So we currently have 4 adults living in our house, and between us we have 4 laptops, 3 iPads, 4 iPhones, 3 Apple TVs and a few other wireless-connected media devices including a Playstation 3.  I’ve been a BT Infinity customer pretty much since it was available in my area.  Last summer we moved to a bigger house on the other side of town, and since then internet access has been nothing but hassle.  The WiFi drops out, the router freezes, some devices connect and some don’t.  We watch a lot of streaming TV and our housemate works from home quite a lot in a media job that needs robust high-speed Internet access.

My original setup was an Apple Airport Express wifi router going into the BT HomeHub (originally HomeHub 3) which connected to the white Huawei VDSL box.  When we moved I decided to ignore the BT HomeHub and connect the Airport Express directly to the VDSL box which it can do, as the connection is PPPoE (PPP over Ethernet) which the Airport Express can handle on its WAN connection.

So I’ve discovered a few things:

  • many home wifi access points, including the Airport Express are only designed to work with 10 wireless clients
  • rather than giving an error message, they tend to just silently drop connections or lock up
  • the BT consumer gear (i.e. Home Hub of whatever number) doesn’t handle large numbers of clients well – again, it will tend to lock up or just drop the connection to some devices – even with the wifi disabled and another device handling this
  • presumably a lot of consumer gear is tested with maybe 1 or 2 streaming media devices connected and a couple of laptops and tablets – not a large household using everything all at once – and although you can saturate the 60+ mb/s connection with a single computer attached downloading a file, this doesn’t scale to a dozen or more devices sharing the connection
  • when there’s a lot of wireless interference (i.e. nearby houses with wifi access points) you can have 80% or more signal strength and still have an unusable connection

After lots of experimenting I’ve decided that the Airport Express is totally unsuitable for our setup.  I’ve purchased a Cisco WAP 561 which is probably overkill but will support more than 30 clients and has lots of data available on its web interface.  I’ve surface mounted it on the wall in the hall, and run it back to a switch that supports PoE (this is a requirement with this Cisco router).  I was able to get a D-Link managed switch second hand on eBay for peanuts and the whole setup works quite well.

I also bashed a hole from the garage into the living room and put in a quad RJ45 plate, so that all the main media devices are wired back to the switch.  This puts my main Mac onto a wired connection as well so that’s one less wireless device.

The BT HomeHub 5 (which I got from BT free after a lot of arguing) is still on probation.  Since setting up the above, it has locked up a couple of times and needed power cycling.  I am considering whether to go total overkill and buy a Draytek Vigor 2860, which would replace the BT HomeHub with something that’s actually designed to handle dozens of simultaneous clients.  The other option is to go back to the Huawei HG612 supplied by BT, which I have already hacked to open up the web interface and use a cheaper but still business-class router to do the PPPoE side, maybe a Vigor 2820 or 2830 which can now be had on eBay quite cheaply.

We still have issues with wireless range, although much better with the Cisco, but happily I have discovered that the builders of our house actually wired it with CAT5.  They put it into BT-style extension phone sockets but it won’t be much work to swap that out for RJ45 and get the crucial computers used for work hardwired in.

Lessons learned?  You can accidentally stumble into a business-class usage case in a home, small office or church situation where consumer gear just doesn’t cut it.  Getting to the bottom of what’s causing the issue can be frustrating and the solutions can be expensive.  But – if you’re depending on an Internet connection for business then it’s worth doing it right.