Internet HELP!
September 7, 2012 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Internet in Boston: HELP! I'm getting weak signal in my apartment from my university internet. I bought a signal-enhancing antenna for my Macbook Pro, in order to try to enhance my laptop's reception of the university internet, but it didn't work and I'm not sure why. I'm trying now to decide whether to try again, possibly with another product, or whether to pay for a private provider and which one. Any thoughts would be most welcome!

I just moved into an apartment in Boston. Since it's a university rental property, I thought it came with the university's internet, but it turns out that it doesn't, although I have free access to the university's network from the library, student center half a block away, or even standing outside my apartment building or in my street, etc. I can get weak signal sometimes from my university network when I'm near my window (enough for my email to load), but it's erratic, and I need a stronger signal to do anything reliably on the web or use Skype, which is how I talk to my parents and others.

My university IT people suggested that I buy some sort of antenna network adapter, as apparently many students do that, and suggested this. I bought it and believe I finally configured it right for my Mac (after many hours of my own time and a trip to my local Apple store), but it doesn't seem to enhance the strength of the signal I pick up at all. The signal is just as weak as it was before, and when I look at the other networks available from my neighbors (not to join, just to get a sense of how much the antenna can pick up), they are exactly the same as when I disable the antenna. I thought that either I set it up it wrong or it doesn't work well for Macs, but when I called the company, they told me that if my computer normally picks up wireless internet, it won't enhance it at all, that it only works for computers that don't get wireless normally, which doesn't seem to match the product description on Amazon, or what Amazon reviewers have noted (??). Essentially, I'm extremely confused about the product, and would welcome any suggestions, as if I could get the product to work for the purpose for which I intended it, that would be absolutely the ideal solution.

I'm also wondering the following:

1. Does anyone have any idea whether any product, including the one I bought, significantly strengthens wireless signal (for Macs)? I'm using a Macbook Pro that I bought in the summer of 2009. I can get okay signal if I stand in the middle of the street outside my apartment, and weak signal sometimes by my window in my apartment. Will any product (under, say, 70 or so dollars) pick up enough of my university's internet to give me consistent access, strong enough to surf the web and to use Skype and Youtube from within my apartment? I have thought about whether or not this is ethically problematic (essentially to be mooching off of my university's free Wifi), but since I'm allowed access to it and could spend all day in the university student center using it, I think I've decided that I'm comfortable with essentially using this same access but in my apartment, if I can get it. If you think this is ethically problematic and I should be paying for a private provider, please say, however, as I'm still somewhat on the fence about it.

2. What are the best cheap options in Boston (I'm assuming it's between Verizon or Comcast)? I've never actually bought internet service before (always used my university's), so I have no idea what I'm doing. I only need it for a few months, so one-off costs definitely are a prohibitive consideration, I need a contract that I can terminate in a few months without a fee, I and don't need cable or phone packaged with the internet. I'm assuming there is no low-income option for Boston that I would have access to (I'm a PhD student, and am low-income by any numeric metric). Is it the done thing to knock on my neighbors' apartment doors and offer them a reasonable amount ($15-20/month?) to share in their internet, or is that gauche? I don't know anyone here yet. There's only one of me, I'm often out at the library during the day, and I don't do a huge amount of data-heavy activities (mostly read text-based news and blog sites, although some Youtube and Skype), so it seems a waste to take out a whole high-speed subscription just for myself, but I will do that if it's the best option.

posted by UniversityNomad to Technology (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't know about macs, but I bought the same antenna recently and it's totally boosted both the number of signals I pick up on my aging pc laptop and their strength. My good friends across the street let me use their wifi, and I no longer have to sit on my front porch to do so.
posted by mareli at 3:11 PM on September 7, 2012

Best answer: Which of the antenna do you have plugged in? The spike is for 2.4 GHZ and the square one is for 5 GHZ. If you're trying to pick up 5 GHz, keep in mind that the square one is directional. You may have to turn it so that the flat face points toward the signal source.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:22 PM on September 7, 2012

Response by poster: Chocolate Pickle: How do I figure out which one of the two (or others?) I'm trying to pick up? Is there a way to tell which of the GHZ my network is?
posted by UniversityNomad at 6:04 PM on September 7, 2012

Best answer: Download inSSIDer. It will be able to tell you what channel the network is on, plus it is able to show a time-graph of the signal strength.
posted by UsernameGenerator at 6:29 PM on September 7, 2012

Best answer: The Alfa is a very good USB wifi adapter. I've been using one for years (on Windows) and it has performed flawlessly. Typically I've gotten two bars of signal improvement (e.g., a one bar signal on the laptop's built-in wifi becomes a three bar signal using the Alfa). If you are seeing no signal improvement, something is wrong.

