It’s important to Amanda and me to keep what we call our “Core Campus” compact. We are planning for a day in the not-too-distant future when fossil fuels will be pricier if available at all, so we need to be able to walk easily around the core campus to enjoy and maintain the lodge, the barn, the pond, Veg Hill, the orchard, and all our key infrastructure.
“Compact” doesn’t mean adjacent, though; the lodge is 225 feet from the barn. That’s not that far to walk, but it’s a good hike for the signal from a wi-fi router. That’s why I was apprehensive about the feasibility of sharing the barn’s Internet signal with the lodge. Would I need to build or buy one of those long-distance wi-fi antennas? Or would a normal non-directional router make the leap?
Our Internet provider is Verizon, using a UM-150 USB modem plugged into a Cradlepoint 350 cellular travel router. We bought it years ago when cellular travel routers were gee-whiz technology – one of our smarter buying decisions. When we were just in the barn, the Cradlepoint’s rudimentary wi-fi hot spot was powerful enough to get the job done, but we knew it would never make that 225-foot trip up to the lodge.
We settled on an Apple solution. I bought an Apple Airport Extreme and two Apple Airport Expresses. My son Joe, my son-in-law Eli, and I all agreed that we would probably need an ethernet cable to make the long trek, but we thought we would try it first with just the wireless signal and then use the ethernet cable if needed.
I moved the travel router from inside our little home in the pole barn out on to the barn floor where it’s still well-protected from the elements but now on a direct line of sight with the Verizon cell tower that serves us (about six miles south as the crow flies). I connected the travel router with a short ethernet cable to the Airport Extreme. The Airport Extreme delivers a surprisingly powerful punch on its own. For example, with the Airport Extreme alone, we get a nice, usable three-bar signal on a line of sight at the outside wall of the lodge.
I need to digress and say something about metal buildings and wi-fi signals. They just don’t play well together. I think we made a good decision in using metal buildings here at Longleaf Breeze, but all that metal comes at a price: one thickness of 26-guage steel weakens a wi-fi signal; two thicknesses will stop it cold every time. So that lovely wi-fi signal outside the lodge wall turns into radio mush by the time it travels the next foot through the metal wall.
No problem, we said; we’ll plug in an Airport Express on the Southwest screen porch of the lodge on a direct line of sight with the Airport Extreme. That didn’t work either. This time the culprit was not the metal building but the aluminum screen. In case you’re wondering why we have aluminum screening, we have a native wasp here in central Alabama that slowly chews its way through nylon screens, so for us “screen” means aluminum.
The next trick we tried was to plug in the Airport Express on the open air pavilion of the pole barn where it had a direct line of sight with the Airport Extreme, uninterrupted by metal of any kind. The distance traveled went from 225 to more like 270 feet, but the signal came through fine. The problem here was that the Airport Express was too exposed to the weather; I figured it would just a matter of time before it failed on us.
We gave up and deployed a direct burial 250-foot ethernet cable between the Airport Extreme and the Airport Express. Ready for a surprise? The signal through the ethernet cable was decidedly inferior to the wireless signal after a 270-foot trip. I have no explanation; I know only that I had no desire to trench for and mount a 250-foot ethernet cable and then have the signal be unreliable.
Here’s the configuration that’s working now for us. We still have the travel router and the Airport Extreme on the pole barn floor on a direct line of sight with the cell tower. The lodge is normally unoccupied; when we’re using it and don’t need the Internet, the Airport Express stays in a drawer. When we do need Internet in the lodge, we take the Airport Express out of the drawer, plug it in on the inside south wall of the lodge and place it in the south-facing window on a direct line of sight with the Airport Extreme 225 feet away. The signal seems to pass through the glass and the nylon screen just fine, and in that location, the little Airport Express has plenty of throw to cover the interior of the lodge (2100 square feet).
Here’s one little wrinkle that we didn’t count on: the Airport Extreme has the capability to accommodate two networks, the normal secure network and a second “guest” network. That was appealing to me, because it would give Amanda and me robust security but allow our guests easy and simple access to the Internet. I never was able to get the guest network to show up. I’m not sure why, but it’s possible the travel router configuration makes it impossible for the Airport Extreme to pull a separate IP address.