network

AirPort Extreme replaced with AmpliFi

Background

Some of you reading this who use Apple equipment may have home networks created by Apple AirPort Extreme and/or Express routers, or, in some cases Time Capsules (which are AirPort Extremes with hard disks in them for Time Machine backups).

The big news this past week is that Apple is discontinuing their AirPort line and when current stock is sold, they won’t make any more. I’m not sure what this means for firmware updates but those will eventually stop, maybe not immediately but sometime in the next year.

Most of us think of networking gear like plumbing: it runs in the background and god-forbid we have to fiddle with it (some people do enjoy fiddling with it). AirPort, while a great solution wasn’t perfect although setting it up with AirPort Admin was easy and once up and running, it was and still is rock solid.

There are numerous companies making networking equipment that in some ways is more modern than AirPort: Apple hasn’t updated AirPort devices in years and the rest of the networking industry has marched on.

And, over the years use of the internet has changed: we now stream a lot of video (some of it 4K), have multiple hand-held devices on a home network and some people don’t even have a computer anymore (imagine!).

I knew I would eventually have to replace my AirPort Extreme router but there’s no rush, it still works perfectly.

My setup

  • Cable modem
  • AirPort Extreme wifi router
  • iMac Pro connected via ethernet to a LAN port on the AirPort
  • HP laser printer connected via ethernet to another LAN port on the AirPort
  • Ethernet cable running in the walls downstairs to a wall jack and into an Apple TV connected via a LAN port on the AirPort

We use the AirPort wifi for networking everything else (two iPhones, two iPads and Anne’s MacBook Pro) and the AirPort Extreme covers the entire house easily. Sitting in the far end of the living room which is as far away from the base station as you can be in the house the signal drops a tad but it’s good enough.

So, I needed a router and wifi access point and the router had to have 3 or more LAN ports on the back. If you search around on Amazon there are many devices that fill this need. The two things many of them lack is this: easy to use software to set up the network and control access, and a company that’s on top of things enough to do firmware updates to the router as needed.

AmpliFi

Two of my friends are big fans of the networking company Ubiquiti Networks. This company builds high-end networking gear for offices and larger installations. They only recently got into the home networking space with their AmpliFi system.

The AmpliFi wifi router (just the base station) has all the features I wanted although there was no way to find out if it alone, minus its mesh satellites, would be enough to cover my house short of buying one. It alone costs about $130 which is less than the $199 an AirPort Extreme costs. Adding more coverage costs about $110 per mesh point but there’s no reason to do that up front, you can wait until you find out you need it (or not).

For those who haven’t been following the evolution of home networking, in the old days one could extend an AirPort network by adding another AirPort router (an Express) and the method was either with an ethernet cable or with a wifi connection between the base station and its satellite. It wasn’t hard to set up although it wasn’t great and coverage was improved but still not perfect.

The modern way for a home user to do this is with what’s called a mesh system: a base station router and little mesh antennas that one can plug in around the house to extend the wireless range. Very much like building with tinker-toys, or so we’re told.

I don’t really want a mesh system here: I just need a capable router/wifi base station that has enough range to cover my house. However, the nice thing about the AmpliFi system is that it’s really both: the base unit is a direct replacement for the AirPort Extreme and one can add mesh satellites as one needs them, or, not at all.

Here is the listing for the base station alone: AmpliFi HD Mesh Router.

I ordered one from Amazon two days ago (I figured easier returns to Amazon in case it didn’t work out) and while I dreaded taking down our network, I set it up this morning.

Here’s the executive summary: setup is a snap, it has better coverage than the AirPort Extreme it replaced and my entire network (iMac Pro, laser printer, Apple TV, iOS devices) was up and running again in a few minutes. Seriously, a few minutes! The device is smaller than the AirPort: same footprint, about 2/3 the height.

Setting up the AmpliFi HD Mesh Router

It’s taking me longer to write this up than it will take you to do it.

The box this device comes in is quite amazing, almost feels like overkill but it does give the kind of confidence opening up a device from Apple gives (if packaging can do that for you).

1. Download their app on your iPhone or Android phone before starting. The app is called “amplifi” so just search for that in the app store and you’ll find it. I wish it was built for iPad as well but alas, it’s fine on the iPhone alone. Run the app before starting.

2. Disconnect all the old stuff and power down your cable modem or whatever device you have. In my case I have a battery backup on my cable modem and took that out as well as disconnected its power cord).

3. Connect AmpliFi to the cable modem with included ethernet cable.

4. Power up the cable modem.

5. Power up AmpliFi. Note: the AmpliFi power brick cable is quite short, plan accordingly.

Note: at some point in here (I forget where) I had to quit the AmpliFi app and connect to the new network in Settings on my iPhone. The app uses bluetooth for the initial setup and then uses the new wifi connection.