Make sure you are turning off your mac's internal antenna, so you will see only signals from the Alfa. If you then see no signals, the Alfa isn't configured correctly. If you see the same signals, only much stronger, it is working correctly.

From everything you've said, I think the Alfa should provide you the signal improvement you need. It might be worthwhile to ask a friend with a Windows laptop to come over and install the Alfa on their laptop.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:43 PM on September 7, 2012

Response by poster: Exphysicist345, I think you might be onto something. When I go into "Network" (from "System Preferences"), it looks as though, although the Alfa device is enabled, it isn't working properly. It says "self-assigned IP address", and elaborates by saying: "Status: Connected: Ethernet Adaptor has a self-assigned IP address and may not be able to connect". I think this is what is happening, because my normal wireless internet does not have this when it is connected to my university internet (it instead says "Authenticated via PEAP", and then something about "Inner Protocol"). When I turn off Airport (my laptop's normal wireless connection), I can't access any signal with the Alfa wireless device, although it's on and blinking, which further supports the idea that it's not connected properly.

Long shot, but any idea about how to configure it so it works? I'm almost certain I've downloaded the right driver (did it online, as the CD didn't work well with Macs), so I think all I need to do is configure it properly under my internet settings. The options in my internet settings for the device under "Configure" seem to be "Using DHCP", "Using DHCP with manual address", "Using BootP", "Manually", "Off", and "Create PPPoE Service". I don't know what any of this is, but it appears to be a problem with needing to fill in the IP address or something? Any ideas? Thank you so much!
posted by UniversityNomad at 7:55 PM on September 7, 2012

Best answer: I would try this:

First, unplug the new gizmo entirely. Go back to using your internal antenna which doesn't work very well.

Then run InSSIDer and figure out what frequency you are trying to access. (By the way, probably 2.4 GHz.)

Once you know that, you can use the correct antenna on the new gizmo.

(If it's assigning itself an IP, it means it isn't finding any network which will grant it an IP.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:52 PM on September 7, 2012

Best answer: By the way, you want to select "Using DHCP". That's the protocol that permits the network to assign an IP to your device.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:22 AM on September 8, 2012

Response by poster: In case anyone is reading this in the future and has the same question, I wanted to provide the answer that I found, which I believe is accurate. My university IT department told me that apparently the Alfa software can't handle advanced logins of the sort that my university requires (entering a username and password, for instance, rather than just a password). I was able to log in to non-university-based networks with the Alfa hooked up to my Mac - in trying to configure it, I ended up just letting it populate all of the default settings, and pressed "okay", and after a few minutes it was able to connect (I had to wait, because at first it had a self-assigned IP address, but was then able to connect properly). Unfortunately it seems that the software can't handle the type of login that my university requires, although the hardware seems impressive. If anyone else is contemplating buying this product, I'd recommend calling the company first, and trying to get a straight answer about whether the software can handle the internet system that you're using.
posted by UniversityNomad at 8:45 AM on September 15, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all for your help in this thread!
posted by UniversityNomad at 8:46 AM on September 15, 2012

Response by poster: Also, I had to restart my machine with the Alfa plugged into my Mac's USB in order for the device to register, and then I had to turn off my Mac's Airport in order to get the Alfa to override my Mac's internal antenna-thing. Also, the instructions on the CD don't seem to open on Macs, the driver on the CD also doesn't seem to open (you can download the relevant driver from their website), and the PDF of instructions for Macs on their website is corrupted. I'd recommend against people with Macs buying this unless you have rudimentary computer skills and can figure out all of this stuff on your own. Just FYI, in case anyone else with a Mac is contemplating buying this or is having the same problems that I did.
posted by UniversityNomad at 8:49 AM on September 15, 2012

Sorry it didn't work out for you.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:53 PM on September 15, 2012

Sorry the Alfa CD, documentation, drivers, and Mac support are all so crappy. And sorry you couldn't log into your university account. Thanks for documenting your valiant battle!
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:59 PM on September 17, 2012

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