or to connect a hotspot like the MiFi), you can experiment with the ideal placement, bearing in mind that you don’t want the two devices too close together (you will see more loss if you have the WAW router right on top of your MiFi versus having it 10’ away). 
  • Put your router in "bridge mode" and use a separate access point or second router to broadcast WiFi. Since WAW routers utilize a single WiFi radio to both receive a WiFi signal AND to broadcast its own WiFi network (which results in a lot of extra RF noise), utilizing a separate access point to handle the WiFi broadcasting will take some of the strain off of the primary router. This way, your primary router's WiFi radio is only being used for WAW instead of also being used to broadcast your local WiFi network. Unfortunately, not all routers support bridge mode - the below routers from 3Gstore DO support bridge mode: 
  • If your router DOES NOT support bridge mode, using a separate access point can still help. If your router doesn't support bridge mode, you won’t be able to disable the WiFi radio on the broadcast end, but using an access point to handle the WiFi broadcasting can still help. An access point like the Pepwave AP One or AP One Mini can easily be connected via Ethernet to a LAN port on your router and it will handle the WiFi broadcasting. Separating the access point from the router by placing it another room can help reduce interference (and thus improve performance) even more - you can simply run a long ethernet cable or use Powerline Ethernet Adapters, which allow you to utilize your home’s power outlets to run the connection.