Apartment Complex -- Unwired

How would you go about setting up a wireless network for an apartment complex? Here's what worked for me.

By JC

Summary: My landlord was looking for a way to get an edge on the competition for our small apartment complex. I suggested wireless broadband. Various wacky hijinks ensue, and in the end, no one goes to jail. Or they wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids and that darned dog! (Well, ok, OK, maybe it’s less exciting than the average Scooby Doo episode, but it’s interesting nonetheless).

This is a bit long, so I’ll dump it off to another page. Enjoy!

An Idea

“You have any ideas to help me fill these apartments up?”

That’s how it started. My landlord is an entrepreneur and I’d already done one website for one of his companies and we’d just agreed to do one for my apartment complex as well. After brainstorming about content for the website, he said that one of his primary reasons for wanting a redesign was that he had 5 empty units out of only 48 available in the 4 building complex, and competition is tight. He wanted to fill them up and keep them filled. He was soliciting more ideas.

Now, one of the main reasons I moved into this place was that it had cable internet available when all you could get at any of the other places in town was dialup or a share of a single T1 split between 250+ units for more than the cost of cable. So I offered what would, given that the population of the complex is primarily retired people not quite ready for the nursing home, seem an odd suggestion. Give everyone free broadband and email on the apartments domain (free advertising!).

Of course, with comcast running $60+ a month after taxes, giving everyone their own comcast account wasn’t an option, and with 4 very solid brick buildings, running ethernet would have been an expensive option. So why not WiFi?

The landlord, having once run his own ISP and having been a wireless user in some fashion since way before 802.11b came around, jumped on the idea, and a concept was born.

But how to implement this idea? It took some doing.


Initial Research

I researched and researched, and decided that what we needed was a central point with a good omnidirectional antenna and maybe a directional pointing at the furthest corner. We spent about $60 for an 8dBi Omni from DeMarc Technologies. We hooked it up to the brand new (at the time) Linksys WRT54G — 802.11g Router. In our initial tests, this worked great. Our signal actually was accessible a few blocks from the apartment complex if you had a decent antenna. I had a good-to-excellent connection using my ibook from just about any public part of the buildings, and from anywhere in my apartment.

Sadly, though, not everyone has something as strong as the airport card, or with as good an antenna. This, we discovered when we hooked up our first test user. We’d chosen a Linksys WMP54G. This was a dreadful mistake. Yes, let’s put the antenna for the wireless connection conveniently behind several sheets of steel intended to insulate against RF interference. Zero connection, after taking the lady’s computer apart and installing it. And then it was our fault whenever anything went wrong with her decrepit old spyware infested computer trying to run AOL 9 on 64 megs of memory. This was not an auspicious beginning to the project.

After further testing with other laptops, we determined that the central access simply wasn’t strong enough. Brick is a marvelously good insulator against wifi, and wet brick even more so. We had to bring the transmission inside the buildings… but we didn’t want to have 4 seperate connections.


A Better Solution

We looked for a good repeater, but at the time, the only ones you could find cost many hundreds each, more than we were willing to spend for something with no direct ROI. I was considering using a Linksys WAP11 + WET11 connection to bridge and repeat, but the power didn’t seem acceptable given the cost… and then I came across this Seattle Wireless page about Senao, a taiwanese company that makes powerful and sensitive wifi equipment available for excellent prices. And I had an idea.

We’d order 4 flat patch antennas (8 dBi, 75 degree directional), drill a hole through the outer brick wall in the laundry room of each building, and mount the antennas, pointing at the central omni. We’d then connect each antenna to a Senao NL-2611CB3 PLUS Wireless Bridge, which would in turn be connected to a NL-2611AP3 PLUS Wireless Access Point (the two are absolutely identical hardware with different firmware, one has a sticker over the other one’s name, just buy whichever’s cheaper and flash it yourself). Each of these units features 200mW of output and excellent sensitivity. We’re still experimenting with the optimal antenna pattern, since they’re on the first floor of a three story building. We have to keep the antenna gain low so it rises high enough to cover the third floor, but high enough that it can reach that far through the floor.

I should also note that we tried switching out the stock Linksys firmware for the modified versions from WiFi Box and Sveasoft. The Sveasoft just wouldn’t work properly, the WiFi Box worked nicely, but hasn’t been updated since Linksys released some much improved firmware, so we switched back to the Linksys for now.

End user equipment — the residents with desktops are using either a linksys WUSB11 or a Hawking H-WU36D (a directional USB adapter). The residents with laptops are mostly using whatever came with their laptops, though a couple are using the Senao NL-2511CD PLUS EXT2 PC Card.


The Payoff

The end result? Residents with laptops can sit down beside the river and work or play online in a calm, scenic outdoor setting, with the same high speed access they have in their apartments. Residents aren’t stuck with dialup, and fixed income residents can now experience the Internet for free, a feature they very much appreciate. They can video conference with their grandchildren and research anything that strikes their fancy, at speeds averaging 4-5 times dialup in busy times.

It’s working very nicely, and the complex is full. Other units that have vacated have been filled, with the final selling point often being the free broadband. And the website has brought in a good number of residents and lots of inquiries about future openings. It’s a pretty competitive market, and this complex isn’t big enough to do much advertising (I think we have a couple of bus benches which include the URL, which is how I found the place, driving by one).

As of now, though, we have I think 20 computers online, and plan to eventually add 4 older machines, one in each laundry room, for residents who don’t have PCs of their own. I’m also thinking about putting in a “LaundryCam” in homage to the original coffee cam, allowing residents to see if the laundry equipment is in use before they lug their laundry downstairs… more because it’s an unusual thing they won’t find elsewhere than because I think it will be used much, but hey, who knows? :-)

Oh, and did I mention… we haven’t even put up any flyers to advertise the service to residents yet? Everything so far is word of mouth. The landlord is worried that if we advertise, he’ll get so many people at once he won’t be able to get them set up fast enough. All in all, a very successful experiment.

Please feel free to post any questions or comments below.

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