Computer Network Solutions for a Basement?
August 1, 2012 8:58 AM   Subscribe

How do I get internet access into a finished basement?

I've been spinning this around in my head for a while and I figured I'd ask here to see if anyone has any bright ideas.

I recently moved my desk (and desktop computer) down to our finished basement. Everything is great about this except for internet access. I currently have a wireless bridge (an Asus WL520-GU running DD-WRT) connecting this computer to my main wireless router. The problem is that, since it's in a finished basement, the signal strength is awful. If I get the router and bridge placed just right (and stand on my head during a full moon), I'm just barely able to get up to 20% signal strength. This makes the bandwidth to my computer awful.

So far, I've thought of 4 possible solutions, each of which have possible drawbacks.

First, I could get a larger antenna for the wireless bridge. Does anyone have any experience with the larger antennas? Do they actually *do* anything?

Second, I could get a new wireless router that has a bigger range. Any experience with this? Any model recommendations?

Third, I could look at hard wiring the basement. There is a phone jack right next to the computer that I'm not using. But, wouldn't you know it, it's Cat 3 cable and it appears to not be free inside the walls (making it impossible to use the Cat 3 to pull Cat 5/6). Really?! In an addition built in 2006, who doesn't pull Cat 5/6?!?! Sigh . . . Any suggestions here? Can I use Cat 3 for ethernet? What are the speed limitations?

Fourth, I've thought of the Powerline adapters. The only thing holding me back here is that the throughput isn't supposed to be great (100 Mbps on a good day) and, more significantly, the finished basement and the part of the house with the main router are on different circuit breaker boxes (is this an issue? I can't seem to find any definitive answers online). Any experience here? Have folks had success with this Powerline adapters?

OK. Anything else I'm missing? Any brilliant solutions that I haven't thought of yet?
posted by Betelgeuse to Computers & Internet (26 answers total)
Best answer: is your main wireless router running DDWRT? Just up the transmit power. I've got a 6 machines in a house with a finished basement, and have no problems getting signal in all corners. I suspect your main wireless router is not putting out much signal.
posted by cosmicbandito at 9:00 AM on August 1, 2012

There are devices, variously called wi-fi repeaters or wi-fi extenders, that will act as a secondary wireless router, grabbing the wireless signal and re-broadcasting it into areas that your main router won't reach to. They're not particularly cheap, but I'd look into one if you can't boost your transmit power.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:04 AM on August 1, 2012

Best answer: I did this same thing recently, found the simplest (and BEST) solution was to run Cat5. I ran directly through the floor/ceiling for simplicity, but you could run down the wall, if you have a hole in the wall of your main floor and know its directly above the hole in your basement, tie a weighted anchor to a string and drop it down, and have someone retrieve it at the bottom. Then you can attach a Cat5 and pull it through.

I say this because honestly I dont think you'll find a wireless solution that meets your satisfaction between floors, if your current wireless isn't cutting it. I learned not to trust manufacturers wireless range statistics.
posted by el_yucateco at 9:07 AM on August 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would find a way to run cables. If this is on a fixed desk, you don't want the extra latency and unreliability of wireless. You should be able to pin the table unobtrusively somewhere (along the skirting board?) if you can't get it inside the wall.
posted by richb at 9:08 AM on August 1, 2012

I'd try running ethernet over existing Cat 3 and seeing what kind of speeds you get.
posted by 6550 at 9:21 AM on August 1, 2012

I would go wireless; latency and unreliability aren't issues in modern G or N networks, assuming sufficient signal. I run an 802.11n network across a 2k square foot house via this repeater:
posted by ellF at 9:24 AM on August 1, 2012

Where is your wireless router? I've got mine on the main floor and it reaches 4 machines in the basement just fine, and also the machines upstairs. My house is over 4000 sq feet (including the finished basement) and I'm using a cheap $50 wireless router that is at least 4 years old. Unless you have lead lined walls or are living in the Playboy Mansion, wireless ought to work just fine for you.
posted by COD at 9:37 AM on August 1, 2012

This Ars Technica piece from a few days ago appears to be pitching a particular product but also discusses several facets and methods of setting up wireless repeaters as HZSF mentions above.
posted by XMLicious at 9:41 AM on August 1, 2012

Best answer: I doubt this is the solution to your problem, but it might help you make things more tolerable until you decide which way you want to go. Basically, it's a parabolic reflector for your WiFi router antenna. It takes about 10 minutes to print and put together. If it doesn't work, hey- you're only out a piece and paper and some aluminum foil.

