Gadget Freak: When Wi-Fi Won't Fly

Illustration: Gordon Studer
It all started with chickens.

We have six birds--three hens, two bantams, and one speckled rooster named Colorful. Mostly they stay in the coop, but every morning before dawn, Colorful escapes and patrols the neighborhood. I wanted to see how he was getting out (without crawling out of bed at 4 a.m.), so I decided to install a wireless Webcam in the coop and hook it up to my home network.

But before I could get Roostercam running, I needed to solve a few problems with my Wi-Fi net, namely interference and range. That proved harder than I thought.

Crowing Pains

Problem number one: interference. We love our cordless Plantronics phone, but every time it rings--such as when our neighbors call to report a loose rooster--our network crashes. Like 802.11g the phone wants the 2.4-GHz spectrum to itself. Our solution: a dual-band 2.4/5.8-GHz cordless, the Motorola MD751. Since it's a digital cordless phone, it constantly changes frequencies to reduce interference. It's nifty, but at $90 it cost as much as my Wi-Fi gear. And unfortunately it doesn't fix interference caused by the Wi-Fi media servers, LCD TVs, MP3 radios, speakers, and headsets we have around the house, which interrupt one another like old married couples when we try to use them.

A solution may be out soon, thanks to Propagate Networks' AutoCell technology, which automatically switches channels and cranks down the power of a device's transmitter to keep RF waves from jostling each other. Netgear will introduce Wi-Fi equipment using AutoCell in the fall, with consumer electronics vendors close behind. I can't wait.

Rooster Booster

Our second problem is that our Wi-Fi signal doesn't reach the chicken coop. Because I have a Linksys router, I decided to install a Linksys Wireless-G Range Expander ($80 to $100 street price), a sleek little box with a 5-inch antenna. Big mistake. I plugged it in and ran the setup CD. Not only did the extender not work, but it killed my cable Internet connection. (Turns out the Expander temporarily changed my network's IP address and then crashed before it could restore the old settings.)

After two excruciating tech support calls and a (probably unnecessary) trip to get a new cable modem, my network was back, but the Expander was still DOA. Another long call, with Linksys product manager Chris Chapman, uncovered the problem: I needed a firmware upgrade for my new Linksys router. At this point, a chicken dinner was starting to sound really good.

Downloading and installing a firmware upgrade solved the problem. But when I tried to install the Linksys Wireless-B Internet Video Camera ($180), I ran into similar snafus. After another painful support call and more futzing with IP settings, I had a working camera. Now all I needed was a 200-foot extension cord--the cam runs only on AC power.

I had other options. I could forgo Wi-Fi and install an X10 camera, or I could spring for a solar-powered Proxim Solacam (a steal at $2999). Instead the cam is on hold. Our neighbors will have to put up with Colorful a bit longer. And while I still love my Wi-Fi network, it's definitely not for the birds.

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