6. Follow the instructions on the AmpliFi app to name the network and create a password. I used the same network name and password I’d used on the AirPort Extreme.

7. Plug in whatever other LAN stuff you have (I have an iMac Pro, a laser printer, and an Apple TV, all connected via ethernet).

8. Log back into your network on all devices. Even though the network name and password were the same I had to log back in because the access point was new. Apple TV was automatic (nice).

9. The AmpliFi app will tell you all is well and that’s that. The app has ways to control the lighting and feedback on the AmpliFi router and it also gives you your network speed and more information.

Notes

The power brick cable on the AmpliFi is pretty short. Plan accordingly.

Coverage is better than the AirPort Extreme (amazing since its a smaller device). I have complete coverage anywhere in my house and in my driveway. If I need more coverage or over time I find coverage is weak I can always buy an AmpliFi MeshPoint HD or, better, another AmpliFi router and beef up my network.

Apple TV connection was automatic as I had named the network the same thing and used the same password.

Network printing on the laser printer was automatic.

I used the app to change a few settings but the default settings are fine.

If you use AirPort express to connect to home audio equipment I’d slave the same AirPort express to the AmpliFi system. I’m not sure what else to recommend at this point.

If you use a Time Capsule for over the air Time Machine backups I think you’ll probably have to switch to a locally connected Time Machine drive. There may be other solutions coming but I haven’t heard of them yet.

I’d say (so far) that this is the absolute best replacement solution for the AirPort Extreme. Easy to set up, great coverage, and I have faith that this company will keep the firmware updated.

I was dreading this changeover but in fact, it was completely painless. Those of you reading this who are in the same boat, there is no huge rush, just because Apple discontinued AirPort doesn’t mean you have to switch immediately. But, in fact, the AmpliFi setup may give you better coverage with faster speeds and it might pay to make the switch sooner than later. In short, don’t be intimidated by this, it’s doable by most if not all home network users

Feel free to let me know what your experience is in the comments.

Update on home made Time Capsule

A month ago I posted on my experiment with a Home made Time Capsule and I’ve learned some things and changed some things since that long post.

First let me say that while I think this setup is fantastic and every Mac user should be doing something like this, this is not my only method of backing up my computer. I’ve continued to use SuperDuper to do a complete clone of my computer every day.

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This setup worked perfectly, when it worked. Time Machine works in the background so the only way I knew it was working or not was to check it’s system preference pane from time to time to see when the last backup was. Time Machine is supposed to attempt a backup every hour when the computer is awake and connected to the network but I was noticing that there were times when it was skipping 1/2 a day at at time.

Something was up. So, I left the system preference pane open so I could watch what was happening. I watched as Time Machine attempted a backup but the drive never spun up and mounted. If I unplugged and replugged the USB cable of the drive it would spin up and Time Machine would find it and work.

I wasn’t sure what the problem was but I had a feeling that the portable USB 3 bus-powered drive I was using wasn’t getting the wakeup message from Time Machine, either because USB 2 (what’s on the AirPort Extreme) or the drive itself was missing the intelligence to wake the drive from sleep at the needed time.

Bus-powered drives tend to be 2.5″ HD mechanisms for portability and these smaller mechanisms don’t need as much power to run so can run off of the power in a USB cable connection to a computer (they’re what are inside laptops as well as portable cases). Desktop drives tend to have 3.5″ HD mechanisms in them and have power bricks. And, they cost less for a lot more storage.

I thought maybe a desktop drive might solve this problem but I decided to pass this question (bus powered or desktop) on to someone I knew had a similar setup on his home network. He’s a developer who I met online many years ago through a mutual friend but who I’ve never met in person: Scott Gruby (this seems to be quite common these days).

Scott agreed: the bus powered drive was probably the problem and a desktop drive might solve it. He uses a Western Digital RAID drive on his network and I don’t need RAID but decided to look into their standard desktop drives. The Western Digital My Book seemed like a good way to go. 4TB for about $110 and decent reviews on Amazon. Its a larger case with a 3.5″ 4TB drive in it, no fan, and a power brick.

Given that there are many drives in this category I decided to take a look at the BackBlaze Hard Drive Reliability Review for 2015. Interestingly, in 2014 Western Digital was their most reliable drive but in 2015 it had been overtaken by Seagate.