Windsurfer antenna
posted by EKStickland at 9:43 AM on August 1, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the thoughts so far. I'm hesitant to use a repeater both because of the 50% bandwidth hit over wireless (i.e. it has to transmit and receive), but also because of the layout of my house. Because of where the main router is and the location of the finished basement, the signal basically has to go through 10-15 feet of the ground (i.e. not just walls and rooms, but dirt). I actually have the "bridge" set up right now as both a bridge and repeater. Assume for right now that I don't want to relocate the main router.

Because of the layout restrictions, it's also probably impractical to run new cables without ripping open walls (something I'm unwilling to do) . . . unless I could use the Cat 3 to pull Cat 5/6 . . . grrrr. . .

I may look into ethernet over Cat 3 and see what it gets me.

So, no thoughts on the Powerline adapters? I've just started to think those were really great recently, but maybe no one uses them?

Keep the ideas coming!
posted by Betelgeuse at 9:44 AM on August 1, 2012

Best answer: Firstly, I'd suggest you reconsider your poo-poo'ing of 100Mbps; that's more than enough for streaming video. We opted for Powerline Ethernet to our finished basement, and yes, despite the devices supposedly getting up to 200Mbps+ , where we're plugged in, I get 4ms ping times, and about 88Mbps. The outlets are on different breakers in our house, and it's old 1950's wire.

But even doing video reencoding the bottleneck is the CPU rather than the network. Incremental backups run at night, and they're incremental, so they finish pretty quick.

Even still, we rearranged the network for the sake of showing the house, and our wifi is now in the basement. From the ground floor in a 802.11g network (max 54Mbit/s), streaming 720p video hasn't been an issue. A 25GB 90 minute file will need about 38Mbps, so even streaming 1080p to a desktop shouldn't be an issue. Yes, some large copies can take a while, but as far as the practical needs, my 88Mbps is faster than any uplink I'd be able to have, as well as fast enough for any time-sensitive traffic.

If you decide that you need gigabit or 10gigabit in your house, then yes, you'll need to pull new cable; but given your wants you might want to put in conduit so you have the option to switch to fiber, or can more easily upgrade the copper eventually.

You can do 10mbit ethernet using 4 wire cat3 with standard connectors.

Since you say you're not willing to redo your walls, I really think that powerline over ethernet will be your best bet.
posted by nobeagle at 9:47 AM on August 1, 2012

Best answer: You can run Ethernet over Cat3, if it's a short run and the wiring is point-to-point. (Pushing it over your entire house's phone wiring probably won't work, since there will be a lot of signal reflections.) You can't do GigE, but 10/100 will generally work since not all the pairs are used. Just get a couple of keystone jacks and make sure you punch down the same pairs into the right positions on both ends. I did this in an old apartment and it worked OK.

I'd exhaust all the wired possibilities before doing wireless, just because my experience has always been that wired stuff works best. The Powerline network adapters are an exception though; I had mixed results with them and would only go there if you have no other options. But I'll admit to not having played much with the newer wireless technologies like N; maybe they're better.

A directional antenna (e.g. Cantenna) can really help your signal, but I am intensely skeptical of aftermarket omnidirectional antennas. Getting a Cantenna to work well requires a fair bit of futzing, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:51 AM on August 1, 2012

So, no thoughts on the Powerline adapters? I've just started to think those were really great recently, but maybe no one uses them?

I played with them (and still have 3 of them sitting around somewhere) but never got enough bandwidth out of them to stream 720p MJPEG video. Pretty sure they were topping out around 15-20Mbit/s. And this was in a newly-constructed townhome with modern electrics, supposedly just about the best possible scenario. I was disappointed.

