DD-WRT + Old Router = 5GHz Client Bridge
Marketing is cool. A good sales pitch can make you really want something you otherwise don’t know anything about, don’t know how to use, and you don’t know where to begin. 5GHz and dual frequency routers are a case in point.
Raise your hand if you own one and have almost no idea how to use 5GHz. Now, raise your hand if you know how to use 5GHz, but not without spending a lot on additional equipment.
How would you like to take an old dual frequency or inexpensive refurbished router, replace the firmware on it with a free open source replacement, add a little know-how, and turn it all into a secure 5GHz wireless bridge that your media devices can access via a reliable wired connection? With a little more work (very little) you can also move some 2.4GHz wireless devices to the 5GHz channel, uncluttering the main wireless network.
Before saying “Yes … I want this,” you should first note this is a hobby project. Replacing your router’s firmware with DD-WRT may instead make it irreparably useless. Not all routers can support DD-WRT and finding the right DD-WRT build for your router is, in itself, a respectable challenge. Then, after you find it, you need to find the correct instructions about how to install it on that router.
Should you decide to accept this mission, if successful, you will own the bragging rights to having built your own high performance 5GHz client bridge out of spare parts or someone’s cast offs.
Beyond bragging rights, you will also have access to a second 2.4GHz wireless radio that uses the 5GHz client bridge as a tether to the home network. This helps avoid congestion on the main router’s 2.4GHz frequency. For example, if you want to Chromecast on the home network, you may experience congestion on 2.4GHz if only one radio is in use. If, on your re-purposed router, you turn on the 2.4GHz radio, give it a unique SSID, and connect your Chromecast or any other suitable wireless device to the re-purposed router’s 2.4GHz SSID, there will be less traffic on the main router’s 2.4GHz radio and, therefore, less congestion for Chromecast to get through. The 5GHz connection between the two routers acts much like a wired connection between a router and a switch. You can’t do this with a dedicated media bridge.
Is There Anything Else to Consider?
Finally, you should be made aware that 5GHz client bridges are reasonably common now and not especially costly anymore. Back in my day a couple of years ago, the selection was limited, the cost was high, and the performance was questionable.
Bridges are called by different names and they have different capabilities. You can search for client bridges, media bridges, entertainment bridges, wireless bridges, and more. Some travel routers may do the job, but need to be evaluated for up-time reliability. Some are only 2.4GHz. Some are only 5GHz. Some are both and you select which frequency during configuration. All provide wired ports out … which is preferred in a bridge configuration. However, some have only one port, some have two ports, and some have four ports.
Almost all routers have WDS configuration modes. WDS is a predecessor to good, secure wireless client bridge technology. With WDS, you can make one router the base station and one the wireless client. You then select WEP security or no security. Good luck.
Asus used to offer a secure WPA2/AES client bridge mode as a standard feature on its higher end routers, but reverted to WDS on a firmware upgrade. Padavan’s alternate Asus firmware can be used on some Asus router models to easily create a secure 5GHz wireless bridge.
Netgear currently (12/2013) offers a secure client bridge mode on it’s highest end ac routers. You need to pair two routers in that series, but you can reportedly get wireless-ac speeds. It’s worth considering pairing a top shelf selection as your main router and a refurbished lower level one in the series for the client bridge. Thinking ahead, if you’re handy, you can then replace the wireless card in your laptop with an ac enabled one and use the newest ac technology without needing a clumsy USB antenna.
Most routers have no useful bridging capabilities using stock firmware. If you want to expand your home network, you have to buy something new from that vendor or apply some creative problem solving.
I bought my first dual frequency router with the belief that 5GHz must be useful, otherwise they wouldn’t sell it. I had no idea what to use it for. I assumed there must be a demand, otherwise it wouldn’t be offered. The 5GHz radio sat idle for several years until I upgraded my internet service to fast cable and started to explore some options that weren’t possible with a slow internet connection.
After some search engine research, some perseverance, and some dumb luck, I ended up with a refurbished Netgear WNDR3400 V1 for $37. I found a web site that described in detail how to find the proper DD-WRT build for that router and how to install it. A YouTube video provided instruction on how to configure a DD-WRT client bridge. Today it streams using WPA2/AES security at 5GHz, reliably, and media from the internet and my DLNA renderer looks and/or sounds great.
Why Do I Need 5GHz?
