Setup WiFi - And WPA - Carefully

Setting up a WiFi LAN is a great experience. The convenience of surfing the web from your back yard, or sharing files between your main computer and your music server, without running wires here and there, is exhilarating. But there is stress involved.

When you connect a computer to a WiFi LAN, with WPA (and WPA-PSK is absolutely the minimum security measure that you should - no must - take), you are testing a number of things, simultaneously.

  • The WiFi router.
  • Your computer.
  • Your WPA setup.

Now if you do this carefully, and with a small amount of preparation, the whole project can take an hour - or less. Plan it wrong, or make a mistake, and you could be days figuring out the problems. Use a layered strategy - similar to layered testing.
  1. Get each computer connected, by Ethernet, to each other.
  2. Setup, and copy, a key set to each computer.
  3. Get each computer connected, by WiFi, with no security.
  4. Setup WPA on the router, and on each WiFi client.

The different WiFi router vendors have different ideas what type of key their WPA security should work with. Steve Gibson's GRC "Perfect Passwords" Generator will give you a choice of 3. Here's an example of what you might be provided when you click the latter link. Try it, and see.
  • 64 random hexadecimal characters (0-9 and A-F) (not case sensitive):

  • 63 random printable ASCII characters (case sensitive):
    Hb+r#^S-T/1!JTP0_~SB 4&rQ7|s"q)7S`teMB`]x_uGATQQ-{B:=%W/_")$w6h

  • 63 random alpha-numeric characters (a-z, A-Z, 0-9):

All I do is to go to the web page (where it generates a new key set each time - try it), copy the six lines (as in the above list) to a Notepad file, and save the file. Then, with all computers connected by Ethernet (step 1 above), copy the file to each computer. Depending upon the router, one key may work properly, while another won't. Having 3 possibilities, in an identical set on each computer, means repeatedly copying and pasting, without having to worry about getting the computer back online, by other means, to simply copy another file.

After you copy the key set to each computer, start up the WiFi radio, and the WiFi clients. Start with WiFi in open (unencrypted) mode. Make sure that the router works, and you have a working signal, by testing without setting up security.

Since you'll probably be testing the router connection by loading a web page, decide how comfortable you are with giving your neighbourhood open Internet access while you test. If you're not comfortable, then disconnect the Internet feed from the router, while you test, and load the router management web page for your test. Reconnect the Internet service after you get WPA security working.

After you can connect the computer without security, and all network functions work, add WPA-PSK security.
  • Configure the router - copy the appropriate portion of 64 random hexadecimal characters into the router management program.
  • Copy the identical portion of 64 random hexadecimal characters into the client computer WiFi client manager setup wizard.
  • Test the WiFi client. If it works, fine. If not, repeat these steps, trying the 63 random printable ASCII characters, and finally the 63 random alpha-numeric characters.

This is 3 times as complex as it needs to be, and after you've done this a few times, you'll be able to simplify these procedures. But for the first couple times you do this, the careful planning, and the lowered stress level, will make it easier to not make mistakes. By not making mistakes, you're more likely for this to work. And making it work is the reason for my writing this in the first place.

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