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Exploring Time Capsule: WiFi 802.11n and the 5GHz Band

post #1 of 30
Thread Starter 
Earlier versions of the WiFi specification all used the 2.4GHz radio spectrum. The new 802.11n standard, supported in Time Capsule, the square AirPort Extreme, and recently shipping AirPort Express units, allows users to alternatively select the use of 5GHz channels. This segment, the third of six, compares the pros and cons of using this new section of frequencies, which can be both problematic and provide a major boost in speed.

Our real world testing of Time Capsule's WiFi performance suggested two findings. First, wireless networking performance can and will vary all over the map even without any obvious variables changing. This makes it difficult to accurately profile the speed of a wireless configuration. In comparison, file copy times over Ethernet or direct connections such as USB were easy to verify in additional follow-up tests. Actual results for wireless throughput will vary dramatically in relation to obvious sources of radio interference in addition to other sporadic factors that are harder to identify.

Second, users with multiple base stations should ideally connect the computers that will be making heavy use of file sharing to the base station actually hosting the shared drive. This requires some network planning, as client computers will attempt to connect to the base station supplying the strongest signal of all the base stations that are on the same network. In other words, locate the Time Capsule or AirPort Extreme hosting the share drive closest to the systems that will be using it the most, and use any additional base stations to extend the network signal elsewhere.

Next, evaluate the wireless network signal strength within AirPort Utility (below) to make sure there are no obvious sources of signal interference. This could include radio emitting devices such as cordless phones and microwave ovens, unnecessary Bluetooth devices that could be turned off, and any metal barriers that might obstruct the signal. Neighboring WiFi networks may also likely impede ideal connectivity, so if possible, experiment with different WiFi channel settings to situate your wireless network outside of the signal range used by other nearby networks.



802.11n WiFi and The 5 GHz Band

As noted earlier, with WiFi 802.11n on the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule, you can set up your network to use a different set of frequencies all together by selecting "802.11n only (5GHz)" as the radio mode in Wireless settings (below). This isolates your network from interference from other 802.11b/g WiFi networks as well as any 2.5 GHz cordless phones, but of course prevents older 802.11b/g clients from connecting to your network, including most Macs earlier than 2007 and other WiFi b/g devices such as the iPhone or iPod Touch.



If you have both old and new wireless devices, you can cable (via Ethernet, below) a new 802.11n base station hosting a 5 GHz network to an older 802.11b/g base station configured to operate in the "802.11b/g compatible" 2.4 GHz band. This enables faster devices to connect at full speed with minimal interference, while also allowing older devices to connect to the same network through the older base station and interoperate together with every other device on the same network. This setup also prevents 802.11b/g devices from temporarily slowing down a 802.11n network as they transmit, which happens when using mixed devices on a 802.11n base station configured as "b/g compatible."



Incidentally, there is also an 802.11a standard, which is essentially 802.11g running in the 5 GHz band. All of Apple's 802.11n base stations and wireless cards now backwardly support 802.11a/b/g, but Apple never directly supported the earlier 802.11a standard in its products prior to 802.11n because 802.11a was largely intended for office deployments, where the downsides to the 5 GHz band could be more easily worked around. Which brings us to the potential drawbacks--and advantages--of using 5 GHz.

On Page 2 of 2: The Pros and Cons of 5 GHz; Use Wide Channels For a Big Boost.

The Pros and Cons of 5 GHz

As noted by Glenn Fleishman in the article Wi-Fi Networking News: 5 GHz or Bust, the 5 GHz band has much greater radio spectrum available; there are 12 non-overlapping channels, each with 20 MHz of bandwidth. The entire 2.4 GHz band is only 80 MHz wide, which only allows for three non-overlapping 20 MHz channels; while you can select any channel between 1 and 11 in the standard 2.4 GHz band, there is so much overlap between channels that only 1, 5, and 11 can really coexist in the same area without interference. When using 5 GHz, the base station selects the channel for you automatically.

However, 5 GHz is also a higher, shorter radio frequency, which means that at the same amount of radio transmission power, its radio waves propagate shorter distances than those of 2.4 GHz base stations. The 5 GHz band is also worse at penetrating solid objects such as wooden walls in a home (neither band can penetrate metal walls, such as lath and plaster walls using a metal mesh found in some older buildings). There are also power transmission restrictions that affect the use of the 5 GHz band. These factors combine to result in users likely seeing a significant drop in their signal range when using 5 GHz.

