DIY Friday: Solar-powered WiFi Extender

WiFi is meant to be liberating. Drop the cords, forget the desktop computer, and just work or surf from your couch, kitchen, or backyard—that is, if the signal will reach beyond your walls. To solve this—and to avoid having to lay a wire down the middle of your backyard—build a solar-powered extender/repeater.

Popular Science lays out the formula:

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.

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

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

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

If you want to extend the range beyond 200-300 feet, try using a directional antenna to broadcast the signal towards a specific area (your outdoor patio, perhaps), or add another extender/repeater.

Meraki, an intriguing company that develops hardware and software for community networks, recently announced it will be selling a product similar to this DIY-contraption.

Priced at just $99, Meraki Outdoor can send a signal up to 700 feet. Paired with Meraki’s existing indoor $49 Mini, the Meraki Outdoor repeater can power access for dozens of households sharing one high speed connection. Meraki Outdoor can be easily installed on a wall or even a pole outside the house. It marks another step forward in Meraki’s efforts to change the economics of Wi-Fi access, driving the cost per household of high speed connections to $1 to $2 a month.

Adding the Meraki Solar accessory kit will allow the repeater to broadcast a signal without being connected to any electrical source, making it an ideal solution for any community, even emerging markets where electricity is scant or unreliable. Once connected, Meraki Solar’s power usage can be distributed throughout the day and managed by the Meraki Dashboard service ensuring the repeater is powered during peak usage times. The Meraki Dashboard is a web-hosted management tool designed to make monitoring, configuring, and monetizing a Meraki Network easy and is included with all Meraki products for no additional charge. The solar kit includes a solar panel, battery pack and an outdoor Ethernet cable.

The Meraki Outdoor repeater is for sale on their website. The solar kit is not yet available (so you’ll have to stick with PopSci’s DIY instructions, for now).

The most obvious use of this technology would be for a small neighborhood to purchase a T-1 and distribute it around the neighborhood using a series of repeaters. In the past, this would require a high-level of network engineering (optimal routing paths, back-up routes, various nodes, complex software, etc.). These new products simplify the task.

As the software becomes simpler and the hardware more compact and durable, the implications of this technology could be far reaching. In places with unreliable power service and scarce network engineers (think the Developing World), this technology could be especially useful, extending access to broadband and lowering costs. Green Wifi is doing this, distributing out-of-the-box, solar-powered, WiFi routers and repeaters.

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