In looking through the Amazon reviews of the Seagate 4TB desktop drive I noticed one comment/review that caught my eye. A Mac user attempting to use the drive as I am, connected to an AirPort Extreme for Time Machine over the air backups. He found that the drive did not mount on time for the backups to work. So, for me, that eliminated the Seagate and I ended up with the WD 4TB My Book for Mac. The Mac and non-Mac version cost the same so I figured I’d get the one with “Mac” on the case. I partition and format all of my drives so it doesn’t matter to me if the drive comes pre-formatted for the Mac.

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The new drive came, I formatted it and got it connected to the AirPort. It’s very quiet, no fan and the spinning drive makes very little noise. I can hear it but it’s not obnoxious.

I decided to start from scratch and redo the Time Machine backups of both my wife’s MacBook Air and my MacBook Pro on the new drive. I started with my wife’s machine because it doesn’t have much on it. The initial backup took about 2 hours and worked flawlessly. Over the next two days my wife’s computer backed itself up to the new drive every hour. The drive went to sleep, then awoke for the backup every time. This was great, exactly what I was hoping for.

Then I started the initial backup of my MacBook Pro. Estimated time: 12 hours.

The great thing about Time Machine is that even on the initial backup I was able to close my computer (stopping the backup) and move to a different part of the house, open my computer (continuing the backup) until the initial backup was done.

Over the next few weeks I’ve kept track of Time Machine’s system preference pane on both my computer and my wife’s and the new drive is spinning up and mounting every time. If both machines want to back up at the same time Time Machine knows to form a line (so to speak).

I think the power supply of a desktop drive is probably essential for this application, but, there must also be something in each drive’s controller that allows it to be awaken by Time Machine. I can’t say that I’ve tested other desktop drives at this point but I take that Amazon commenter at his word that the very popular Seagate drive didn’t work for him. It might be that other brands work, I don’t know but I do know that the drive I got has been flawless so far.

Time will tell.

Home made Time Capsule

R0001255Many people think of the networking gear in their houses (cable or DSL modem, WIFI router) like plumbing: they get it all installed and set up and then forget about it as it runs in the background.

The problem with this thinking is that the amount of stuff we have moving through this “pipe” is increasing at a rapid rate. It was acceptable to have a 300 baud dial up modem in the old days for email and AOL but now that we have the internet and streaming video and voice over IP and all sorts of other stuff running through the same pipe, having a faster internet connection is important.

In short, we upgrade our computers from time to time to take advantage of new and faster processing power but we tend to not upgrade our home networks.

In fact, cable modems can be upgraded and cable internet services can be upgraded as well and it’s useful these days to look into that if you have a lot of stuff connected to your cable modem and home network: AirPort router, Apple TV, computers, printers, thermostats, etc.

Downstream of the cable modem is the router which tends to be a bigger bottleneck than a cable modem. I’ve been using Apple AirPort routers since they appeared and while I’ve sometimes been slow to upgrade them, I do consider upgrading them when newer models have faster speeds or more capabilities.

The latest model of the AirPort Extreme has been made taller to incorporate larger antennas for better coverage and the wifi protocol has been upgraded to 802.11ac to accommodate the increased use of streaming video. We’ve been using one since they came out over a year ago and it’s improved our network speeds considerably and given us much better coverage both in and outside our house.

Backup

I use SuperDuper! to back up my MacBook Pro and I back up my wife’s MacBook Air with it as well (on a separate disk). I also have a hard disk dedicated to Time Machine which I manually connect to my MacBook Pro daily to make a different kind of backup. I stared using Apple’s Time Machine religiously when I bought a new computer and Migration Assistant balked at recognizing my SuperDuper backup disk and I had to use my Time Machine backup disk to migrate my stuff onto the new machine.

A piece of me will always like the SuperDuper (or Carbon Copy Cloner) kind of backup better: you’re left with a disk that is essentially a clone of your computer and you can boot from it. This means that if your computer has a problem, you can easily boot another one from your backup and be back in business immediately.

However, Time Machine has it’s selling points as well, the most important of which (for me) is that it’s automatic, happens over the air, and once it’s set up and working, falls into the background.

Apple has combined a Time Machine hard disk and an AirPort Extreme router in a product called Time Capsule which looks identical to an AirPort Extreme router except it’s got a 2 or 3TB hard disk in it.

This product has appealed to me for years but there’s something about having a hard disk built into a device in a way that makes it tough to replace that scares me. And, what happens when you buy a new Time Capsule to replace an old one? How easy or awkward is it to move your backups to a new one?

It would seem to me that it might be better to connect an external hard disk to the AirPort Extreme and treat it as a Time Capsule. This way you get the benefit of over the air backups but can replace or even remove (for safe keeping) the hard disk.

