How do I make my WiFi network stop hiding from me?
February 19, 2008 7:45 AM   Subscribe

I cannot maintain a connection to my wireless network. I think it might have something to do with the EIGHTEEN other wireless networks available around me. What can I do? (And let's knock this one out early: I'm on a completely different channel from all the other networks).

I just moved to a new apartment in Astoria, Queens, and was having trouble getting onto the new roommates' wireless network (and learned that one of the other roommates, a fellow Mac user, couldn't get on it either). So I bought a new Airport Extreme and set it up yesterday in place of the old Linksys router. This took HOURS, because I couldn't get a signal in the next room (where my computer is) strong enough to maintain a connection to the base station for long enough to go through the entire setup process. I eventually got it up and working, but ever since, I'm lucky to get 20 minutes of internet access before my iMac drops the connection to the network.

Here are the gory details: The network is on channel 1. The eighteen (no joke) networks around us are all on channels 6, 8, or 11. When I run MacStumbler, our network consistently has the strongest signal strength -- around 70, compared to the other networks in the 40s or 50s -- but it also appears very infrequently, only poking its head above the fray of competing networks once every couple of minutes. A couple of networks with weaker signal are much more consistent, almost never disappearing from MacStumbler's view. Ours, apparently, likes to play hide-and-seek.

The Airport Extreme (one of the brand new 802.11n ones) has to be set up in my roommate's bedroom, since he's on a paleocomputer without WiFi and must be jacked into it. The distance from the router to my computer is maybe fifteen to twenty feet total, with a closet and wall in between. The closet does have some metal fixtures (rods and hangers), but is mainly wood and fabric.

My computer is a 20" iMac G5. I have my doubts about its WiFi antenna to begin with, since I also have an Airport Express (which is not currently on the network, since I can't hold a signal long enough to get it rebooted and connected onto the network, otherwise I'd use it to improve my signal strength) which I tried plugging into the power outlet DIRECTLY BELOW my computer, and the iMac only registered a signal strength of about 80.

I also have a Powerbook G4 which I wandered around the house testing signal strength with; I tried setting the Powerbook literally on top of the Airport Extreme, and got the same problem wherein the signal was exceptionally good -- 116 -- but only when it appeared, which was once every couple of minutes. Then it vanished.

So: what are my options? Is there something I can do to make the network consistent, and not be playing this "I'm here, I'm not here" game? Is this likely to be a placement problem for the router, or more likely to be an antenna problem with my computer?
posted by logovisual to Technology (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is a bit obvious and I'm sure you have done this, but if you are running 10.5 make sure you have the latest updates. My computers kept dropping their connections until recently (and I'm the only person with wireless in my surrounding area)
posted by twistedonion at 7:51 AM on February 19, 2008

If your PowerBook is seeing the same drop in-drop out of signal, it sounds like you have a defective Airport unit. Take it back to the store.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:54 AM on February 19, 2008

This came up just the other day - did you try a search?
posted by DandyRandy at 8:24 AM on February 19, 2008

I had signal competition issues within a densely populated environment until I got a router with DD-WRT and boosted my output to a very high level, sufficient to ensure signal delivery even through two walls to a laptop in the same room as the microwave when it turns on. Anti-social, but effective.
posted by meehawl at 8:44 AM on February 19, 2008

There may be something on channel 1 you do not see, thus all the APs not on that channel. A cordless phone, wireless video camera, secret government mind control wave, who knows.

I'd try going to 6 or 11 and seeing if it helps.

Has this computer had reception problems in the past? Have all updates been applied, including firmware update for the AP?
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:37 AM on February 19, 2008

Get a directional antenna for your base station. They're cheap (<>
But given that you are seeing your AP as the strongest signal (and presumably it also has the highest signal to noise ratio - could you check this?) I'm not sure what would cause your problems.

It is also possible that the closet wall contains water pipes, which definitely would interfere with your signal. Try moving the access point a few feet to one side or the other. Also try rotating the access point - its antenna may be more sensitive to in a different orientation.
posted by zippy at 9:59 AM on February 19, 2008

Is the Linksys router still around? If it can run DD-WRT give it a shot. The one I have is crippled (too little memory to run the alternate firmware) and yours might be as well. If it is, you can set it to act as an access point rather than a router, to pick up the Airport's signal and boost it.

Also, Linksys didn't like my Mac at all, turns out that for some goddamn stupid idiot reason you can't use plain-text passwords unless you are using a Linksys wireless card (thanks, assholes) so I had to enter the wireless password in hexadecimal.

You can of course skip all this if you just set up a MAC filter for both Macs (heh) and drop password authentication, but I strongly suspect that would simply stop others from connecting while still allowing them to sniff your traffic, which is a bad thing.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:32 AM on February 19, 2008

It's entirely possible for WiFi adaptors to report 100% signal strength & quality, and yet be unable to connect, when confronted with interference from cordless phones, video senders, wireless burglar alarms, microwaves, etc. Used to see that all the time when I was installing WiFi stuff - you could choose the AP sitting 2 feet away with perfect signal & quality, but not be able to connect & pass data because of the video sender 2 rooms away.

Wood is almost as bad as sheet metal for attenuating WiFi signals. It's the moisture content; 2.4GHz was chosen for short range type-licensed applications precisely because of this.

For whatever reason, I've never seen any 801.11x wireless network work particularly reliably when there were more than 5 or 6 others visible in the vicinity, let alone 18.

(There was one particular apartment block, directly across the river from the city, I must have gone to at least 20 times to sort out various problems. From any apartment, you could see at least half a dozen other APs. It was amusingly annoying to setup & place everything just right to get it working reliably, only to have it lose comms because the AP on a ferry came into view. Get it working with that, and it'd be fine until 2 ferries came round the bend...)
posted by Pinback at 2:06 PM on February 19, 2008

Signal harmonics and messy transmission frequencies ("spill-over") may also be causing your issues. The directional antenna suggestion may help.

Another thought:
People in your neighborhood may be running devices outside the legal transmission wattage limit. It may be worth it to tip off an FCC inspector to detect (and halt) illegal transmission signals.
posted by catkins at 2:23 PM on February 19, 2008

Hey all -- I tried some of the suggestions from the other thread (local-link only for IPv6, turning on interference robustness) during one of the rare moments when I was actually able to connect to the base station -- it seemed to work for about ten minutes, during which time I got the Airport Express to join the network as a signal repeater... but then it lost contact with the box that was actually connected to the modem, and everything went to crap and I haven't been able to get back onto the network since.

I guess my next step is to try buying an antenna; if that fails, I'll return the Airport Extreme and see if it truly was defective; and if that fails, I guess it's time to run a disgusting 50-ft wire around the baseboards of the entire apartment. This SUCKS. Thanks for trying, though.
posted by logovisual at 8:30 AM on February 20, 2008

Try IP over power?
posted by catkins at 9:50 AM on February 26, 2008

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