If you’ve signed up for a broadband internet provider anytime in the recent past you’ll probably have received a wireless router as part of the package. In fact there’s a good chance you’ve gone through several providers and amassed a collection of routers over the years.
Wi-Fi routers were once an expensive gadget but they’re now so commonplace that it’s not worth the effort to sell them and chucking out working electronics is wasteful. So what to do?
Here are three ideas for useful things you can do with an old wireless router.
Extend the range of your wireless network
As useful as Wi-Fi can be there are factors beyond your control which can severely restrict its performance. The materials used in a building can affect signal strength, neighbour’s routers can interfere or perhaps the signal is just not strong enough to cover all your property.
But these issues can be easily solved with an old wireless router. All we have to do is link it to the network and have it send out another wireless signal to extend the coverage, turning the router into a wireless access point (AP).
First prepare the old router by connecting it to a computer with a network cable and logging into the administrator options. Login procedures vary between models, so if you’re not sure how to do this check the documentation or search online for instructions.
In the router setup screen you need to disable ‘DHCP’ and configure the wireless network with a name and password. Ideally set the wireless network on the second router to match your existing Wi-Fi connection – using the same name (SSID), password and security settings – so devices should seamlessly switch to whichever has the stronger signal. However if you have any issues with compatibility try a different name and connect manually to whichever has the better coverage at the time.
These settings should be fairly obvious, but again if it’s not clear consult the manual or check the manufacturer’s support pages.
You’ll also need a way to connect the router to your existing network using a wired connection. You can do this with a network cable if it’s not too far away (having cable strewn about your home negates the point of Wi-Fi after all) but a much neater solution is to use a powerline network kit. These devices plug into an electrical socket and use power circuits to transmit data.
Simply place one plug by your main broadband router, and another in the second router’s location. Connect both to their nearby powerline adapters with a short network cable. The secondary router must be connected via a switch port, which are usually labelled with numbers, and not the ‘WAN’ socket.
Use an old router as a network switch
Wireless routers include switch ports on the rear which can be used to connect wired network devices such as games consoles and printers. However with most routers only providing four ports it’s easy to run out of space.
An old wireless router can be turned into a network switch so you can add further peripherals. The configuration is similar to using it as a wireless network extender – disable DHCP via the settings. It doesn’t require wireless though, so you can turn that off too. Then just connect the routers with a short bit of network cable (switch port to switch port) and you’ve added a few extra slots for little or nothing.
Powerline networking kits are also useful here if you want to place the hub in another room, which can be helpful if you’ve got a media centre PC or games consoles in the living room away from the broadband router and don’t want to buy a separate switch box or expensive powerline switch kit.
Take the pressure off 802.11n routers
Wi-Fi has a number of different standards which offer increased speed and more features as you get to the later versions of the technology. While not the very latest edition, 802.11n is the most recent wireless standard to achieve widespread adoption. Any router from the last few years will support 802.11n as will smartphones and other new hardware.
Routers offer backwards compatibility for older standards so you can continue to use 802.11b and 802.11g hardware, however with some models this can impact network performance as it slows down the rest of the network. To get the best from your wireless you can use an old router just to handle the older devices.
Follow the steps above for turning the router into a wireless AP, making sure it’s set to handle 802.11b/g. If you leave it only on one or the other some devices may not be able to connect.
To make it easier to manage you may want to change the network SSID so it’s clear that it’s only for 802.11b & g. Since we’re not worried about extending coverage for this purpose you don’t have to place it away from the main router (but can do so if you wish, of course). After that, set your main router to use 802.11n only. This option can be found in the wireless network settings within the router admin/configuration tool.
For advanced users
Advanced users wanting to experiment further should take a look at DD-WRT, an open source firmware replacement compatible with many routers. It adds heaps of new features, like the ability to use a router as a wireless bridge to easily connect two networks over a Wi-Fi link.
DD-WRT is very powerful but recommended for more experienced tinkerers. If you’d like to find out more check the compatibility list to see if your router is supported.