In our initial tests, switching to 5 GHz initially had no positive impact on wireless transmission speeds. In fact, it actually seemed to slow things down. However, Apple's 802.11n AirPort devices, including Time Capsule, support a wide channel mode when using 5 GHz that does make a big difference in network speed.

Use Wide Channels For a Big Boost

The greatest advantage to using 5 GHz is the ability to bond two channels together, which Apple calls "Use wide channels." (below) This allows the base station to grab twice as much radio bandwidth (40 MHz) and should be turned on by default when using the 5 GHz band. This will also boost the reported connection speed from 130 to 300 Mbit/sec, at the expense of possibly interfering with other nearby 5 GHz networks, giving up some signal range, and dropping compatibility with 802.11b/g devices.



However, once configured to use wide channels in the 5 GHz band (the setting hides behind the "Wireless Options..." button on the Wireless tab of AirPort Utility, below), our gigabyte of test files copied to the Time Capsule in 2:11, a dramatic improvement that put 802.11n in the running next to Time Capsule's Gigabit Ethernet performance (which took 1:38) and was well below the 3 to 8 minutes required by wireless configurations only using a single 20 MHz channel.



Of course, connecting the base station directly via an Ethernet cable makes the biggest difference in performance, but also negates the convenience of wireless networking. In any case, the fact that 802.11n wireless networking can approach the ballpark of base station Gigabit Ethernet speeds is pretty impressive. The dark side of the same coin is that the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule have relatively poor Gigabit Ethernet performance (as noted in the next segment).

It also needs to be pointed out that WiFi performance will degrade rapidly as the user loses signal strength; the poor performance of the first tests were exaggerated by a drop in signal strength related to unknown environmental factors. During the first tests we ran, the AirPort software reported a signal strength that fell from 130 to 117 or below. With a 300 Mbit/sec, 40 MHz wide channel network, the loss in signal reception coverage might offset the faster data rate, or require more base stations to extend the same signal coverage.

If you're thinking that configuring wireless networking sounds a lot more like voodoo than engineering, you might be right. Experimentation to suit your own needs related to signal reception area versus data speed, and accounting for the type of barriers or sources of interference in your specific setup is essential to gain the best possible performance.

The next segment in this series will look at our actual test results comparing wireless performance between modern 802.11n devices, older computers that only support 802.11g, and systems directly connected over Ethernet. We'll also compare performance of 10/100 Fast Ethernet offered by last year's AirPort Extreme, and the Gigabit Ethernet performance of currently shipping Time Capsule and AirPort Extreme base stations, and compare how the base stations stack up against a dedicated file sharing server.


Previous articles related to Time Capsule and its AirPort Extreme cousin:

Exploring Time Capsule: theoretical speed vs practical throughput
Exploring Time Capsule: how it fits into Apple's AirPort family
An in-depth review of Apple's 802.11n AirPort Extreme Base Station
Apple Time Capsule unboxing and preview
A Look Inside Apple's New Time Capsule
Answers to Time Capsule reader questions
post #2 of 30
Thanks for the timely info! I've been thinking of going N (5 Ghz) to avoid my building's crowded 2.4 spectrum. My needs are short-range, so I think I'll go for it!
post #3 of 30
Quote:
Originally Posted by nagromme View Post

Thanks for the timely info! I've been thinking of going N (5 Ghz) to avoid my building's crowded 2.4 spectrum. My needs are short-range, so I think I'll go for it!

Yeah I already got a Airport Extreme Router it just I really don't have a lot of 802.11n products yet. I wanted to do 802.11n but I got the Mac Mini and iPhone plus a Netgear print server for my three HP 8450s. I wanted to buy two 1TB Time Capsules and now a two Airport Express Base Station that's 802.11n. I can connect that to the Time Capsule to the ethernet and use it as 802.11b/g ONLY and have everything else 802.11n ONLY. Then I can replace that Netgear print server with a 1TB Time Capsule. Then I really would have a 802.11n House with support for 802.11a/g without slowdown!
post #4 of 30
Dismal gigabit ethernet performance is right! I've got a linux box configured as a server with a 5 disk raid array and I copied about 1 gigabyte worth of files (office 2003 and office 2007 images for bootcamp) to my linux box from my macbook pro via gigabit ethernet in about 15 seconds.

