Wi-Fi Access Points Become Repeat Offenders

D-Link's 900+ is among the first of a new breed of access points that can double as a repeater. However, Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin warns, you may have to repeat your story to tech support a few times to survive its big MAC attack.

My colleague David Morgenstern at the Storage Supersite isnt the only one with a setup beef this week. With all the snow that has befallen New York City this winter, youd think I wouldnt mind a good excuse to stay indoors. But it wasnt the allure of hot cocoa and a toasty fireplace DVD that had me scampering about my home recently; it was attempting to set up a wireless repeater.

For those of you who have become spoiled by the brain-dead exercise that setting up at least an insecure Wi-Fi network has become these days, be ready to do some homework. But if you want to extend your network tactically without some of the tradeoffs different antenna types entail, Wi-Fi repeating may be for you.

The first step was retiring my trusty old Buffalo AirStation and XSense router for a combo unit that supported Wi-Fi repeating; the D-Link 614+. I was impressed with the D-Links range, although there are some lingering DHCP problems. My iBook, for instance, seems to have developed recurring short-term memory loss about its IP address, and my Dell desktop seems to lose its IP address more often than it did.

Next I opened the D-Link 900AP+. This diminutive access point can function in five different modes, but the one most people will care about is its performance as a repeater. After upgrading the firmware, I was prompted to enter the MAC address of the access point to which Id be connecting. But the 614+s setup Web page feels like a shell game; it lists three different MAC addresses, and theres one printed on the bottom of the unit. D-Links support, which is, remarkably, available around the clock via a toll-free number, told me to use the printed code.

D-Link DWL 900AP

Now, Im no network engineer, but I know that when boxes are busy processing packets, the blinking lights flicker like hyperactive fireflies. The repeater, however, had the steady pulse of an electrocardiogram, ironic since the signal was dead. Finally, by using the MAC address the iBook was using to access the base station, the lights flickered, the signal spread, and there was much joy throughout the LAN. In contrast to the great coverage of the 614+, though, Ive seen spitballs travel farther than the range of the 900+.

Wi-Fi repeaters are bound to become an important part of future deployments, but the technology is immature, and today they may rely on proprietary implementations that defeat the interoperability of the Wi-Fi standard. The need to configure repeaters from a PC before sending them off for trial-and-error testing has to be the most infuriating shot in the dark since the Lincoln assassination; better feedback and remote monitoring are essential.

This may become a great proving ground for emerging remote-configuration standards such as Microsofts Universal Plug and Play or Apples Rendezvous. The latter, however, seems more focused on end-user devices such as printers while the former has been scoring points with more similar workaday network products such as broadband routers.

D-Link deserves credit for being one of the first vendors to offer repeating capabilities, but anyone who remembers the glory days of WordPerfect Corp. knows that generous support policies cant indefinitely sustain arcane products.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.