Their performance depends a lot on the layout of your electrical branch circuits and can work fine from Room A to Room B, and fail completely from B to C or A to D. You just never know until you play with them, so if you're going to do it, be sure to buy the units from someplace with a good return policy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:55 AM on August 1, 2012

Best answer: If you don't mind being extremely tacky and there's a window in the basement you could run a cable out of an upstairs window, outdoors along the external walls of the house, and in the basement window. Styrofoam blocks with holes drilled through them could enable a proper weather seal.

At the other end of the complexity spectrum, if you feel particularly ambitious you could try your hand at constructing a RONJA free-space optical rig and see if you can bounce the beam with mirrors in and out of windows or down and around the staircase.

I haven't played with power line network adapters in more than ten years but back then the results were as crappy as Kadin2048 describes.
posted by XMLicious at 10:06 AM on August 1, 2012

I have the reverse of your problem and use a 200 Mbps Powerline adapter to get internet from my basement to my second floor bedroom (using 1960's wiring)- I generally get around 12-20 Mbps. That may be slow relative to some other options, but unless you're moving huge files around or gaming it should be adequate. I stream HD Amazon Prime video via the Powerline adapter and it has been flawless. Shop around and you should be able to get a pair of adapters for less than $50 online.
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 10:15 AM on August 1, 2012

Best answer: I'm hesitant to use a repeater both because of the 50% bandwidth hit over wireless

Are you using this setup for transferring large files in the house, or for 'Net access? 50% of a 300Mbps 802.11n setup is 150Mbps; unless you're paying for faster speeds than than, your internal bandwidth is not apt to be a bottleneck.

but also because of the layout of my house

A good wifi repeater will not have an issue with the layout you've described. The signal would penetrate your floors and walls.
posted by ellF at 10:17 AM on August 1, 2012

Instead of a repeater could you add a second AP with the same SSID and roaming enabled, positioned for your basement? This article describes this fairly well though I've never set this up myself. I agree with upgrading to at least 2x2 (two receive and two transmit antennas) if not 3x3 802.11n AP and network adapters. Fairly soon you may be able to find 802.11ac which would be even better.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:51 AM on August 1, 2012

Best answer: I wonder if you can avoid much of the performance drop incurred by a WDS repeater by getting two wireless routers, configuring one of them to bridge your current network to ethernet and the other to provide the basement with it's own SSID on a seperate channel, running a short bit of ethernet wire between the two of them, then configuring the whole mess to route TCP/IP traffic from one "network" to the other. If you found a router with two hardware radios, you might even be able to do all this within a single DD-WRT (or better yet, OpenWRT) equipped device.

Naturally, this scheme has a ton of drawbacks and is overly complicated, but it might do the job.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 11:10 AM on August 1, 2012

Wireless doesn't work in mine shafts. Either hard wire or line of sight is needed with the transmitter.
posted by Packed Lunch at 11:54 AM on August 1, 2012

Can you run a cable through your heating ducts (assuming you have 'em?) That's your best bet. You could try running over cat 3, it wouldn't cost much to give it a shot.
posted by defcom1 at 1:12 PM on August 1, 2012

Response by poster: OK. I've been convinced that Powerline is at least worth trying. I'll definitely buy from someone with a good return policy.

Most of what I've been able to read on ethernet over Cat 3 suggests that 10 Mbit is the best that can be expected reliably over moderately long runs. That's not good enough, I don't think.

ellF's point about half of 802.11n being way faster than the outside connection is a good one, although I would like to run backups over this network. I suppose incremental aren't actually that much data, though. The wireless is still an issue, though; it's not just walls and floors; it's actual dirt/soil that's blocking my path. I suppose I could put a repeater in the room directly above the finished basement to get my network traffic to make a 90 degree turn. Everything in my house is 802.11g now, though, so it would require an upgrade of equipment.

XMLicious: Awesome (re: RONJA). I'm even an astronomer in my professional life, so I think I have some parabolic mirrors laying around. Maybe that's overkill for now, though. . .