Sure, I've got 4 disks taking that data, and I've got a whole lot more ram for disk caching, but 15 seconds vs. 98 seconds is pretty sad. I've got a kurobox that is also slow, and that drove me to build a real honest to goodness file server, I'm glad I did. To be fair, the time capsule is really a repository for time machine, and as such, speed doesn't really matter.


Sheldon
post #5 of 30
<cranky>
How tough can it be to spell words correctly? Or open a dictionary? There are many out there.
It's "separate." There is no excuse for getting it wrong.
</cranky>
post #6 of 30
At my office, I jumped on the Airport Extreme within a week of it going gigabit. We bought three of them, and mounted them upside-down on the ceiling of the first floor - one dead center at 5ghz, wide channels, two others to the front and back of that one about half way to the walls, using 2.4ghz b/g only. The b/g's are configured identically to provide roaming for our many older clients. All of them are cabled directly to our gigabit backplane. The building is about 25,000 square feet, and every nook and cranny of the first floor is completely bathed in signal. The older 2.4 ghz network punches right through the floor to the basement. The 5ghz network does not, but it still isn't impeded in the slightest by walls or dividers on the first floor. I've placed 3 graphic designers on the 5ghz network now, and while copying large files to or from their file server all in one go is slower, that isn't their typical usage pattern. None of them can really tell the difference in their day-to-day work. It's brilliant. Our wiring closet is now officially deprecated.
post #7 of 30
Nice article at a good time for me I just bought a Macbook and a airport express (the N one). It pretty much seems like N performance can be amazing but can also pretty much be the same as G. The express in particular is definitely at the bottom performance wise but I am hoping for a little longer range (my old G router now is decent up to about 60 or so feet through a house- 150 or so to the outside would be nice for my new Macbook) A boost in speed would be nice but its already pretty fast as I don't do any heavy file transfers mostly just web browsing. Hopefully some people have some experience to share with the express or N in general.
post #8 of 30
Quote:
Originally Posted by stokessd View Post

Dismal gigabit ethernet performance is right! I've got a linux box configured as a server with a 5 disk raid array and I copied about 1 gigabyte worth of files (office 2003 and office 2007 images for bootcamp) to my linux box from my macbook pro via gigabit ethernet in about 15 seconds.

Sure, I've got 4 disks taking that data, and I've got a whole lot more ram for disk caching, but 15 seconds vs. 98 seconds is pretty sad. I've got a kurobox that is also slow, and that drove me to build a real honest to goodness file server, I'm glad I did. To be fair, the time capsule is really a repository for time machine, and as such, speed doesn't really matter.

I think you're being unrealistic.

I've found that the storage on both ends matter. You are copying from a notebook hard drive, so I think your results are pretty impressive. Even when both ends have 10k or 15k hard drives, I've found the drives to be the limiting factor.
post #9 of 30
This article is part 3 of 6? Time Capsule is a nice product, but I don't think it deserves this level of attention.
post #10 of 30
I'm running an Extreme Base station in b/g so that our phones can access the network. I've been considering adding the Time Capsule so that I could have an N wireless network for my MacBook and aTV.

Problem is, I have absolutely no problems or speed issues running the wireless in b/g so I can't justify the investment.
post #11 of 30
REcently upgraded to a EXtreme base station. The N networking is great. For me in an old apartment with those crazy metal plaster walls I needed to add a parabolic reflector to my USB wifi adapter in another room. That allows me to get the 300mb/s and share my hdhomerun, both HD channels at the same time. I actually run three networks in the house. A b/g network for the palm pilots, old ibook and visitors. A n @ 2.4ghz for the main brunt of the networking, and range. and the n@5ghz in order to have a non-shared network for my hdhomerun, which due to limitations (rental) I can't run a wire. It all works great. The routing is done by a dir-615, and I have a airport express in there somewhere.
post #12 of 30
Quote:
Originally Posted by JeffDM View Post

This article is part 3 of 6? Time Capsule is a nice product, but I don't think it deserves this level of attention.

