Network Your Backyard

Surf the Web from the hammock out back (or the park down the block) with this solar-powered Wi-Fi extender

by Rob Kelly

Rob Kelly

The promise of Wi-Fi is freedom-the ability to bring your laptop or PDA away from the anchor that is your desk and into your life. With most wireless routers, however, your life had better stop at around 300 feet, and forget about heading outside. Between the noise generated by other local wireless devices and physical obstacles like furniture and walls, chances are your Wi-Fi signal is little more than a whisper by the time it hits your backyard. So I built a box that can pick up that signal and boost it another 200 to 300 feet. It uses a Linksys Wi-Fi range expander ($100; linksys.com) modified with an omnidirectional 9dBi antenna ($58; pacwireless.com). To avoid unsightly extension cords in the flower bed, I added a lead-acid battery ($22; radioshack.com) and a 10-watt solar panel ($119; sundancesolar.com) to charge it.

My weatherproof box radiates the signal equally in all directions, but you could use a directional antenna instead to shoot your Wi-Fi to a more specific area of your yard or neighborhood (try wlanparts.com for more antennas). See the basic steps below, and at popsci.com/wifi, find a detailed how-to, along with a parts list and more photos. Then brew some iced tea and start surfing outside.

Wire the Antenna

  • Open the expander by removing its rubber feet and the screws underneath them.
  • Remove the brown and blue power plugs and the brown power-supply board.
  • Desolder the existing antenna and replace it with an antenna mount.

Add the Battery

  • Install a fuse holder and a 10-amp fuse near the negative terminal of the battery.
  • Connect the negative lines, and separately the positive lines, from the cigarette-lighter socket, solar panel
    and battery.

Attach the Panel

  • Solder red and black leads from the circuit board to the DC-to-DC converter, and plug the converter into the lighter socket.
  • Stuff everything into a weatherproof box and mount it at head height, with the solar panel at a 45-degree angle.

Installation Tips

  • For best coverage, place your home´s wireless router on the ground floor.
  • Use a router and range expander that are the same brand to make setup easier.
  • Don´t forget to password-protect your network (see your devices´ user manual for instructions).
  • Mount the solar panel at around a 45-degree angle. For greatest efficiency, place it in an area of the yard where it will get direct sun at noon.

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