mac.column.ted: Secrets of the Dual-Band AirPort Extreme

Apple's latest version of its AirPort Extreme Base Station (AEBS) supports simultaneous dual-band. As Apple explains, this means that the new Extreme has separate "2.4GHz and 5GHz bands...to ensure top performance for all your devices." As this was a feat

contributed by Ted Landau

Apple's latest version of its AirPort Extreme Base Station (AEBS) supports simultaneous dual-band. As Apple explains, this means that the new Extreme has separate "2.4GHz and 5GHz bands...to ensure top performance for all your devices." As this was a feature I could definitely use, I decided to buy a new AEBS. My intention was to update my existing older and overly-complicated setup. For those of you considering buying a new Extreme, I have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that, if you have a relatively simple setup (such as where your new Base Station is your only AirPort router), you should have no trouble with the upgrade. There is even an option, when first setting up a new AEBS, to automatically copy settings from your older Base Station (assuming you have one) to your new one.

Even with more complicated setups, if you make no changes other than replacing an older AEBS with a new one, you will probably be okay. For example, I was up and running with my new AEBS within 5 minutes of plugging it in.

So much for the good news.

The bad news is that, if you have anything more complicated than I've just described, you may well run into trouble. Adding to the problem, Apple currently has little or no updated documentation to help you out. Rather, you'll find documents  (such as this one) that still refer to the now obsolete AirPort Admin Utility or ones (such as this article) that do not specifically address the new options in the dual-band AEBS.

Back to some sort of good news: While a solution may be hard to find, it probably exists. Ultimately, with enough persistence, you should be able to accomplish your goal. At least that's what happened to me.

[Alert: The remainder of this article assumes some familiarity with AirPort networks, including options such as WDS. If you don't have such knowledge, you may have a bit of trouble following along.]

Getting WDS to work

I had an original 802.11n AEBS. Connected to it was an older (flying-saucer shaped) AirPort Base Station. This older ABS formed a WDS (Wireless Distribution System) network with two other AirPort Express units. The idea here was to keep the older (non-802.11n) devices on a separate network from 802.11n devices. With the dual-band capability of the new AEBS, I hoped to be able to accomplish the same setup, but without needing the older flying-saucer Base Station.

My first step was to replace my original 802.11n AirPort Extreme Base Station with the new one. That went well, as I've already said.

I next attempted to setup a WDS network with the two Express units, bypassing the older ABS. This is where the trouble began. Rather than take you through a step-by-step retelling of my troubleshooting efforts, here are a few key points that I learned along the way.

Radio Modes

From a Manual Setup, go to the AirPort > Wireless tab of your Dual-Band AEBS. Select the Radio Mode popup menu. Get ready to be a bit confused. You may find just three choices: Automatic; 802.11a/n - 802.11b/g; and 802.11a - 802.11b/g. However, if you hold down the Option key, you will see 14 choices. Or you may see just 11 choices, with the three options missing that say "only (2.4 GHz)" -- as happens after enabling certain other settings.

In brief, these selections indicate the setup for each of the two separate bands. In other words, one band can be set up as 802.11a/n while the other is set up as 802.11b/g. Which option should you chose? Don't search Apple's documentation for the answer. It's not there, at least not yet. I can tell you that in most cases, you'll be fine if you select Automatic. After doing so, text appears below the menu that indicates the active mode. It will likely be a catch-all option not listed in the menu:  802.11a/n - 802.11b/g/n.

For more help, I recommend a TidBITS article by Glenn Fleishman. It covers these Radio mode selections as well as several other new features of the dual band AEBS (such as the "5 GHz Network Name" and "Guest Network" choices).

Participate in a WDS network

Having settled on a radio mode, I turned to my key question: How do I set up a WDS network using the dual band AEBS? I went to the Wireless Mode popup menu (in the afore-mentioned Wireless tab), but no WDS option appeared. Apple's current documentation remained of no use in figuring out why this was so. 

Once more, the Option key came to the rescue. Hold it down while selecting the Wireless Mode menu and the desired option magically appears.

By the way, I've read some Web postings indicating that the "Extend a wireless network" option is now Apple's desired alternative to WDS. However, as confirmed by Apple, this option only works with 802.11n networks. As my AirPort Express units were the older "non-n" models, I could not use the Extend feature here.

Getting the Express units on board

I was now ready to have my two AirPort Express units join the WDS network on my new AEBS. For the sake of brevity, I'll omit the step-by-step details. The main thing is to enter the various AirPort ID numbers in the relevant places of the WDS tabs for each device. One key bit of advice: The dual-band AEBS has two AirPort IDs, one for 2.4 GHz mode and one for 5GHz mode (you'll see them both listed in the AirPort > Summary tab). As my Express units did not support 5GHz, I needed to select the 2.4 GHz AirPort ID.

After doing all of this and restarting my various AirPort devices ? my two Express units no longer showed up in AirPort Utility. All contact with them was lost. Oops!

To regain access, I had to temporarily connect each Express to my Mac via an Ethernet cable. After considerable trial-and-error, I eventually figured out that the older Express units and the new AEBS were using different password methods (WEP vs. WPA). This is a no-no for WDS networks. As much as possible, you want everything (such as password, network name and radio channel) to match across all devices on the WDS network.

After updating the Express units' passwords to match the one on the AEBS, everything at last fell into place. The WDS network was up and running as I had hoped.

Whew! I guess this is what can happen when you rush to be among the first to buy a new product. I (perhaps optimistically) expect it will take a few more months before the AirPort software, firmware and documentation are sufficiently updated to make this process as smooth and as understandable as it should be. In the meantime, if you are having problems, this brief guide has hopefully helped point the way to a solution.

Experiencing problems? Have feedback? Let us know!

Resources
  • AirPort Extreme Base Stati...
  • his one
  • this article
  • Wireless Distribution Syst...
  • TidBITS article
  • Let us know!
  • More from Mac Musings
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