Then ignore it, I found this article very informative. It concerns Airport Extreme too.
post #13 of 30
I just switched my Airport Extreme to 5Ghz and saw a 600MB file transfer 3 seconds faster to my hard drive. Am I missing something?

I'm 10 feet away from the base station and there's nothing interfering with the signal.... well... someone is talking on the cell phone, but I doubt that would slow it down *that* much.
post #14 of 30
I'd like a comparison between the Apple product and competing N products. I'd be curious to see which one is the fastest. I think I already know which one is the easiest to configure... but I'd let this ease of use go in second place if wireless and Gigabit speeds are not to par.
post #15 of 30
Quote:
Originally Posted by Pascal007 View Post

I'd like a comparison between the Apple product and competing N products. I'd be curious to see which one is the fastest. I think I already know which one is the easiest to configure... but I'd let this ease of use go in second place if wireless and Gigabit speeds are not to par.

http://review.zdnet.com/wireless-acc...-32902549.html

Assuming the extreme performs more or less the same as the Time Capsule it was the 2nd fastest N router behind the D-Link DGL-4500 "Xtreme Gaming Router" in a N only environment and middle of the pack for a mixed environment.

The express is rather pokey though. But given the think looks like a power brick and plugs into the wall I dunno that I'm surprised.
post #16 of 30
[QUOTE]Apple never directly supported the earlier 802.11a standard in its products prior to 802.11nQUOTE]

Er, we have several non-n Intel Macs and they all support 802.11a.

I've just moved the network over to it due to a very busy 2.4 GHz in our area - and the N computers not connecting to the AEBS after the 7.3.1 firmware update in b/g compat mode.

Seems snappier, but no objective tests. So the computers are happy - I have an older Belkin I resurrected for the remaining gear (PowerBook and iPhones - G only, Wii - B only, Nintendo DS's B/WEP only) - my ghetto network.

The stuff that moves files, video, etc. is all on the A network, and it seems all lovely.

Cheers,

Martin.
15" PB, 15" MBP, MB, MBA, G5 iMac, C2D iMac, Mac Mini, UK iPhone 3G, SGI RealityEngine2, SGI/Division Virtual Reality Rig, NetApp F760C
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post #17 of 30
I think it's ridiculous that for the amount of money you spend on the Time Capsule or Airport it doesn't support dual channels at the same time. Instead you have to go out and spend more money on another router!

My Netgear router was $119 at Fry's and it operates 2 channels simultaneously - 5ghz for wireless N and 2,4ghz for wireless a/b/g.

The other thing I don't like about the Airport is that it requires software installed on your computer to operate. If you want to change a setting you either have to be at that computer, or be running Remote Desktop.

I had bought a gigabit Airport Extreme and retuned it the next day. It's uncharacteristic of Apple to make something more complicated that it's competition.
post #18 of 30
Quote:
Originally Posted by Cavallo View Post

At my office, I jumped on the Airport Extreme within a week of it going gigabit. We bought three of them, and mounted them upside-down on the ceiling of the first floor - one dead center at 5ghz, wide channels, two others to the front and back of that one about half way to the walls, using 2.4ghz b/g only. The b/g's are configured identically to provide roaming for our many older clients. All of them are cabled directly to our gigabit backplane. The building is about 25,000 square feet, and every nook and cranny of the first floor is completely bathed in signal. The older 2.4 ghz network punches right through the floor to the basement. The 5ghz network does not, but it still isn't impeded in the slightest by walls or dividers on the first floor. I've placed 3 graphic designers on the 5ghz network now, and while copying large files to or from their file server all in one go is slower, that isn't their typical usage pattern. None of them can really tell the difference in their day-to-day work. It's brilliant. Our wiring closet is now officially deprecated.

Let us know how many workers develop WiFi tumors.

Proud AAPL stock owner.

 

GOA

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Proud AAPL stock owner.

 

GOA

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post #19 of 30
Timely article for me. 1TB Time Capsule is on the UPS truck for delivery.

This will become our prime wireless network - linking my MacBook and the AppleTV to the hardwired network. After set-up with all the names, parameters, security notes, etc. from the original Airport Express, I will take the latter and wipe it and set it up anew limited to G&B.

