How to create a wireless mesh network with Apple AirPorts

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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 my broadband bridge which was then connected to my 802.11n Apple Time Capsule (TC) WAP. The problem was that the wireless signal was not strong enough to reach throughout my 1700 square foot home.

I could sit in my kitchen (right above the WAPs location in the basement) 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.  It originally on a shelf in the basement but then I moved it 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 website discussion board for a solution. That’s when I found out about Wireless Distribution System (WDS).

Apple’s online documentation 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 reach 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.

WDS does not yet have a standard implementation. There is no guarantee that WDS implementations from different vendors will interoperate. I used only Apple branded 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.

How to create a wireless mesh network with Apple AirPorts Apple AirPort ExpressBelow 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 the AX attached to my stereo.  How cool is that!?

I also bought an unopened flying saucer style AirPort Extreme Base (AE) 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.

How to create a wireless mesh network with Apple AirPorts picture 2The 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. I made sure to note the AirPort ID of the TC and used this information later to setup the other two base stations.
How to create a wireless mesh network with Apple AirPorts picture 10
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.

How to create a wireless mesh network with Apple AirPorts picture 7

Next, I setup the the AirPort Express (AX) 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 AX and set it up with the same network specific information (channel number, SSID etc) 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.

How to create a wireless mesh network with Apple AirPorts picture 5
After the AX base station rebooted I moved on to set up the AirPort Extreme Base (AE) station. Setup was similar to the AE. I used the AirPort Utility to set up the network parameters (SSID, channel number, etc) including information for the WDS Main.
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Once the AirPort Extreme Base station rebooted I used the AirPort Utility to confirm that the AirPort Express and AirPort Extreme were bound to my home network and relaying traffic.
How to create a wireless mesh network with Apple AirPorts picture 31

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.  Now I can sit in bed and catch up on show in Hulu or work in my backyard streaming music to my iPod Touch from my iTunes library.

References:

Using the AirPort Admin Utility to create a WDS network with multiple base stations

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Husband, father, information security professional and avid photographer living at the junction of Montgomery Township, Rocky Hill and Princeton Township, New Jersey.

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22 responses on “How to create a wireless mesh network with Apple AirPorts”

  1. I've been having some problems with my mesh network of an Airport Extreme (802.11N) and an Airport Express (802.11N). I'm going to try you solution when I get home tonight. Thanks for the excellent write up!

    1. Let me know how well this works for you. I am considering upgrading my Time Capsule to get the "guest" network feature. Being a security minded person I use WPA2 to secure my wireless. But my son's Nintendo DS does not work with WPA.

  2. I have 6 devices, 3 express stations, 2 extremes and 1 time capsule. I could never get the time capsule to play nice with WDS so I extended it. I've got a 4,000 sqft home, a guest house and a guest house for the guest house.. the internet comes in on one extreme side and i figured theres no way I could go wrong with this many devices in WDS. Well in the end it worked like crap and I ended up keeping the WDS going but turning off the 'allow wireless clients' and now I have a another apple wireless device hung off of each with a wireless broadcast on a seperate channel with a different name (SSID: Guest House #2) etc.. this works much better as now if I'm in the Pergola or in an area where I dont' want to connect to a wds device thats further away from the main device but closer to me in proximity I can just connect to the ap's with the names I know and they will then use WDS to route me most efficiently.

    1. Using different SSID means you've created separate wireless networks. That would not work for me since I would not be able to use devices connected to one network from the other. My printer is connected to the USB port on the AirPort Extreme so that everyone in the house can print. My Mac Mini serves as a music jukebox. I use the Apple Remote app on my iPod Touch to control AirTunes (the AirPort Express is connected to the home stereo) running on the Mac mini. I also use Simplify Media so that I can stream my playlist to my iPod Touch when I am working in the yard. None of that would be possible if I used different SSIDs.

  3. Complicated I know.. but WDS just didn't cut it for me due to the shape of my property. I'd often end up connecting to devices that were closer to me but further from the main WDS unit.. 2mbps .. turn off the wireless on that one and connect to the main one from the same area.. 20mbps. :

    1. All my WDS devices use the same SSID. So no matter what I am connected to my network. The WDS clients (AirPort Express and AirPort Extreme) are basically rebroadcasting the signal from the base station.

  4. I had the same problem and decided to buy another airport extreme. I've installed the first one at the ground floor as a base station. The second one is upstairs in my 'office room' and i've got it hardwired with ethernet through the ceiling to the central connection point on the base station. This way I have 1gigabit speeds upstairs as well. Wired is always faster than wireless. This seemed the only solution for me since there are wooden floors with 'aluminum' isolation in all my house. This blocks the wireless signal from ground floor to the second floor. If you use a 'roaming network' setting with your airport utility, it becomes one big wireless network instead of 2 seperate ones. Good luck!

    1. Tjerja,
      A roaming wireless network is exactly what WDS is meant to create. Sounds like you have fast network setup with the wired approach. I'm not as good with the house "handyman" approach. LOL! When I get my brother-in-laws time perhaps he can help me wire up the house. Then I can leave the wireless for the laptops and iPod Touch.