Experiments and what I learned

File sharing has been possible with AirPort Extreme routers for a long time now. You can plug a USB hard disk into the router, find it on your home network, and copy files to and from it. However, the Time Machine software would not work with disks connected this way. No doubt there were many reasons for this but the one that seems likely is that the firmware on the AirPort router has to be able to wake a connected disk from sleep when the Time Machine software wants to use it. And, once the copying is done, the disk needs to be able to spin down.

When I started researching this a few weeks ago I found this article on TidBits: Use Time Machine with the 802.11ac AirPort Extreme Base Station. The article is a few years old and comments are closed but it was a useful read for me.

Then I read the Time Machine entry on Wikipedia: Time Machine (OS X) and specifically noted this:

“On a Time Capsule, the backup data is stored in an HFS+ disk image and accessed via Apple Filing Protocol. Although it is not officially supported, users and manufacturers have configured Linux servers and network-attached storage systems to serve Time Machine-enabled Macs.”

I then did a bit more digging and found this from Apple: AirPort base stations: About USB disks

“OS X Time Machine supports compatible unencrypted USB disks connected to AirPort Time Capsule (802.11n and 802.11ac), and AirPort Extreme (802.11ac).”

Then I found this piece by Apple: Backup disks you can use with Time Machine

“An external USB drive connected to an AirPort Time Capsule (any model) or AirPort Extreme (802.11ac model only)”

Time Machine has two different file protocols for two different ways storage devices are connected to a Mac. USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt disks directly connected to the Mac get a different type of backup than Time Capsules or disks connected via USB to an AirPort Extreme both of which are being written to over the air. I found this out by noting that when I first connected my already in-use Time Machine hard disk to my AirPort base station Time Machine would not continue to backup to the existing file(s), it kept wanting to make a new backup. This is because the local backup files are different from the networked backup files. This difference is probably because of security and possibly other speed related issues.

How to do it

You’ll need a hard disk or SSD with at least as much storage as the disk you’re backing up. A Time Capsule will back up multiple machines on a network so you need to add up the sizes of all the various machines you’re backing up.

Time Machine will continue making incremental backups until it runs out of room, then it starts deleting the oldest backups.

My wife has a MacBook Air with 128GB of SSD, I have a MacBook Pro with 1TB of SSD. Neither of us has more than half of our storage used.

I had an older 1TB Lacie Rugged Drive with a USB 3 port on it. Its not super fast (5400 RPM) but given that it’s connected via USB 2 I figured drive speed wasn’t an issue. If I buy another hard disk for this I’ll no doubt get a 3 or 4TB disk.

I found that desktop (AC powered) vs portable (bus powered) isn’t an issue as long as the disks adhere closely to the USB protocols (for mounting and sleeping).

Format the disk with disk utility as you would a normal, modern OS X disk: Mac OS Extended (Journaled). Consider naming it “Time Machine” or “Backup” or something other than “Untitled.”

Connect the formatted, empty disk to your AirPort Extreme base station’s USB port.

Run the AirPort Utility, click on your AirPort Extreme, and click “edit.”

Click the “Disks” tab.

Click Enable File Sharing.

Secure Shared disks with a password. It can be a simple password and each machine using this disk will store the password in its keychain.

You could also use “Accounts” to remember the Mac OS X accounts using the disk. We used password.

I did not click the “Share disks over WAN” checkbox. Checking this would allow you to get to this disk from outside your home network. This is probably safe but somehow it scares me. If anyone reading this has experience doing this I’d love to hear about it.

When you have this screen set up as you want it, click “Update” at the bottom to update the settings on your AirPort Extreme.

That’s it, you’re done.

You should see your AirPort Extreme base station in the finder on the left side of the main Finder window under “Shared” but if you don’t, you will the next time you log in or restart. You don’t need to interact with the disk there unless you want to use it for non-Time Machine related file sharing.

Go to the Apple Menu and choose System Preferences, then click on Time Machine in the bottom row of icons.

Turn Time Machine on if it was off, select disk and consider clicking the “Show Time Machine in Menu Bar” checkbox so you can monitor things easily as you get started with this.

After this, backups should happen automatically. The first backup takes a long time but what’s great about this is you just go about using your machine as always and it will stop and restart on its own. My machine’s screen went to sleep but as far as I know, Time Machine kept working in the background. My wife leaves her machine open but sleeping and it wakes up and does it’s backup, then goes back to sleep. Very slick.

You can monitor what’s happening in the Time Machine preferences pane which you can now get to easily in the Time Machine menu on the menu bar.

I’ve had this set up working for three days on both my wife’s and my machine and it’s simply amazing, no bumps, and while I’ve not tested the backups, I have run the Time Machine application on each of our machines and poked around in the backups and it’s working as it should.

