Extending Your Home Network for $25

The goal was to extend WiFi out from a house to a barn on a horse rescue ranch.   This would allow the use of a donated tablet located in the barn for tracking volunteer hours in an common location.  It would also allow the volunteers to use a common communication platform (Slack) with boarders for requests or specific horse needs.

I initially purchased one TP-Link TL-WA801ND Access Point, then another to try a cost effective way of getting WiFi into the main barn. One unit ended up being defective and would lock up every couple of days.  I returned it and the replacement works just fine.  At first I tried to get away with just purchasing one access point to connect to the WiFi from the cable modem inside the house. I even tried to add 9dbi antennas (RP-SMA) in place of the factory 4dbi. The signal was too spotty to be reliable, mostly due to the cable modem not having any external antennas and being on the opposite side of the house.

The second unit is set up inside the house as an access point and the one in the barn is a repeater. I ended up using the factory antennas and getting about 50% signal strength. I also purchased a relatively affordable waterproof enclosure to help shield the barn unit from the elements.

The TP-Link is a very respectable product for the price given the caveats: Just 300Mbps N WiFi, a plastic enclosure, defective unit returned and replaced. You get a feature-set that is really hard to find for the money, namely the variety of ways you can configure this wireless product to behave. It can be an access point, a WiFi client, a bridge, or an extender. Plus, a power over ethernet injector comes in the package and you can change the antennas. For a $25 access point, don’t expect perfect quality control. Just make sure you get yours up and running ASAP so you have enough time to return it for replacement if you have any issues.

As a side note, if the plan was to open up WiFi to more than a couple of users, I wouldn’t have chosen this product given the bandwidth constraints from having just 2 antennas.  For about $15 more you can get the TP-Link TL-WA901ND which gets you a third antenna and extends throughput to 450Mbps.  You also get some more functionality modes that further help extend out your network if you’re going to have multiple access points around your property.

From a technology standpoint, you should know that the 802.11 N WiFi protocol is not the latest standard, which is why something like this is fairly inexpensive. It also has only one radio frequency (2.4 GHZ).  If money were not constrained, or I was not trying to cover longer distances, I’d be looking into the 802.11 AC standard with something like the EAP225, which uses the 5 GHZ range to get faster speeds.  The downside to going to a higher frequency is physics — shorter wavelengths mean less penetration and shorter coverage distances.  Obstacles will cause more problems as opposed to the 2.4 GHZ radios.

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