I always have to slow things down and lower the security settings to get a couple of regular guests with slow XP machines onto the network. This should allow me to keep them on the new, slower network - and keep on cranking my goodies at N.

We have a couple new wireless networks in the neighborhood - though only one is N. I'll probably try the 5ghz trick, as well.

Even though I've been a geek for decades, networking is still alchemy afaic - but, if it all works, I'll drop by make a few notes.

--------

Got nowhere, yesterday. Today, found a forum that passed along the suggestion that I use "bridge" to define my original Airport Extreme - of course, leaving the Time Capsule to automatically assign DHCP. Seems to have done the trick.

My father-in-law [5th-wheeler parked out in the driveway] is ensconced in the guesthouse - his old XP laptop running 80211.b is talking to the AE which is only broadcasting b&g. Had to leave the security set down to WEP since his laptop is aghast at WPA2. My wife also runs her G4 ibook from the same router.

Meanwhile, AppleTV, MacBook, iMac [though normally ethernet] all access the Time Capsule just fine at 80211.n/5ghz.
post #20 of 30
Dan: perhaps your signal woes are because of misinterpreting the number. AirPort Utility measures signal strength in RSSI which is a logarithmic scale. -100 is terrible, -50 is good, and 0 is infinite! The closer to zero, the better your signal. My Mac mini sits underneath an AEBS and gets -20 or so, while my PowerBook picks up -50 downstairs.
post #21 of 30
Something else to note is that Time Machine seems to work much, much slower on G4's than Intels. Yeah: I know, so it should, but I mean remarkably slow. I've synched two Intel Mac mini's for the first time and it took an hour tops for each. PowerBooks meanwhile can take hours even doing much smaller incremental backups - all on 100 base T. Their processors get nailed by Time Machine's cataloguing processes, and the transfers are often done well under 1 megabyte per second, only spiking up to the network's real speed occasionally.

I've found it pretty good on Intel though.
post #22 of 30
Quote:
Originally Posted by bdkennedy1 View Post

I think it's ridiculous that for the amount of money you spend on the Time Capsule or Airport it doesn't support dual channels at the same time. Instead you have to go out and spend more money on another router!

My Netgear router was $119 at Fry's and it operates 2 channels simultaneously - 5ghz for wireless N and 2,4ghz for wireless a/b/g.

I thought that was supported on Apple's Airport routers? Select the "802.11n (b/g compatible)" (or something close to that, it's the first option on the drop down). Doesn't that setting use both, from what I understood.

Quote:
Originally Posted by DeaPeaJay View Post

I just switched my Airport Extreme to 5Ghz and saw a 600MB file transfer 3 seconds faster to my hard drive. Am I missing something?

I'm 10 feet away from the base station and there's nothing interfering with the signal.... well... someone is talking on the cell phone, but I doubt that would slow it down *that* much.

That could be for any number of reasons. I've found that the drives in laptops are often a limiting factor. So it could be something else that's limiting your bandwidth. And as the article stated, wireless can be a finicky beast at best.

As for the Gigabit Ethernet being slow ("AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule have relatively poor Gigabit Ethernet performance"), on my Extreme, using Ethernet is 2-3 times faster than wireless. And then I'm fairly certain the bottleneck was my laptop. The article makes it sound like Ethernet isn't much faster than the wireless.

Hooking up an old PPC mini, which only has Fast Ethernet, I've come to the conclusion that my wireless N performance is about on par with 100 Mbps Ethernet.
post #23 of 30
Quote:
The next segment in this series will look at our actual test results comparing wireless performance between modern 802.11n devices, older computers that only support 802.11g, and systems directly connected over Ethernet. We'll also compare performance of 10/100 Fast Ethernet offered by last year's AirPort Extreme, and the Gigabit Ethernet performance of currently shipping Time Capsule and AirPort Extreme base stations, and compare how the base stations stack up against a dedicated file sharing server.

How about including an Ethernet Over Power product (such as the Advatel PowerLine 85 Ethernet Adapter) in your list of comparisons/alternatives?
post #24 of 30
Quote:
Originally Posted by bdkennedy1 View Post

I think it's ridiculous that for the amount of money you spend on the Time Capsule or Airport it doesn't support dual channels at the same time. Instead you have to go out and spend more money on another router!

