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Making the Most out of Free Wi-Fi: Turn One into Your Broadband Internet

This post will explain some extra roles of a home Wi-Fi router and walk you through turning an Internet-ready free Wi-Fi connection, or not-so-free one, into the broadband Internet source for your home (Wi-Fi) network.

In other words, when applicable, instead of using a cable modem or fiber optic ONT (and pay for the service), you can pick up a Wi-Fi connection in the vicinity and use that as your broadband source.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone. But for those it does, it’s a great way to make use of a (free) Wi-Fi connection, especially a high-speed one.

Cisco Router Standalone with free Wi-Fi-based Internet
Free Wi-Fi-based Internet: This seemingly unconnected router might be doing just that to an entire network of its own.

Free Wi-Fi as Broadband Internet? Isn’t that stating the obvious?

Well, OK, maybe. But let’s back up a bit.

So, you must have heard of free Wi-Fi.

Examples of that are those at the airport or the xfinitywifi that I mentioned in this post. And there is not-readily-free Wi-Fi, too. Just look at your phone’s Wi-Fi section; you’ll likely see many secure networks in the vicinity.

All of these options require you to have a Wi-Fi client to use, and you must use the Wi-Fi and settings of the original network. You have no control over that.

Now, imagine if you could tap your own router into one of those existing Wi-Fi connections — let’s call it from now on the remote Wi-Fi network — and use it as your broadband Internet source. Now you have a local Wi-Fi network of your own, plus an Internet connection. Got it?

To be clear, this post is not about how to hack into a secure Wi-Fi network. You need to have access to the remote network already, either via an agreement with the owner or pay for the connection. In short, you need to make that network available for you to use first.

But I already get the Wi-Fi, why bother?

Good question.

While this might sound redundant — you already have access to a Wi-Fi network, why not just use it (with multiple devices) and be happy?

That’s because turning a single Wi-Fi connection into the Internet source of a separate local network — one that you have complete control over — can bring about many advantages.

Specifically, you’ll get all of these:

  1. You can share that Internet connection to multiple devices without overwhelming the original network’s IP pool. For example, if your neighbor limits their router’s pool to 25 devices, and you have a dozen of your own, both of you will likely have an issue getting new devices connected.
  2. You have full control of your local recourses. Besides giving you the Internet, the original Wi-Fi network owner has no control or access over your devices.
  3. You can extend the Internet connection to the rest of your home, including the corners where the original Wi-Fi network’s signals can’t reach. Often, an existing Wi-Fi network’s signals only reach one side of your house.

(Note: You can use a Wi-Fi extender to extend the original Wi-Fi network father, but in this case, you only get #3 among the items mentioned above. This post applies to those also wanting #1 and #2.)

So yes, turning a (free) Wi-Fi connection into a network’s broadband source sure is cool. At the very least, it seems like your router pulls the Internet from thin air — that’s because it really does!

And in certain circumstances, you will be able to get free Internet for real, as I mentioned in the latter part of this post. But we first need to know how to get this done.

How to turn a Wi-Fi connection into a broadband source

The short answer to this is: You use a wireless Internet receiver to connect to the Internet-ready remote Wi-Fi network. Then, hook your own Wi-Fi router’s WAN port to this receiver’s LAN port. That’s it!

This Internet receiver, or a Wi-Fi Ethernet adapter, is a device that adds Wi-Fi capability to an Ethernet-ready (wired) device. You can buy a standalone one, such as this Linksys WUMC710 Wireless-AC Universal Media Connector.

Better yet, you can turn an old router into one — you’ll get more options and better control. Plus, it’s cheaper to buy an old router than a device like the Linksys.

Find all the roles of a home Wi-Fi router below. (Already in the know? You can skip this part.)


Extra: Popular home router’s operation modes (roles)

Asus Router Operation Roles
Here are the operation roles available in an Asus router. Note the Access Point and Media Bridge, of which the name might be something else in routers of different vendors.

Below is the breakdown of four popular standard roles. Not every router supports all of these, but most will have at least the first one plus another. Some router even has more — Asus routers, for example, also have the proprietary AiMesh node role.

1. Wireless Router

This is the default role — the hardware will work as such unless you actively change that.

The hardware works as a Wi-Fi router that gets the Internet connection then distributes that to the rest of the network via wired and Wi-Fi connections.

In this role, you must use the router’s WAN port for the Internet source. This is the only role in which the router’s routing and networking features (QoS, Parental Control, Dynamic DNS, VPN server, port-forwarding, etc.) are available.

Essentially, the hardware is now a standard router with a built-in Wi-Fi access point.

Netgear WAX204 Roles
Popular roles of a Netgear router.

