Gaming router has business smarts

Ian Yates finds a Wi-Fi router touted as suitable for gamers has features that make it ideal for connecting two offices separated by a street.

When a client ran out of office space recently, they started hunting for new premises. This was a search that was going to take quite some time, but they let me know in advance that they’d need some new networks in the new location, so I could start scouring the landscape for current best practice. Unexpectedly, the second floor of the building across the road suddenly became available, which would allow some staff to relocate immediately, taking the pressure off the deadline to move to totally new premises. But how would we network that?

Well of course, we’d throw some cat 6 cables around the new offices, but the main problem was getting the phones and PCs to behave as though they were in the main office, rather than across the street. We could ask Telstra to run a cable under the road. Nope. Not available, unless you spent more money than it would cost to relocate the whole company anyway. Get some ADSL and run a VPN. Yeah, that could work, but with no ADSL 2+ on offer, the 384Kbps back channel would soon get chewed up by VoIP with half a dozen sales people chatting away.

Since the two offices are literally across the road, and both are on the second floor of their respective buildings, there was line of sight across a 40 metre gap – could we go wireless for the link? A quick test proved that the existing WiFi reached across the road, albeit a bit slow and wobbly, so maybe a shiny new 802.11n setup would deliver the required connection? The folks from Commander were delivering VoIP handsets tied back to the existing PBX, and they only needed about 50Kbps for each phone. The new “N” WiFi claims top speeds of 300Mbps. Time to experiment.

Casting around for WiFi “N” access points which are happy to work as a bridge suddenly restricted the choices, and even those choices seemed to be on long lead times, being fairly new to market and not piled up yet in warehouses. We were attracted by its specifications to Netgear’s WNDAP330 ProSafe 802.11n Dual Band Wireless Access Point. Three antennas sticking out, with one of them directional, looked promising. However, they are in short supply right now and we could only get our hands on one unit. We needed two, one for each side of the link.

Then we discovered Netgear’s WNHDEB111 Gaming 5 Ghz Wireless-N Networking Kit. This is just two of its WNHDE111 802.11n access points bundled together, so that those with a gaming console can connect to the Internet in the other room without leaving their lounge room or bedroom or wherever it is they play with their console. What makes the WNHDE111 different is that it also knows how to be a bridge, or repeater, and not just an access point. What’s more, it can do this automatically. If the gadget detects the Internet on its Ethernet port, then it goes into AP mode. If it can’t find the Internet then it decides it must be a repeater and switches modes, and goes looking for a base station.

But would these “gaming gadgets” work for business use? For starters, these baby access points don’t come with external antennas, so if the signal isn’t good enough, there’s not a lot can be done to boost their range, other than orient them with their front panels facing each other. And they only have 100Mbps Ethernet ports, not Gigabit ports, so they’re never going to achieve the theoretical 300Mbps throughput. Since they are designed for gaming consoles, which mostly don’t come with gigabit ports, you can’t really blame the designers for trying to keep the production costs down. However, they were available off the shelf, for under $300 the pair, and the boss figured they’d work fine for the kids if they didn’t deliver for the office. So, as they like to say, it was game on!

After the new office was cabled up, we unpacked the box and parked one WNHDE111 in the window of each office, facing each other, then we pressed the front panel buttons, and watched the status screen on the laptop. Hey presto! We had a link! It was a secure link too – these boxes automatically connect via WPA2. They do automatic QoS to help with VoIP as well. And the link was running at 89% and around 132Mbps! Of course, this was in what you’d call “ideal” conditions – we had the windows open – so we couldn’t operate like this on a daily basis. Close the windows. The signal dropped to around 70% and the speed went down to 108Mbps. But that’s still as good as the old standard Ethernet cable, and faster than the port on the back. Would it be good enough for the PCs and phones?

Next step was the VoIP phones, and they just worked fine – plugged them in and they hunted down their PBX and registered themselves. Crystal clear voice calls and no different from any other extension. Time to connect some PCs, which also worked just fine – certainly no worse than those PCs in the main office which were on 100Mbps links, but of course not as good as those which enjoyed a Gigabit link. However, Internet access was of course exactly the same from both offices – the WiFi-N link easily outpaced the 10Mbps cable Internet link. And so the sales team moved in and started work in their nice new offices, unaware of the technological trickery behind the scenes.

While this setup probably isn’t what Netgear had in mind for it’s little access points, it does prove that 802.11n has a lot to offer and is ready right now for serious business use. Now, if we can just get our hands on two of the more upmarket WNDAP330 models, we’ll let you know whether the extra money gets you any extra performance.

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