How to create a wireless mesh network with Apple AirPorts

Being able to get a robust wireless network signal around my house was something that I struggled with for some time. My Comcast cable broadband connection came in through my garage and basement so that is where I had placed my wireless access point (WAP). The cable coax connected to the broadband bridge which was then connected to my 802.11n Apple Time Capsule (TC). The problem was that the wireless signal was either not strong enough to reach throughout my 1700 square foot home.

I could sit in my kitchen (right above the WAP) and get a very strong signal but I barely got a signal in my family room or bedroom. If I wanted to use the computer from the backyard, I couldn’t. Unless I piggy backed on my neighbor’s signal. At fist I tried to solve this problem by moving the position of the WAP from shelf in the basement up into the rafters in my unfinished basement. That yield only a slight improvement. I then tried using Powerline Ethernet devices but I never successfully got those working.

Some coworkers suggested using a Linksys WET54G Wireless-G Ethernet Bridge to extend the network. These devices were very difficult to setup and never worked reliably. I though maybe the Linksys equipment did not work well with the TC so I went searching on the Apple store for an Apple solution. That’s when I found out about Wireless Distribution System (WDS).

Appple’s docments mentioned that I could use WDS to “set up two to five base stations as a unified network that shares one Internet connection.” In other words, I could setup multiple Apple WAP to create a single large wireless network that I could access from multiple locations in the home. I could put a WAP in the basement, one in the family room, and one in the living room (near the back of the house) basically saturating my home with wireless. This is exactly what I did and here is how I did it.

WDS does not yet have a standard implementation. There is no guarantee that WDS implementations from different vendors will interoperate. I used only Apple products to setup my WDS network. I did this because I wanted everything to work and because Apple has excellent documentation on how to do it. Your mileage may vary.

Below is a list of the equipment I used.

  • Apple Time Capsule (802.11n)
  • Apple Airport Extreme Base Station (802.11g)
  • Apple AirPort Express (802.11g)

I bought the AirPort Express (AX) on eBay as the lowest cost method to acquiring an Apple wireless base station. The AirPort Express is a small portable WAP and Internet gateway with one 10/100BASE-T Ethernet port for connecting a DSL modem, cable modem, or Ethernet network, a USB port for connecting a USB printer, and a 3.5-mm audio minijack for analog or optical digital sound to a stereo or powered speakers. The AX also support AirTunes. AirTunes transmits music from my iTunes library on any of my Macs and sends it wirelessly to my stereo.

I also bought an unopened flying saucer style AirPort Extreme Base (AEB) station from a colleague. He had picked it up at a yard sale and was willing to let me have it for $50. With the existing TC and the new AX and AE I now had enough to create a WDS network to blanket every part of my home.

setting the WDS modeThe first thing I did was setup my main base station, the Time Capsule,  in WDS mode.  I had already setup all the other parameters including the SSID, channel number, password, wireless security etc. The SSID and channel number must be the same for each base station for WDS to work. These settings are found in the Wireless and WDS tabs in the Apple AirPort Utility.

Once I was done setting up the WDS information for the main base station I clicked “Update” and waited for the base station to reboot. But before that I made a note of the AirPort ID of the TC and used this information later to setup the other two base stations.
base station and AirPort ID
I selected “Participate in a WDS network” from the drop down box in Wireless tab and from the WDS tab drop down I selected “WDS main” to set the WDS Mode and checked the “Allow wireless clients” check box.
participate in a WDS network
Next, I decided to setup the the AirPort Express (AEX) base station as a remote base station. A remote base station connects wirelessly to the main station and retransmits the signal from the main base station for wireless clients that are too far from the main base station. I used the AirPort Utility to connect to the AEX and set it up with the same network specific information I used for the TC. I selected “Participate in a WDS network” from the drop down box in Wireless tab and from the WDS tab drop down I selected “WDS remote” to set the WDS Mode and checked the “Allow wireless clients” check box. I entered the AirPort ID of the WDS Main base station and clicked update.
AEX as WDS remote
After the AEX base station rebooted I moved on to setup the AirPort Extreme Base (AEB) station. Setup was similar to the AEB. I used the AirPort Utility to setup the network parameters (SSID, channel number, etc) including information WDS Main.
AEB as WDS remote
Once the AEB rebooted I used the AirPort Utility to confirm that the AEX and AEX were bound to my home network and relaying traffic.
complete WDS network

The solution is not perfect. The WDS network uses a small amount of the network bandwidth for network management so wireless throughput is slightly less than it would be with just one base station. However, this is a small price to pay for being able to use my laptop or iPod Touch from anywhere inside or outside my home.

Khürt Williams

Khürt Williams is Principal for Monkey Hill, LLC, a Skillman, New Jersey based information security governance, risk and compliance consultancy. He's also an avid landscape photographer, and *nix geek.