So far, so good. Again, very slick.

Wish list for future AirPort / Time Capsule routers

It would be great if both the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule had faster USB or some other, faster connection protocol. It would make the initial backup faster and allow faster file sharing on connected disks. It’s not essential but given that USB 3 is a standard on Apple devices and hard disks, that would be nice.

One thing that would get me to dump my home made set up and buy a “real” Apple Time Capsule would be if the Time Capsule backed up iOS devices like my iPhone and iPad. The fact that I have to use the kludge that is iTunes to back those devices up to my Mac, then have my Mac backed up is awkward. No doubt Apple wants to sell more iCloud backup space for iOS devices but a local backup would be good as well.

No doubt there’s a lot more Apple might do with the AirPort Extreme to support the coming home control (HomeKit) devices people will be connecting to their networks.

Until then, my home made Time Capsule is working just fine. Let me know if you give this a try or have suggestions for improvement.

AirPort wifi issue solved

For the past few months I’ve had sporadic drop-offs on our home network which is provided by a cable modem and an AirPort Extreme base station. I figured this was our cable provider although to be fair, we rarely have issue with cable unless there’s a severe storm.

Then I read Marco Arment’s piece Wi-Fi connections stalling on AirPort Extreme with 7.6.3 firmware and noted that I was running the latest (7.6.3) firmware. I didn’t do anything about it but saved the link to Marco’s piece.

Last week I was out in California visiting my mother and noticed that the AirPort Extreme router I have set up in her house was also running the latest firmware and in the past I’ve noticed that her network ground to a half at odd times.

So, I followed Marco’s directions and downgraded her AirPort Extreme to version 7.6.1 (extremely easy to do) and everything seemed to work fine. I don’t know if it did anything good but it certainly didn’t do anything bad. Next time I’m out there I’ll know better.

When I returned home I downgraded our AirPort Extreme and while I can’t say it solved the problems we were having they have not re-occurred since.

Marco seems to have been having problems with an iPhone dropping off and we may have had this too but I noticed it on my computer which I use much more at home.

I think this is worth trying if you’re running the latest firmware on an AirPort Extreme and have had any kind of noticeable drop-offs or slow downs.

Setting up Cable Internet and an AirPort Network on a Macintosh

Author’s Note
This article first appeared in the Closing the Gap Newsletter. I updated it in summer, 2002 to include more information on AirPort.

Cable Internet Finally Hits the Woods
I’ve been supporting a number of web sites and dealing with hundreds of emails a week for many years, all with a dial up account and a modem. Here in the northwest corner of Connecticut we may be one of the last places on the east coast to get any kind of high speed access to the Internet. Not only did we have to dial up for a connection, but the connection wasn’t and isn’t all that stable: ice on phone lines, wind, trees knocking down lines, and dampness offset some of the benefits of living in “the country.”

Our phone company, SNET (Southern New England Telephone) is not a great phone company and was recently bought by Bell Atlantic. They’ve been promising residential DSL service for years now and the scuttlebutt is that the entire state will have DSL by the end of this (2001) year. I’m not holding my breath although when it comes I will undoubtedly want it.

Meanwhile our local cable company has also been slow to offer cable internet. Their cable infrastructure wasn’t in place nor did they have the server infrastructure in place to offer it. Along comes a large East Coast cable provider (Optimum Online) and viola, our company offers us Optimum’s cable internet service.

So, I now have access to the internet via cable and even though some of you have been down this path already or have been down the DSL path already I thought it would be useful to tell you what I’ve done in my house and how it works.

What is Cable Internet?
Cable TV companies have put coaxial cable (on poles and in the ground) into most communities now. Almost the entire United States is wired for cable TV and finding people who have good enough reception to only watch broadcast TV is starting to be as rare as finding people who use rotary dial phones (I know, some you reading this have rotary phones but the real question is, how many of you use acoustic couplers to get on the internet?!).

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There are two competing infrastructures: phone lines and coaxial cable. There is overlap in ownership of these infrastructures and we won’t go into the deregulation of the phone company in this article but those of you who are as old as I am (or older) remember the days when there was a single phone company and cable TV was Ted Turner’s wild experiment. Now Ted Turner works for AOL/Time Warner and that “convergence” is yet another story.

The kind of information that can travel or live on these two kinds of “lines” is varied and confuses the issue in many ways: phone lines can handle video as well as voice and coaxial cable can handle phone calls as well as video (TV).

Best to think of the two infrastructures as competing “pipes” that can handle any kind of information. The big question five years ago was which one would win, but now the question is, which one will set up reliable service to your house first. In our case, the answer was cable as our phone company still has not offered DSL here in Warren, Connecticut as of the posting of this article (10/15/01).

