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Boost my in-law's WiFi signal (from 1500 miles away)
February 19, 2013 11:59 AM   Subscribe

My father-in-law needs help connecting his Windows 7 laptop to a WiFi network; he is apparently dealing with an interference issue that stops him from connecting while at home. This is complicated by the fact that I am 1500 miles away and will not be able to help in person. He is not tech savvy. Suggestions?

In-laws are in Texas during the winter. They live in a retirement community with WiFi. There is a WiFi access point right next to their home. They cannot connect to it. If they go across the street, their computer connects just fine, so I know it isn't a problem with whether the computer works or not.

I know nothing about the park network, but pretty safe to assume that it's b/g/n with a required password.

Their winter home is a trailer underneath a permanent roof. Their neighbor suspects the roof itself is blocking the signal due to the way it was constructed. In addition, their laptop is pretty inexpensive, so it could be a weak internal WiFi antenna. Last I knew, when they arrived it worked, but after more neighbors arrived at the park for the season and begin using WiFi, they couldn't connect.

Option 1 is an external WiFi adapter that can pull a better signal. I worry that adding a second WiFi adapter will cause more headaches. I haven't ever added a USB adapter to a laptop that already had working WiFi. It will be extremely difficult to walk him through disabling the internal adapter. Plus, unless Windows is smart enough to re-enable it automatically, he will call me asking why WiFi no longer works if he leaves home without the USB adapter.

I would much prefer Option 2, having him set up a WiFi to wired bridge. Can you do this on a network you don't control? As long as it is possible to choose the right SSID and set the password on the bridge using a web interface, then he should be plug and play with an ethernet cable. This seems like the simplest option as he could move the device to anywhere it gets a good signal, would not have to make any changes to internal devices on the laptop, and most problems would be solvable by power-cycling the device.

My father-in-law is not thrilled about it but is willing to spend $30-$50 to get online. Given that I am not there to either help him select a device or get it set up, I don't want him buying anything that a teenager at Best Buy foisted off on him. I am more than happy to buy something off Amazon/NewEgg, for example, and have it shipped to him, but I don't want him stuck with a device that won't help or can't be configured by a tech-illiterate senior citizen.

Asking here for hardware recommendations, keeping high ease of use and low cost as the two primary goals here.
posted by caution live frogs to Computers & Internet (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Does anyone near your dad have an iPhone or iPad or some other thing with a camera, either still or video? (Also, obviously, 3G.)
posted by Madamina at 12:09 PM on February 19, 2013


WiFi to wired bridge. Can you do this on a network you don't control?

Yes, you can do that. You set up the bridge, connect to it (via a web interface) and then you tell it the SSID, encryption type, password, etc. for the network and let it connect. It then passes packets* back and forth between the wired and wireless network. Computers on the wired side should still be able to use DHCP and receive a regular IP address from the wireless side of the network, etc.

I haven't bought one in years but the one I installed (ironically enough for my parents) 5+ years ago is still working fine, last I checked. They seem to be pretty good "set it and forget it" devices, and transparent to both sides of the network for the most part. I believe the one I bought was a Linksys "Game Adapter" although there are many other cheaper options available today.

The circumstances under which they fail, that I know of, are: when MAC-based authentication is in use for the wireless network (you have to supply the MAC of the bridge to the network admin and have it enabled), and for some types of broadcast traffic. Some bridges don't pass multicast traffic from the wireless to wired side properly, so devices on the wired side aren't "seen" as existing except when explicitly addressed. I don't know how common this is among various devices, and and at rate it might be more of a feature than a bug for a casual internet user anyway (since it acts as a pseudo-firewall).

* Possibly frames, I'm not sure exactly what level they work at.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:33 PM on February 19, 2013


Madamina - oddly, I never thought of that before. Unfortunately they are stuck with a dumb phone, and I don't know if they would be willing to ask a neighbor to play video go-between. They are kind of reluctant to ask for help; I think it feels like an imposition to them. (Unless it's asking ME of course.)

Kadin2048 - I've looked at the bridge adapters but wasn't sure what would work best in terms of reliability. Aside from the game adapter, any other satisfied users have a suggestion?

Don't think they use MAC authentication. The only thing I know for sure about the network is that it isn't set up extremely well. They had congestion issues for a long time, the park administration finally put in a new system, and after that any attempt to connect to his system remotely for help just failed even when he had a decent connection. Skype (when it worked) was choppy and low-res. Windows Easy Connect told me that the network was configured incorrectly.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:56 PM on February 19, 2013


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