How should I set up a neighborhood wireless network?
August 12, 2006 6:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to set up a wireless network for my neighborhood, maybe 10 houses on my block (across the street and adjacent to us). Basic setup would be that I have the wired DSL internet connection and I share it over 802.11b/g. I've looked into omni-directional 2.4ghz antennas, but I'm not sure how sensitive it would need to be, nor do I know if the clients are going to need directional antennas. What's the best way to go about doing this?

I'd prefer indoor-style antennas to outdoor ones just because of the installation hassle, but if it needs to be outdoor it needs to be outdoor.

Basically, anything like hardware recommendations, network setup, things to look out for are all appreciated greatly. Alternatives like having houses run repeaters, maybe, would be fine too I guess, but I'm trying to keep client costs down (as in hopefully they won't have to do anything other than run a standard 802.11b/g card).

posted by benc to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
WiFi is LAN technology, and at the standard power levels in the U.S. for type accepted gear, should be limited to about 300 ft of usable range from a single AP. You can use omnidirectional antennas with physical gain to flatten the energy distribution pattern somewhat, and perhaps get a maximum horizontal range of 450 to 600 feet, by doing so. So, if your access point is mounted exactly in the middle of your intended service area, you might be able to service clients 600 feet in one direction, and 600 feet in the other direction. But that is only under optimum conditions, assuming you don't have any significant sources of interference in the 2.4 GHz band in the area (like cordless phones, microwave ovens, etc.) and no one is interested in accessing your network from the basement of a brick house. More likely, if you start getting a bunch of clients at the fringes of your access points, they'll start seeing one another as ad hoc network opportunities, and ignore your weaker access point signal offer entirely. And they won't be able to "get to the Internet" by these ad hoc connections, so they'll see a single access point community network as buggy and unreliable.

Overall, to do this reliably, you need a WAN (wide area network topology) feeding several WiFi access points. A lot of volunteers have cobbled together wireless mesh networks out of low end WiFi routers and Pringles cans, but when new people move into these areas and start complaining of interference, or bring new equipment of their own, and start finding the high power hacks with directional antennas, the ad hoc networks have to go. So engineer something that stays within the rule book, and serves real needs, that those using the service will want to protect and pay for, when the time comes. If you hack type accepted gear for additional power, or start using directional antennas to achieve higher effective radiated power, you are setting up an interference situation, and that's not cool.
posted by paulsc at 7:34 PM on August 12, 2006

Slight derail but I'm assuming you're doing service with contracts. Wouldn't want you to be on the hook if the RIAA came wanting $7000 because the neighbor downloaded the Macarena.
posted by rolypolyman at 7:50 PM on August 12, 2006

Won't this choke the bandwidth out of DSL? A whole neighborhood is going to slow down to dialup speeds if they all check ebay on sunday mornings.
posted by jmgorman at 7:56 PM on August 12, 2006

Response by poster: rolypolyman: At this point I'm just worried about the logistics of the network, not worrying about the legal issues, serious though they are.

jmgorman: Indeed, a ton of people using this will cause bandwidth issues. I'd upgrade my DSL to 6mbps down/768kbps up and that probably still won't deal with major possible users, but I don't anticipate that to be a problem and if it becomes one then the network will probably just go away.

paulsc: I understand what you're saying. Can you give some more details about places I should look to research the WAN tech you describe? I have no experience with that.
posted by benc at 8:15 PM on August 12, 2006

You could start with reading about the Cisco Unified Wireless Network. And then look at the WiMax Forum for an introduction to 802.16 technology. And then, go back and look at the Cisco Metropolitan Mobile Network Solution, which doesn't currently incorporate WiMax products, but will in the future.
posted by paulsc at 8:37 PM on August 12, 2006

Response by poster: paulsc: wimax isn't feasible or even necessarily available at this point. The Cisco solutions you mention are overkill. Thanks for providing the feedback... I'll put you down in the "don't do it" camp.

Anyone out there want to share some advice for actually setting up an 802.11b/g neighborhood network, paulsc's criticisms notwithstanding?
posted by benc at 8:54 PM on August 12, 2006

SFLan is running a very large network chiefly over 802.11. You might want to take a look at what they're doing or ask them for some advice about setting up a community network.
posted by majick at 9:26 PM on August 12, 2006

The Cisco solutions I mentioned are an industry standard way of providing an engineered solution to the problem of extending a wireless LAN technology designed for operation over a radius of a few hundred feet, for reliable operation in areas significantly larger than that. Cisco provides the gear, the antennas, and the packaging that makes a reliable solution. Why would you say this is "overkill," if you are trying to span 10 average 100' x 100' home lots?

So, what you want are pointers to WiFi Wikibooks? Or WiFi Planet?

Or a pointer to FON, so you'll have a reasonable security and revenue model?

Or a pointer to PERM, as a means of intelligent signal prioritization in a multiple source AP situation, if your neighbors decide to put in their own WiFi routers?

If you just want WiFi connectivity from your single AP through a larger area, add repeaters in other houses as needed. There is a hard limit to the distance improvement you can get with repeaters, that will probably be less than the 1000' you are trying to span, but at least they aren't, as you put it, "overkill."
posted by paulsc at 9:39 PM on August 12, 2006

Response by poster: paulsc: Thank you so much for all of your help. I think most people would be offended when I call their answer "overkill" and might in fact get snarky about it; it's good to know that you aren't one of those people.
posted by benc at 9:52 PM on August 12, 2006

Best answer: A couple of strategically placed repeaters and a couple of pringles can antennas is the way to go if you want to do it on the cheap.

Remeber though, that repeaters will decrease the available wireless throughput, since they are (obviously) repeating everything that is transmitted.

However, depending on your neighborhood (density, trees, altitude) a single omni-antenna sufficiently high, say on a your chimmey or a good tree, could cover enough ground to get your neighbors online.
A quick (and very dirty) way to check this is to stick your access point up on your chimmney, and walk around a few nearby yards.
If you get a signal (even a weak one) then an omni will help.
If you get no signal at all, an omni is unlikely to help enough.

I assume you don't plan on charging for this.
Remember, if you do charge, your neighbors have the right (and will exercise it) to knock on your door at 2am and tell you they can't get to their brother's cousin's ex-girlfriends blog.
posted by madajb at 10:56 PM on August 12, 2006

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