When I heard that our local cable company was offering internet service I got in line in their phone tree to order it. Because I spend so much of my time supporting web sites the cost was less important to me than just getting it.

Because we’re already cable TV subscribers with a level of service just above basic, we were offered internet service for $29 a month. We were also offered a “deal” on a cable modem which we took knowing nothing about them. From what I’ve heard, $29 a month is a very good deal. I’ve heard of people with cable or DSL paying as much as $60 a month for the same service we have.

What Came in the Box
A week after signing up two boxes arrived. In the boxes were:

  • a Motorola cable modem with power supply
  • a cable splitter (for turning a single cable into two: one for the TV, one for the computer)
  • a 50′ piece of coaxial cable
  • a 10′ piece of 10 base T ethernet cable
  • a CD with software and a setup installer on it (including a two year-old copy of Netscape Navigator, etc. with little Mac support), all close to useless
  • various manuals, all close to useless

I opted to do the installation myself. For $150 I could have had the cable company come out and split the cable and mess with my computer. No thank you, they rarely know anything about Macs and I figured I’d call them if I messed it all up (which was a distinct possibility).

I did was go to Radio Shack and buy the following:

  • a cable stripper
  • a box of cable connectors (BNC cable ends)
  • a crimping tool for putting the cable connectors on the raw or cut cable
  • two boxes of clips for nailing the cable to the wall in the attic
  • 50′ of cable (I found the Radio Shack cable easier to strip and put ends on than the stuff the cable company sent me)

I had to pick a place to cut our cable so I could add the splitter and run the line to my office. I picked the attic where the cable comes into the house.

I used the wire-cutter part of a large pliers to cut the cable, then used the cable stripper I bought from Radio Shack to strip the insulation off of the cable. Don’t try to do this with a pocket knife, the Radio Shack cable stripper is worth it, even for one job.

I pushed the cable connectors onto the now cut-in-half and stripped cable and crimped them on with the crimping tool. Now I had my original cable, cut in half, unconnected with “female” cable ends on each piece. No TV until I got this thing back together and working. We don’t watch a lot of TV but I felt a bit nervous at this point.

I took the cable splitter, a cast aluminum thing, and took the end of it with one connection sticking out and screwed the cable coming from the street into it. I took the other half of the cable (the one running downstairs to our TV) and screwed that into one of the two other connectors on the other side. We now had working cable TV again. Whew!

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I took the 50 foot piece of cable I’d bought at Radio Shack and used the stripper and crimper to put a cable connector end onto it, then screwed it into the third male end of the splitter (the last one).

I ran the new cable connection back along our attic to the back of my office (where the cable modem was going to live), drilled a hole in the wall, pushed the cable through (it took a while to get it through the insulation and find the other side of the wall) and out into the office.

I pulled it all through, then used the nail-clips to attach it to the exposed rafters of our attic, up out of the way.

I used the stripper and crimper to put yet another cable connector on the end of this new cable and I was now ready to either watch TV in my office (not), or connect the end of the cable to the cable modem.

Important Note
You should know that once your cable provider offers cable internet, it’s everywhere in the entire cable system. It’s not like they turn a valve in the main office to run it to your house; it’s at everybody’s house all the time. Just like HBO is on the cable on your road and the reason you don’t have it is because the cable guy put a filter in-line with your cable on the pole. HBO is everywhere and you need to have the filter pulled to get it. The internet is everywhere and you need a cable modem and a registered IP address to get it.

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So, I plugged the power supply of the cable modem into the wall and it lit up like a Christmas tree. I screwed the cable connector into the back of the modem and the lights blinked a bit (something was on that cable that the modem liked). I took the length of ethernet cable they sent me and ran it to my PowerBook and plugged it in.

Now I had all the physical connections in place to be online all the time. Now I just had to get the computer to recognize the cable modem.

This part of the setup goes like this for OS 9:

  • AppleTalk Control Panel: Ethernet built in
  • TCP/IP Control Panel: Ethernet, DHCP

This part of the setup goes like this for OS X:

    Preferences: Built-in Ethernet

  • Configure: Using DHCP

Now I could get on the web and cruise around at warp speed. It was simply amazing.

The only thing left was setting up email. I have a domain (ldresources.com) and get my email through my web provider and I did not want to use the email address the cable company gave me. However, I had to use their mail server (an SMTP server) for my outgoing mail so it was simply a matter of changing my Internet Control Panel to use that server name, or, I could change my email program if that’s where I was storing that information.