Maybe you don’t. Modern routers have two radios, one at 2.4GHz and one at 5GHz. There’s also the wired connection from the built in router switch. You can connect directly to a wired device or to a powerline network connection that uses the house electrical wiring as a part of the home network.
I used to use powerline to connect a Slingbox to my home network. It worked fine. Today I use a TP-Link TL-WR702N travel router configured as a wireless client to make the connection. It provides a faster connection which makes for better reception. It works at 2.4GHz, which is fine unless you have a very busy home network.
If your router is near your media devices then you may as well just run a wire over to them.
If you have only a couple of devices active on your network at any time and none require a lot of bandwidth, then 2.4GHz my be all the wireless power you need. 5GHz also has a much shorter range than 2.4GHz and walls are more of an an impediment than with 2.4GHz.
If, on the other hand, you have the potential for a lot of activity from time to time, you have to build a network that can support peak level. If you have internet phone (VOIP), Netflix, a browser session or two, and a Slingbox connection all going on at the same time, you not only need a high quality router, but you also need to split the workload between both radios and get the wired connections involved. If you try to run all that on one radio, you’ll end up with traffic collisions and a really poor network experience. It’s common to put the media on the 5GHz radio and the rest on 2.4GHz.
Where do I get DD-WRT?
This is your first stop, the official DD-DWT web site. DD-WRT is open source firmware for your router, or at least some routers. Not all routers can use DD-WRT and you can ruin a router if you load the wrong version on one that otherwise accepts DD-WRT as its firmware. Here’s a list of router manufacturers and eligible routers within their product lines. The main website provides a secondary resource for router look-ups. New DD-WRT releases come out every so often. Some are more stable than others. You should find one that few have complained about.
Your first activity is to make a list of interesting routers that support DD-WRT. Then you start your research. Which are dual frequency? Which are still being marketed? How much money are you willing to risk? Which routers have suitable power and throughput to fill your anticipated needs? Can you find a good, cheap factory refurb that works with DD-WRT? Reliability rankings are less useful here because the firmware affects the reliability. A good router with bad stock firmware is an unreliable router. But sometimes a bad router is just a bad router. Do your research.
Every router is a little different. If a manufacturer replaces a router with a Version 2 or Version 3 model, the release of DD-WRT for router Version 1 may not work. Part of the router selection research should have been to snag some reliable looking installation instructions and all required files. The DD-WRT wiki provides a lot of useful information. Many routers have instructions specific to individual routers. Some routers require you to install two files; a ‘flash’ version and then the main firmware. Here’s an example for the Netgear WNDR3400 v1.
OK. It Arrived Today. Now What?
First you install the DD-WRT file(s) you previously located and downloaded.
I can’t provide installation advice for DD-WRT because there are many variations of DD-WRT which are matched to the processor in your router. While DD-WRT looks the same on each after it’s installed, the selection and installation process can be a little tricky. In my case, I had to load two DD-WRT files, one to ‘flash’ the router for DD-WRT and the second for the final install.
Finding and installing DD-WRT is the hard part but will give you pride of accomplishment after you succeed.
In general, you will:
- Disconnect your work PC from the network
- Connect the new router to the work PC using a cable to a LAN port, not the WAN port
- For less recently manufactured routers you may do a hard 30-30-30 reset on the new router. The DD-WRT instructions define a 30-30-30 reset in a particular way. Newer dated routers are said to suffer damage if you perform a 30-30-30 reset. Asus routers are said to go into a restore mode from this procedure. Your first big decision will be to sort this problem out.
- Upload the files(s) into the router, as instructed
- Boot into DD-WRT
- Change the default administrator id and password.
How Do I Turn It Into a Wireless Bridge?
The good news is that you need to make NO changes to the main home router. All client bridge configuration work is performed on the DD-WRT router. If you are successful, it will just start to work without any changes to the main home network. You will, however, need write down a few bits of information on how the main router has been set up. Specifically;
- The main subnet (probably 192.168.1.x, or something similar)
- The IP address of the main home router (probably but not necessarily 192.168.1.1 … referred to as the gateway router from the perspective of DD-WRT)
- The subnet mask for the network (probably 255.255.255.0 but it might be different if your network has been set up differently from most.)
