How to use 802.11n bridging for the fastest wireless speeds and best range

Here's how to use the emerging class of 'prosumer' routers to get the best combination of speed, range and security

(Editor's Note: This article earlier included incorrect information that stated the Trendnet TEW-630APB router could operate at draft 802.11n transmission speeds (100Mbit/sec.) with WPA security. The bridged routers actually provide about 30 to 40 Mbit/sec. transmission speed with less secure WEP technology. Computerworld regrets the errors.)

In companies, wireless networking serves multiple purposes: free wireless for corporate visitors, media streaming for the marketing department to a conference room and a hot spot in the cafeteria, for example.

In most cases, these Wi-Fi offerings are slim: slow speeds, poor coverage.

But what if you really need a premium connection at the fastest speeds possible, running to the far corners of the building, with airtight industrial-strength encryption?

With the current crop of Cisco, Netgear ProSafe, Juniper Networks and ImageStream products, you will find part of the answer. You will find 802.11g wireless routers that tend to run too slow, although they do support bridging, which helps extend the signal. And you will find super-fast 802.11n access points running as high as 130Mbit/sec., but they have limited range -- only about 300 feet in some instances -- and do not support bridging, so you can't extend the signal.

The speed vs. range conundrum

For example, many 802.11g routers, such as the Belkin Wireless Pre-N F5D8230-4, do support bridging, but throughput only runs at 40Mbit/sec. Routers such as the Linksys Wireless-N WRT300N support fast throughput -- as high as 120Mbit/sec. under ideal conditions without other wireless signals present -- but don't support bridging, and the signal only covers about 600 feet. (All 802.11n products are designed for fast speeds but not the longest range.)

It's a conundrum, but one that can be solved.

For the best combination of speed, range and security, the only choice is to look at the emerging "prosumer" line of routers that support the 802.11n Draft 2.0 specification for bridge mode, advanced WPA-TKIP security and a signal that runs at 100Mbit/sec. The idea is to benefit from the fast throughput of N -- which runs at 100Mbit/sec. or more -- over long distances.

Netgear, D-Link and Trendnet are the leaders in the prosumer wireless networking field. These devices are meant for the home market, but have many advanced features that work well for some corporate installations, such as streaming video or fast intranet downloads.

On the Trendnet TEW-630APB, for example, you can bridge as many as six other routers so the signal can stretch from one end of a building to the other and still run at about 30 to 40Mbit/sec. speeds with WEP protection. You could put one TEW-630APB in the center of a building and place six additional models around the floor for the widest coverage -- at the highest speeds possible.

The only missing puzzle piece is that these noncorporate routers often don't support hardware VPN or other corporate security functions, so I don't recommend them for corporate LAN access. Instead, they are ideal for wirelessly streaming video from one end of the building to the other or providing extra bandwidth for laptop users to archive their files or just downloading massive amounts of data from a secure departmental intranet site.

Here's a roundup of the best models to consider, along with details on how to configure bridging mode. Note: On most of these models, you will need the latest firmware patch for the 802.11n Draft 2.0 specification; just check the company Web site, click support, find the specific router model and download the latest firmware patch and install it.

Netgear RangeMax Next WNR834B

The Netgear RangeMax Next WNR834BV2 supports bridging between two of the same models. One runs in "base station" mode and the other runs in "wireless repeater" mode. Before setting up the network, note the media access control (MAC) address written on the router label.

Configure the wireless base station using the MAC address for the repeater router.
 
Configure the wireless base station using the MAC address for the repeater router. (Click image to see larger view)
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