I must admit that this entire process took about a day and I was on the phone with a good friend in Oregon who’s a Mac expert and who has DSL for which the setup is much the same.

I was the first person in my area which is very rural to get this and when I went online to test the speed of my connection it was remarkably fast, faster, in fact, than DSL.

Two weeks later, as more people had signed up, the connection speed dropped some. And this is the one big downside of cable internet access: the connection speed is determined by local traffic: the more traffic the slower the speed. DSL, on the other hand is constant and isn’t affected by local traffic.

Does this speed issue bother me? Not at all. I can’t imagine how I lived without it and now I end up sending 2 meg jpeg files to friends forgetting that they have 56K modems and I’m tying them up for hours. Just two months ago I cursed people who did this to me and now I’m doing it to others.

The next step for me was twofold: to get my wife’s computer online and to put in a firewall so our little network couldn’t be hacked from the outside.

IP addresses
Every device on the internet has an IP address (IP = Internet Protocol). An IP address looks like this:

192.168.0.2

When I signed up for cable internet service I was sent a cable modem by the service provider. The cable modem, when connected to the coaxial cable from the road, has a way of getting assigned an IP address. I was told when I signed up for this service that I would have a dynamic IP address (it would change from time to time) as opposed to a static or fixed IP address.

Most people who connect to the internet via modem, cable modem, or DSL modem are assigned a dynamic IP address by their provider. Static IP addresses are used by companies with direct connections to the internet and users who request (and pay for) them from their providers. They cost more because theoretically (and actually) they allow you to “serve” a web site from home or wherever the static IP address is. You can’t act as a server with a dynamic IP address because each day your “location” could change.

DNS
There is a database of static IP addresses (web servers) and domain names (closingthegap.com, ldresources.com, apple.com, etc.). Various servers around the world called “dns servers” (domain name servers) provide the lookup information so that when you type “http://www.closingthegap.com” into your web browser a message is sent to CTG’s IP address (a number like the one above). Network Solutions (ugh!) and others allow you to register and pay for domain names and as part of this, you have to give them the IP address of the server your web site is on so they can add it to the lookup tables on all the dns servers around the world.

Routers
With a single dynamic or static IP address, how can we get more than one computer to share a single cable connection? If each device needs its own address, my computer is using the single IP address provided. My wife Anne’s computer can’t share that address.

To share a single address we needed to make a small network in our house so the network itself acts as the single device rather than each of our computers. To make this kind of network one needs a device called a router. A router is different from a hub in that it has software installed in it that allows any device on its network to share a single IP address.

Technically speaking the routine this software runs is called “NAT” or Network Address Translation. This is the tricky scheme that translates from local IP addresses (on your home network) to your single external IP address (your cable modem) and back.

The router has a power supply, a port for an ethernet cable that comes from the cable or DSL modem and numerous ports to connect computers and printers on its network. The router automatically assigns each device an internal (to your network) IP address and quickly translates and “routes” information coming in and going out to the appropriate place.

With a router, both Anne and I can be on the internet at the same time and many other folks could share our single cable modem connection.

Interestingly, cable companies won’t tell you about getting a router, they’d rather sell you another cable internet subscription. Read this and thumb your noses at them.

We also have an Apple LaserWriter and we have it connected to the router with an ethernet cable. This allows Anne to finally print from her computer on the printer in my office.

Most routers have a port that can act as an up-link port so that you can daisy-chain a hub onto it to get even more ports.

So, now Anne and I are both on the internet surfing the web and sending and receiving email. If you come over with a Mac (we don’t allow Windows-based machines in the house although if one did sneak in it could also be on our little network) you can connect and surf in a matter of minutes.

If all of your computers are pretty close together or you already have ethernet cables in your house or office, you probably don’t need to consider a wireless network. Anne’s computer is in a place in our house that’s near impossible to string ethernet to without doing some serious snaking in the walls. We knew there was a better and easier way.

IEEE 802.11, What is it?
802.11 is a wireless standard invented by Lucent and adopted by most of the computer industry. It was not invented by Apple or IBM or Compaq, but all of these companies make devices that use it, like USB or ethernet.

Wireless is a broadcast signal, like FM radio, running at a different frequency.

The current 802.11 standard runs at about 11 megabits per second (11 million bits per second). This sounds pretty fast if you’re a dial up modem user (56,000 bits per second) but many corporate, university, and even K-12 networks run at 100 megabits per second over ethernet cables. There is now gigabit per second ethernet although I’ve read that gigabit is approaching the speed limits of the ethernet standard.