My Netgear router was $119 at Fry's and it operates 2 channels simultaneously - 5ghz for wireless N and 2,4ghz for wireless a/b/g.

A is 5 GHz, but I feel your pain - the options are to run N/B/G simultaneously or N/A simultaneously. I'm trying to run N, A and G, so had to get my old Belkin B/G access point out for the G (for Ghetto) network.

Quote:
Originally Posted by bdkennedy1 View Post

The other thing I don't like about the Airport is that it requires software installed on your computer to operate. If you want to change a setting you either have to be at that computer, or be running Remote Desktop.

I had bought a gigabit Airport Extreme and retuned it the next day. It's uncharacteristic of Apple to make something more complicated that it's competition.

To be fair, the software is preinstalled on every single Mac and any of them can configure it (assuming you know the AEBS password). I found it the other way (simpler), I was ready to stick a cable in it, and browse to 192.168.0.1 and set it up. Actually I just clicked "Airport Utility" and there it was, ready to configure.

It impressed me, being so much simpler than the competition, so I guess it depends on your outlook and expectations.

Cheers,

Martin.
15" PB, 15" MBP, MB, MBA, G5 iMac, C2D iMac, Mac Mini, UK iPhone 3G, SGI RealityEngine2, SGI/Division Virtual Reality Rig, NetApp F760C
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post #25 of 30
Quote:
Originally Posted by SpamSandwich View Post

Let us know how many workers develop WiFi tumors.

Dude - they're only graphic designers.
post #26 of 30
I am intrigued by the idea of bumping my AP Extreme to N/5GHz, and adding another WAP for slower access. How would I go about doing this using something like a netgear WGR614? Would I turn off DHCP and hard-code the IP address to something in the range that the AP Extreme sets? Or would I leave DHCP on and run it as a sub-net or something?
post #27 of 30
That would work, the other thing you can do is set the DHCP server in each box to a different range in the same subnet. I used 10.10.10.* as my network, and the AEBS N/WPA/5 GHz gives out 10.10.10.80 to 10.10.10.90. The Belkin B/WEP/2.6 GHz gives out 10.10.10.91 to 10.10.10.100.

Cheers,

Martin.
15" PB, 15" MBP, MB, MBA, G5 iMac, C2D iMac, Mac Mini, UK iPhone 3G, SGI RealityEngine2, SGI/Division Virtual Reality Rig, NetApp F760C
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post #28 of 30
Quote:
Originally Posted by datamodel View Post

That would work, the other thing you can do is set the DHCP server in each box to a different range in the same subnet. I used 10.10.10.* as my network, and the AEBS N/WPA/5 GHz gives out 10.10.10.80 to 10.10.10.90. The Belkin B/WEP/2.6 GHz gives out 10.10.10.91 to 10.10.10.100.

Cheers,

Martin.

I see. Then I assume you run the ethernet cable from a LAN port on the AEBS to the WAN/Internet port on the second router...
post #29 of 30
Quote:
Originally Posted by eh270 View Post

I see. Then I assume you run the ethernet cable from a LAN port on the AEBS to the WAN/Internet port on the second router...

Just connect the LAN port to LAN port. The WAN port is for ADSL connection, so you still use that (if you ever did) to connect to the Internet.

So, mine goes:

Internet---->AEBS WAN PORT-----AEBS LAN PORT<----> Belkin LAN Port

Cheers,

Martin.
15" PB, 15" MBP, MB, MBA, G5 iMac, C2D iMac, Mac Mini, UK iPhone 3G, SGI RealityEngine2, SGI/Division Virtual Reality Rig, NetApp F760C
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post #30 of 30
I just got a new 4th Generation Time Capsule, and the MacBook to which it is attached is running Mountain Lion and Airport Utility 6.10.31.

I don't find the ability to set Wide Channels anyplace.  The article by Prince McLean
 which you cite, has some great screenshots of how to find that setting, but my version of Airport Utility just doesn't have that setting under Wireless Options.  The article that has those screenshots is from March 31, 2008... nearly five years ago, so perhaps did Apple remove the ability to set this in new versions of Airport Utility, or is it somewhere else I haven't been able to find?


Thanks
...
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