A Tale Of Wonky Wifi Part 3: Wifi Access Point vs Router

There are myriad inexpensive consumer routers available that include wifi functionality, but far fewer freestanding wifi access points (AP.) I surmise that this is because every broadband connected home needs a router and wants a wifi AP, so a converged device is the most affordable approach to this marketplace. Yet in many ways it’s less than ideal.

The fact that your router and wifi access point are in one device makes that device a major possible single point of failure. It dies and your entire network goes down. While merely inconvenient for the kids coming home after school to play World Of Warcraft, it’s a whole different kind of failure if you’re a full-time home office worker who relies on internet access to be effective in your job.

Further, there are physical considerations. You tend to locate the router close to where your primary source of internet connectivity is located as this is convenient for wiring and physical access. However, a wifi access point will perform more optimally if located so as to achieve the best possible RF footprint. That often means placing it in a raised location, possibly even in the attic, which is most inconvenient for physical access.

A dedicated router or AP often has greater depth of features than a combined router+AP. For example, the Cisco WAP4410N supported four separate SSIDs, with variable QoS for each. It allows for a wide-open guest WLAN convenient for visitors, while simultaneously supporting a very secure WLAN for my own wifi clients.

There are some more advanced residential routers that have different operating modes to address the various potential roles of the device. One reader pointed me to information about the new-ish Asus RT-N16 as being typical of this sort of thing. It has a mode setting supporting its use as a router, AP or even wireless repeater.

When last I considered this matter many people advised me to simply buy a consumer wifi/router and set it up to defeat the core router functions and use it as a wifi AP. Tim Higgins at Small Net Builder even recommended this approach.

In point of fact, that’s what I had been doing with the Netgear WNR-2000. It’s a router but I had set it up per the guidance over at Small Net Builder so that it was functioning soley as a wifi AP. While that works it does present some inconveniences should the device misbehave.

My LAN is not on the 192.168.1.x subnet that just about everything seems to use as default. It can’t be because I need to be able to VPN connect to & from remote networks that are often in that range. The WNR-2000 used that address range as it’s default subnet.

Every time that device had a problem I had to perform a factory reset, which dropped it off my network completely. Then I’d run a cat 5 lead from a laptop put on a static IP in 192.168.1.x and go about resetting the configuration of the WNR-2000. As often as I had to do that it was a royal P.I.T.A. I suppose this sort of inconvenience is the trade-off you make for leveraging the cheap commodity hardware platforms offered in combo router/wifi devices.

By now you may be asking yourself, “what is he getting at?” Well, my focus here is small office & home office, which is a kind of middle ground that often gets caught between cheap consumer product offerings and more costly enterprise grade hardware.

My home office network has reached the point where a combined router & wifi AP just doesn’t make sense. Using a cheap consumer router as a wifi AP works but is often less than ideal. However, I don’t have budget for a big Cisco Aironet solution, so I’m pushing forward looking for a more appropriate solution.

This puts me in a sort of middle ground that may not be especially well covered by the common names. There are also a number of open source, DIY and semi-DIY options to be considered.

Like so many things in my life I’m taking the approach that if I’m going to have to spend some time thinking about this I want to learn something along the way. I may elect to take the path less traveled if there are valuable lessons on the horizon. Beyond just replacing some failed hardware, I’m going to have some fun with it.

In part 4: Considering 802.11b/g vs 802.11n and WLAN vs mesh

  • Netgear makes the most problematic consumer grade wifi garbage that I’ve ever used. I’ve rarely had issue with Linksys or Buffalo. In particular, the WHR-HP-G54 device has been rock solid when flashed with the http://www.dd-wrt.com firmware. I’ve used and can recommend other products by netgear (POE and other switches in the blue metal cases have been rock solid).

  • niko

    have you looked at ubiquity networks. they make a number of inexpensive ap’s that should work for you. i bought a few for work and although we’ve had hardware issues with one, the rest have been fairly solid.

    • I have not, but in looking at Open_Mesh compatible hardware they have come to my attention. I’m my little adventure with wifi hardware continues I will likely try their stuff. The NanoStations look very cool.

  • Dmitriy

    But what about small box with pfSense as core router?

    • That’s a great approach! M0n0wall is also a great option. I tend to prefer embedded PCs like the ALIX or Soekris boards as opposed to a traditional PC with hard drives and fans. In the case of my wifi issue I was looking for an AP because I already use pfsense as my router/firewall.