- An unused IP address on your home network
- Wireless Mode for 5GHz radio (Wireless-N, Wireless-AC, Mixed …)
- The SSID for the 5GHz wireless network
- The password for the 5GHz wireless network
- The 5GHz security method
Additionally, traditional instructions ask you to set a fixed 5GHz channel. It MUST match the channel selected on the main router. Using ‘Auto’ may not work, especially with AC class routers. Wireless-N is a little more forgiving. This detail is a big reason why an otherwise flawless configuration may fail. DD-WRT isn’t always clear on how to set the 5GHz channel. The Region (Europe vs USA) also affects channel selection. Different versions of DD-WRT also provide slightly different methods for setting 5GHz channels. I wish I could print a screen and say ‘Do This To Set The Channel,‘ but I can’t.
DD-WRT provides a standardized cookbook set of instructions. They also link to a helpful video that clearly illustrates what you have to do. It may look a little intimidating, but it’s really easy. Being able to stop and replay video sections when needed really helps. If you mess it up, just reset the router using the reset button and try again.
Make a note of available and unused IP addresses on your main home network. You will need to give one that is currently unused to the DD-WRT router so it has a fixed address.
Next, you disconnect the PC you plan to use for the configuration from the internet and home network. Make a wired connection from your PC to the DD-WRT router. Use a LAN port, not the WAN, port on the router.
On your PC, bring up the IPV4 properties screen and temporarily change your PC so that it has a fixed IP address on the same subnet your main network uses. In this example, my main router’s IP address is 192.168.1.1. You will need to give the DD-WRT router a permanent fixed IP address on the same subnet in a later step. You give your PC a temporary fixed IP address to make sure DHCP doesn’t give you a hard time after you connect the DD-WRT router.
(In the final step, you will reverse this process and tell your PC to, again, obtain an IP address automatically. Also, I’ve ignored this step several times with no problems. Basically I forgot to do it once and encountered no problems. The traditional instructions say you should change the client IP address temporarily, however.)
Connect the DD-WRT router to your PC. Open a browser and call up 192.168.1.1 on your DD-WRT router. I’m assuming you are doing this immediately after you load DD-WRT and have already configured a new user id and password. If not, DD-WRT will first ask you to change the default user id and password.
Click the Setup tab / Basic Setup.
Change your router’s name if you like. This is optional.
In the Network Setup section, enter the local IP address you have selected, the subnet mask for your network (probably 255.255.255.0) and the local gateway address. The local gateway is the IP address of the main network router on 99.99% of home networks.
The NTP (time) settings are optional.
Click Apply Settings and continue.
Click Wireless / Basic Settings.
The top section concerns itself with the 2.4GHz radio. The bottom covers the 5GHz radio.
In this example, the 2.4GHz radio is disabled (turned off). If, at some point, you wish to turn it on, make sure to give it a different SSID than the one on the 2.4GHz frequency on the main router. This SSID will use the 5GHz bridge connection to communicate with the rest of the network. Think of it as an invisible wired connection. It can be useful to move busy media flows from the main 2.4GHz radio to the media router. (This is how my Chromecast communicates with the network. Thus, everything media related is moved to the 5GHz frequency directly or indirectly.)
The lower part is where you must make some changes.
- Wireless Mode = Client Bridge.
- Wireless Network Mode= match the one on main home router.
- Wireless Network Name = The Same Name As The One On Your Main Router – Exactly.
- This is the most probable screen where you will have the option to set the 5GHz channel. The prompts for this may appear and disappear depending on other settings and on the version of DD-WRT in use. Make sure the channel used here matches the one on the main router. Wireless-N routers are more forgiving here than AC class routers (as both main and client routers).
DD-WRT supports 802.11ac routers and client bridges. This just happens to be a wireless-n connection.
Click Wireless / Wireless Security.
Set wireless security for the 2.4GHz frequency just as you would on any other router, assuming you have it in use. Otherwise, ignore it.
The settings for the 5GHz frequency must match those on your main router’s 5GHz frequency identically. Same Security. Same Password. Exactly.
Click Setup / Advanced Routing.
Change Gateway To Router.
Click Security / Firewall.
Leave Filter Multicast as the only checked box.
(This screen is a little quirky. If you Disable the firewall before unchecking the boxes, the boxes will be locked from access. If you change the boxes first, everything works normally.)
You’re done with the DD-WRT router configuration. Now change your PC back to automatically obtaining an IP address.
Done. Now hook your media devices to the DD-WRT router using a wired connection (or wireless if you plan to have them talk to the DD-WRT 2.4GHz SSID) and watch the internet using a 5GHz client bridge you cobbled together, hopefully using spare or refurbished parts for very little money.