  5. Khurt, I've been wrestling with my home network for weeks and reading a ton — this is the clearest description I've seen anywhere — including of course Apple's own near-useless documentation.

    I have one question for you anyone else in the comment string. I have the exact same setup as you – a TC, an AE and two AX's. Not a big house, so this should be easy. Followed your steps exactly. The AX's are giving me trouble though. I can't get them to join the WDS – when I type the MAC addresses in and then update, the update just hangs. But no problem adding the AX. And if I just create a regular network I can get the AX's to join no problem, and they appear in the iTunes dropdown for speaker destinations, but when I click on either destination I get a "could not connect to the network" error. Anyone have any trouble getting their AX's connected to the WDS?

    1. Darren,
      The AirPort Exteme (AE) is one of the older 'space ship" styles. Perhaps because it's older, this is the one I have the most challenges with. My setup is stable and robust but a few times this year (about once a quarter), the AE has gone off the grid. Power cycling it resolves the issue.

      Since I wrote this article I've found it easier to set things up from the WDS main which for me is the TC. I would suggest reseting the AX to factory default ( you can find documentation here at Apple) and then enter the WDS Remote information into the WDS main. Make sure to write down the IDs of the AX before configuring.

      I'll try to make time to update this article with update information based on my findings.

    2. Darren,
      The AirPort Exteme (AE) is one of the older 'space ship" styles. Perhaps because it's older, this is the one I have the most challenges with. My setup is stable and robust but a few times this year (about once a quarter), the AE has gone off the grid. Power cycling it resolves the issue.

      Since I wrote this article I've found it easier to set things up from the WDS main which for me is the TC. I would suggest reseting the AX to factory default ( you can find documentation here at Apple) and then enter the WDS Remote information into the WDS main. Make sure to write down the IDs of the AX before configuring.

  6. Rob,

    Attaching the AirPort Express (AX) directly an ethernet connection will improve performance (your analysis of the overhead in the wireless is correct) but … what is the point of wireless if you can run an ethernet cable?

  7. Yours explanations are, as already said by a reader, clearer than apple ones, with no doubt.
    Nevertheless, I got a question for you: what do you think about setting the time capsule as wds main, the airport extreme as wds relay and the airport express as wds remote? Would it work and would it work better?

    1. The configuration you mentioned (TC as main, AE as relay, and AX as remote) will certainly work. However, a rely simply serves to extend the reach of a wireless network but does not provide wireless services. You'll need another WDS node (either an AX or AE) to provide wireless services.

      relay1 —–> remote 2
      /
      router = TC
      \\
      remote1

  8. Nice article. I have used WDS with Apple products for about 6 to 7 months and have not had any issues. I only use two devices, an Airport extreme and an airport express. I originally had the express first so when I brought the extreme home it was the remote node while the express had the "internet" connection. I put that in quotes because something that is different in my set up compared to most of the stories here is that I have never used either device as the connection to my ISP. I put their ethernet ports into bridge mode and they both have internal ips on my home net work. The point of my post is that my only issues were always power related, whenever the express would lose connection even for a moment the extreme would also go down and take several minutes to come back up even though the express was much quicker in restoring connectivity. Due to this I got it in my head to have redundancy on the bridged "internet" connection I plugged an ether net cable into the extreme and set its ether net from off to bridged just like the express. The result was not what I expected. Instead of having two routes for traffic to take to get out to the internet, I created a loop. The apple devices were not smart enough to know this. I played around with setting them both to main nodes in the WDS, both remotes, and every other combination they would allow, but in the end it just did not work. Only one could have the "internet" connection. I have not yet found any documentation from apple explaining why this limitation exists or if there is a way around it, but hopefully if any one else has the same set up as me and runs into this issue my experience will help them. So to date I settled on the extreme becoming the main WDS node and the express going to remote. The extreme seems to be a little more stable and freezes less, but I am still screwed because if it goes down, any wireless clients connected to the express go down too. If any one can figure out how to have two (or more) routes to the internet shared and managed in an Apple WDS network please let me know.

    1. Is it possible to "have two (or more) routes to the internet shared and managed" with ANY wireless network equipment? They way I have the WDS setup on my network the user never notices if anyone of the remote stations fails. The connection is simply handed off to the active node.

  9. Hi, Why do you need the Extreme? Can you only use the TC and the Airport Express? My setup is: the TC is connected to the internet directly. Is it possible to just use one Airport Express to receive the wireless and extend the network to another room in the house?

    Thanks

    Runy

    1. Yes, you can do this with one TC and one AX. My current setup has changed since I wrote this article. My TC failed — I think the power supply blew out during Sandy — and the Airport Extreme died as well. My current setup is two Airport Express configured as described in the article.

      You don’t need an Extreme. That’s just what I had in my setup. You can do this with any combination of Airport devices. You could do this with two or more AirPort Express (AX) or two or more Airport Extremes (AE) or two or more Time Capsules (TC) or One TC and one more AE/AX etc.

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