Things I learnt while restoring my Mac/PC wireless home network

Tech Life

The setup

We don’t live in a huge flat, but my studio and my wife’s studio are far enough from the living-room, where the main router resides, that when I set up the wireless home network nine years ago, I had to add a couple of AirPort Express (802.11g) base stations, one in the living-room, the other just outside our studios in the hallway that connects the living area with the bedroom.

So, the current setup is:

  • Cisco router in the living-room
  • AirPort Express base station No. 1 connected via Ethernet to the router
  • AirPort Express base station No. 2 used to extend the range of base No. 1

The Cisco is also a wireless router, and broadcasts Home Network 1. The AirPort Express connected to the router share its connection to the Internet wirelessly, creating Home Network 2. Why two different Wi-Fi networks, you ask? Well, there are a lot of devices in my home that connect to the Internet wirelessly, some of them aren’t exactly current technology and don’t support a wireless encryption more sophisticated than WEP, so at times it’s best to have a secondary, closed (the SSID is not broadcast), less secure Wi-Fi network to allow these older devices to temporarily connect.

The incident

Various computers and iOS devices connect to our home network. Most computers are Macs, but my wife uses a Windows PC in her studio, and the other day she was complaining of slow Internet speeds and poor signal reception on her PC. I was puzzled because the Macs in my studio and the PC in her studio are placed at basically the same distance from the AirPort Express base station No. 2 in the hallway. I too had noticed slower Internet speeds on my Macs, but still in the ‘acceptable’ range — websites were slower to load, but they loaded. On her PC, websites stopped loading halfway or didn’t load at all. Plus, every now and then the PC would disconnect from the Wi-Fi network created by the two AirPort Express base stations, due to poor signal.

It was soon clear to me that AirPort Express base station No. 2 had started acting up and was no longer extending the range of base No. 1.

Mind you, this was not the first time. I have to say that my experience with AirPort Express base stations has been overall quite positive, and both these little guys are still working fine after 9 years of 24/7 duty, and they’ve been reliable devices I never had to reset or reconfigure since the first time I set them up in 2005. Occasionally they’ve been acting up, but nothing that couldn’t be solved by restarting either base station or both.

This time restarting AP base No. 2 did nothing. Nor restarting AP base No. 1. Nor both. Nor twice, three or five times in a row.

I repeatedly checked the settings in AirPort Admin Utility and nothing looked out of the ordinary.

It was not a problem with our ISP: the wireless network created by the Cisco router was working.

So I had to reset AP base No. 2 to its factory default settings. Then I used AirPort Setup Assistant to reconfigure AP base No. 2. Now, setting up an AirPort Express base station is a rather straightforward process and Apple software (both the Setup Assistant and the Admin Utility) has a clear enough interface so that any minimally tech-savvy user can do it. I followed instructions carefully, and set up the base station like it was before the incident.

Still no joy. All devices connecting to the Wi-Fi network created by the two AirPort Express base stations only recognised the one in the living-room (No. 1), and since my wife’s PC was the farthest from that base station, it barely connected.

After two hours of frustration…

I’ll spare you the details of my tribulations: suffice to say that there was much swearing; much checking and rechecking of parameters that should have been fine as they were yet nothing worked; much restarting and reconfiguring from scratch; much going back and forth from room to room.

When finally everything started working again, here’s what I’ve learnt from this frustrating experience. Of course, nothing is written in stone and your mileage may vary.

  1. Check the wireless channel on which the two base stations are transmitting. It appears that when you’re using additional base stations to extend the range of the primary one, it’s better if all base stations are transmitting on the same channel.
  2. If there’s a Windows PC connecting to the same Wi-Fi network as Macs, it appears that PCs like channels 1, 6 and 11 best. There’s probably a technical reason for this, but frankly I’m too fed up with this to further investigate. I set both AirPort base stations to channel 1 and everyone’s happy.
  3. Check that the security setting is the same on all base stations:
    Airport admin 2
    For some reason, my AP base No. 2 Wireless Security setting was misconfigured and just said “WPA Personal”.

Only after verifying these three things could the PC connect to the Internet successfully. It was a very frustrating trial-and-error process, and my advice is to remain calm and double check every little detail, as it’s easy to miss something when you’re getting angry because you’re thinking “I should know this stuff, it’s not rocket science, yet for some reason it’s not working.” Also, when everything finally works, take screenshots of all the important settings, so that you can go back to them the next time your base station loses its configuration and you have to set it up again.

The Author

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