And somehow I missed cosmicbandito's suggestion right at the top: to try boosting the power in the DD-WRT settings. That seems like a very good solution if all the hard-wiring solutions fail.

defcom1: Sadly no heating ducts; we're in baseboard hot water country. Maybe if I disabled one of the baseboard hot water heaters and used the pipe as a conduit. . .
posted by Betelgeuse at 1:29 PM on August 1, 2012

Best answer: Do you have coax going to the basement for TV? If so you might be able to use an ethernet-MOCA adapter kit
posted by Golden Eternity at 1:31 PM on August 1, 2012

In the same situation, I'd be figuring out the most discreet way to drill a hole in the basement ceiling & then wire it. (after an ernest attempt at getting behind the wall & following the phone jack wiring).
posted by Packed Lunch at 2:31 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of good suggestions above, so not sure if this is any better.

This is going back a few years, but I had an issue where distance to the router was at the outer limit of the range. At the time I did not have that much money, but did buy a long range adapter with an higher power level. It was amazing the difference between some of the more generic adaptors at the time and my reception skyrocketed.

On the advice of a networking company that specializes in long range reception (I cannot remember who it was unfortunately) , I went with an Engenius USB adaptor. While the one I bought is now woefully out of date (link goes to updated version), at the time it was just the answer I needed without any hassle of running wires or buying a more expensive router. Essentially, the solution was not to up the output of the router (although that is a very good option) but to increase the sensitivity and reception area of the adapter.

I am not saying that particular adapter will be the answer for you (there are many to choose from at that company and other places), but having a high power adapter is a solution that is relatively cheap and really easy.

Anyway, that is what I did.
posted by lampshade at 4:09 PM on August 1, 2012

Best answer: Um, it looks like your g-router has a single antenna. If you decide to go the 802.11n route, I have a a couple of thoughts: you should consider paying the bit of extra money for 3x3 MIMO router + a new 3x3 MIMO adapter for your desktop computer. Basically, multiple antennas working together to improve the signal, and they can really improve the range/quality of a connection. And this should all be compatible with older g devices. You could also go dual band to get on the 5 ghz channel to see if that improves things (better penetration, but shorter effective ranges supposedly). Then you could throw new N/draft ac devices on the 5ghz channel and keep legacy g on the 2.5 Ghz.

If you really wanted to throw money at a wireless solution however, Ruckus (and perhaps other companies now) have wireless-N beam forming routers that are used in more commercial applications and are a-ma-zing. Also, you might then appreciate having a router that has something in common with radio array sorcery.
posted by McSwaggers at 3:32 PM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think you are underestimating what you can push through Cat3 and overestimating the usual performance of the Powerline systems. If I were you, I'd put 8P8C keystone jacks on each end of the Cat3 wiring and at least give it a shot. That won't cost you more than a few bucks and an hour of your time, assuming that the wiring is easily accessible at both ends. If it's good quality Cat3 and it runs directly from one floor to the next, I think you can do a lot better than 10Mbit on it. I've done 100BT on Cat3 for at least 50-60 feet and it was fine. The only thing it's really lacking are the additional grounded pairs to act as shielding. So it will depend on how much stuff it has nearby to create interference.

If that doesn't work then I'd try the Powerline, but there's no real downside to putting 8P8Cs on there and giving the phone wiring a shot. In the worst case, you'll just need to hook the run back up to the rest of the phone system and either swap the jacks back, or just mark them so that you realize in the future that they're not really Cat5/6.

And running Cat6 outside is a good option to consider as well, and if done right won't look that bad. The typical way of running to a basement is to drill out just above the sill plate (where the joists for the upper floor sit on the concrete of the foundation), then run the wire discreetly up to the bottom of the siding, then along the bottom of the siding (where you can tuck it up and hide it) to a corner of the house, where you can run up inside the molding at the corner if you want. From there, you can either go up and in through a wall on the second floor, or better yet run all the way up into the attic and then drop down through a closet somewhere. This is what I have for both cable and data in my house and it's a pretty decent solution. Satellite TV people do it all the time, in fact if you've ever had satellite TV in that house you may find remnants of coax running that way already.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:18 AM on August 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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