Configuring an Apple Airport Mesh Network

I have recently been installing a Wi-Fi network at a lakeside community about 40 miles from Manahattan where cable broadband recently became available. I decided to use an Apple Airport Extreme base station with amplifier and antenna, and use Airport Express APs as relay and remote APs. Here are some comments and questions that might be useful: Apple Refers to an Airport Network with Multiple APs as a Wireless Distribution System (WDS). Is this a Mesh Network? Can less expensive APs also be used in an Apple WDS? Well sort of. According to NYCwireless President Dana Spiegel: ”WDS is a form of mesh networking, but requires manual setup and doesn’t easily do auto-discovery (two things that are generally important). The Linksys AP (if it supports 802.11g) should also be able to use WDS just fine, though its configuration will be a little different. Generally, WDS requires 3 bits of info: 1) wireless channel (all of the linked APs must be using the same channel) 2) network name/ssid (all of the linked APs must use the same ssid) 3) MAC address of linked APs (each AP must have the MAC addresses of the APs that will connect to it via WDS).” Are there any tricks to configuring an Apple Airport Network? Indeed. First, resist the temptation to avoid reading the manual and think that you can just figure out how to set up a network with multiple APs simply by using Apple’s excellent Mac/Windows AirPort Configuration Utility. I especially reccomend AirPort Networks for Windows available on Apple’s Website. Second, for those who will insist on setting up the network anyway without RTFM, remember that within the Airport Configuration Utility Apple calls the MAC address the “Airport ID,” presumably to avoid confusing MAC with “Mac” as a shorthand for their Macintosh computers. Before I read the instructions, I assumed the Airport ID was the SSID, and couldn’t understand why the bloody things didn’t work. Ugh! Finally, remember that as you add APs in an Aiport WDS there’s a big differences between a Remote AP and a Relay AP. Suppose it’s the getting toward the end of the day, you want to stop fussing with all this network stuff and go for a dip in the lake. You decide to configure one last AP as a Relay station, anticipating adding additional stations on another day. Big mistake. A Relay AP, of course is always looking for its friendly AP down the line to pass its signal to, and if it doesn’t find it it gets so flummoxed that it will take the entire network down. Those who RTFM are spared this surprise. I’ve read all about WifiDog on nycwireless, and I want it with my WDS. How can I integrate my Airport WDS with the Dog? Good question! I’m looking for answers and help with this. 

2 thoughts on “Configuring an Apple Airport Mesh Network”

  1. Hi. I’m trying to set up a WDS using all Apple Airports in a mixed mac/PC environment. This is a new project, but I have set up a WDS network once before years ago. I get the WDS main, relay and remote distinction, but now I’m finding that in Airport Utility, when I look at my Airport Extreme running 7.6.1 there is no longer a WDS option, just “create a wireless network” and “extend a wireless network”. What’s up with that? My older airport expresses don’t do 11n, so they can’t “extend” they just have WDS.

  2. Thanks for this article! One important thing I gleaned from it: the Airport APs must be on the same channel. I am in the process of setting up or adding to a wireless network in one of our elementary schools utilizing 35 Airport Expresses and 6 Airport Extremes. I have configured all the Expresses with the same SSID (the same as our existing Cisco WAPs) and they will be placed in adjacent rooms throughout the building. I was thinking that they should perhaps use various different radio channels to lighten the load on the channels. Here’s the thing: each Airport is going into classrooms that have very thick concrete block walls. Most classrooms only need to support 5-10 users at any one time but up to 24 Chromebooks 3-4 times a year during testing. My concern is not so much for having a roaming network but rather to just have good connectivity in the classrooms where it is needed. Is the mesh configuration the best solution?

    I have six rooms set up so far at this time and 5 of the Expresses are using different radio channels and one is on Auto. They seem to be working well with bandwidth ranging between 70 and 140 Mbps. Looking at the live Airports on Airport Utility I did notice MAC addresses listed on four of the Expresses and wondered what devices those were. Those devices had the best bandwidth. I now realize those must be the other Airports.

    Thanks to this article I will change the radio channels for both 2.4 and 5 Ghz and make them all the same for those Airports that will be within range of each other (generally 10 or so in each area of the building).

    I do wonder how these Airports are going to interact with the existing old Cisco WAPs (enterprise access points) although there are only a total of six in the entire building.

    I will Read The FM, and Airport Networks for Windows. Thanks again!

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Bringing Wi-Fi to Public Spaces in NYC