Simply, a wireless network is a network that exists by broadcast without wires but all the same rules I talked about above (namely: NAT) exist. If you’ve not used or seen this kind of network I highly recommend that you find someplace to experience it. One of Apple’s new retail stores would be perfect and there’s one opened in the Mall of America. I’ll bet that if you brought your AirPort-equipped iBook or PowerBook to the Mall of America you’d be on the internet within 100 feet of the Apple store.

AirPort
Apple’s implementation of 802.11 wireless is called AirPort. In typical Apple fashion, they made AirPort the easiest to install and use wireless technology in the industry.

Apple makes an AirPort Base Station which looks like a flying saucer and AirPort cards that can be installed in newer Macintosh computers: iMacs, iBooks, G4 PowerBooks, and G4 Towers. Some of Macintoshes come with AirPort cards pre-installed (the G4 PowerBooks).

airport_base airport_card

You connect the AirPort Base Station to your cable modem with a short ethernet cable, plug the Base Station into the wall, install the AirPort cards in the various computers on your network and turn AirPort on in its control panel or on the Control Strip. Viola, everyone’s on the internet with no wires.

Firewalls
In doing my (skimpy) research before I bought the components of our network I read in TidBits http://www.tidbits.com about the need for a firewall when using a cable modem either with a single computer or with a network of computers.

The word firewall in this context is a metaphor for a barrier between the contents of your computer and local network and the prying eyes of a hacker out on the internet looking for IP addresses that are unprotected (the firewall in a car is the metal between the engine and your legs and lap). Anyone who has a cable or DSL modem without a firewall should know that you’ve probably been “sniffed” if not hacked numerous times already. A firewall will prevent most (but not all) attacks from the outside. It’s something to seriously consider, even for a home network.

Norton makes a firewall that’s software that you install on your computer but my reading led me to believe that hardware firewalls built into routers would be better.

So, I knew I wanted a wireless router with a built-in firewall to share my single IP address with Anne. Apple’s first generation AirPort Base Station did not have a firewall so I bought and used a Farallon (now Proxim) Netline Wireless Gateway first, then sold it and bought a second generation AirPort Base Station after Apple added both an extra ethernet port and a firewall to their product.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA airport_base_modem

There are numerous vendors who make these wireless routers so don’t feel like you have to get an AirPort Base Station, however, I found the software that came with the Netline Wireless Gateway inferior to Apple’s AirPort administration and configurating softare for its Base Station.

AirPort Card
I have two computers: a G4 PowerBook and a late model iBook. Both have slots under the keyboard for an Apple AirPort Card ($99). The G4 PowerBook came with one pre-installed.

The iBook has an antennae built into the housing for the LCD screen which makes reception excellent from quite a distance. The spec is up to 150 feet but sometimes one can go further and sometimes certain walls make even 50 feet difficult. The G4 PowerBook’s slim screen housing prevents this so its antenaes are built into the keypad area (left and right) and reception is terrible, much worse than the iBook. This is a serious flaw in what is otherwise an excellent computer.

g4_antenae

I ordered an AirPort Card for both my wife’s and my iBooks and installed them in less than 10 minutes (for both). Un-clip the keyboard and flip it over, take the extra doohickey (for iMacs) off the AirPort card, plug the antennae cable into the card and slip the card into it’s slot making sure it’s well seated. Put the keyboard back in place and you’re done.

ibook ibook2 ibook3

Final Thoughts
Placement of the base station is something you can play with to affect reception so when you’re designing these kinds of networks do your best to get the base station as centrally located as possible. Apple has an excellent document on their web site called Designing AirPort Networks that generalizes well to any wireless network. Go to http://www.apple.com/airport/ and look at the bottom-right of the page for a number of useful PDF files.

For home networks, I highly recommend going wireless and if you’re a Mac user AirPort is the way to go for simplicity. Between our cable modem keeping us connected at (relatively) high speed all the time and our wireless network, and our PowerBook and iBooks (our only computers these days) the way we use our computers has changed completely. Being online all the time allows you to use the copious resources of the web the way you would local software, and of course, allows you to spend more money faster at one-click enabled web sites!

This is the way everything should work in the computer world. We can only dream. Apple rarely receives credit for this kind of thoughtful design work but I know that Windows users do not have it this good.

It doesn’t take much to imagine the possibilities when you couple this image (using a portable computer anywhere and being connected all the time) with the image of someone sitting in a wheelchair or someone who, for any reason can’t get to the computer that’s connected to the internet.

For what it’s worth, I’m sending this article to Closing the Gap from our backyard, trying to soak up the last rays of summer (2001).

Summer’s over. Bummer.

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Richard sitting in his backyard under the apple tree (no pun intended), using an older G3 PowerBook connected to the internet via an AirPort wireless network.