2. Access Point (AP)

Important note: Certain vendors call this role “Bridge.”

In this mode, the hardware now works as an access point. It connects to an existing router via a network cable and extends the network farther, both wired and wireless.

In this role, none of the routing and features are available. All of the device’s network ports function as LAN ports. Essentially, the router is now a network switch with a built-in Wi-Fi broadcaster.

By the way, if you have a Wi-Fi 6 router with a Multi-Gig WAN port, using it as an AP is the only way you can take advantage of this port’s high speed locally — without a Gig+ Internet connection, that is — assuming you have a Multi-Gig switch.

TP Link Router Operation Roles
A TP-Link router generally can also work as an access point. It won’t work as a Media Bridge.

3. Repeater

The router now works as a Wi-Fi extender.

Specially, you use one of its bands (2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz) to connect to an existing Wi-Fi network — this is the backhaul band. After that, you can configure one or all of its bands (including the backhaul band) with separate SSID(s) to serve clients.

In this mode, all of the router’s network ports will work as LAN ports of the existing network.

Linksys Router Operation Roles
The operation roles of a Linksys router. Note that the “Bridge Mode” and “Wireless Bridge” are called “Access Point” and “Media Bridge,” respectively, by other vendors.

4. Bridge or Media Bridge

Important note: Certain vendors — those that use “Bridge” to call the “Access Point” role as mentioned above — call this mode “Wireless Bridge.” There might be other arbitrary names for this role.

In this mode, the router works essentially as a Wi-Fi-to-Ethernet adapter.

Specifically, you use one of its bands to connect to an existing Wi-Fi network. Now, you can connect wired devices to the router’s LAN ports to make them part of the network. (In most cases, you should leave the WAN port alone, but some routers turn this port into another LAN.)

In the Media Bridge mode, the rest of the router’s Wi-Fi bands is not used.

See also  Home Wi-Fi Explained: Hertz, Bands, Streams, Channels, Range, and More

For this post, clearly, we’ll use the last role of a router, the media bridge. You can pick an old router for this.

Turning an router into a Wi-Fi receiver

For the role of a media bridge, you don’t need a high-end or latest router. An old one will do. Just make sure it has the speeds needed to get the most out of the incoming Wi-Fi connection.

For this post, I used the Asus router — all Asus routers share the same process. If you use a router from another vendor, the steps are similar. Just make sure you use one that has the Media Bridge mode.

Also, in my case, the available remote Wi-Fi network‘s name and password are “DKT” and “12345679”, respectively. I’ll use that as the Internet source for this post.

Asus Router in Bridge Mode Step Three
Most router can work as a Media Bridge.

Here are the steps:

  1. Unplug any cable from the router in question’s WAN port. Connect a computer to it using one of its LAN ports.
  2. Log in to the router’s web interface. (The default address for the Asus is 192.168.50.1).
  3. Go to Administration -> Operation mode (location might vary in routers of different vendors), then pick the Media Bridge mode. Alternatively, you can start the initial setup wizard, which will give you the option to pick the operating mode.
  4. The router will show a list of available remote Wi-Fi networks — if not, you have to type it in manually. Pick the one you have access to (“DKT” in my case), then enter the password if required (“12345679” in my case.) If the network is available in multiple bands, pick the band that works best. Generally, the 2.4GHz has a longer range (better coverage), while the 5GHz delivers faster speeds.
  5. Apply the changes.
Asus Router in Bridge Mode
An Asus router working in the Media Bridge mode.

And that’s it. The router will restart and work as a Wi-Fi receiver. You can plug any wired device into its LAN ports and get Internet access.

Now, use another router and connect its WAN port to one of those LAN ports, and you get yourself a new local network with the first router being the WAN source (as though it was a modem).

Now, if you wonder if it’s possible to use one hardware unit instead of two to get the same result. The answer is yes. And that’s where the DD-WRT firmware comes into play.

How to tap your router into a remote Wi-Fi network via DD-WRT

DD-WRT is another third-party firmware, apart from Merlin, that you should pay attention to.

This software opens a supported Wi-Fi router to all possible settings, including turning one of the Wi-Fi bands into the Internet source, which applies to our topic at hand.

(In a more simple term, instead of using a router’s WAN port to hook your network to the Internet, you now use one of its Wi-Fi bands — be it the 2.4GHz or 5GHz — for this job. For that intent and purpose, you can call this band the WAN band.)

DD-WRT firmware in brief

DD-WRT is a powerful Linux-based software for Wi-Fi routers. It works with many existing routers on the market — mostly Wi-Fi 5 and older.


The name DD-WRT has two parts. DD is the license-plate code for Dresden (Germany), where the creator of the firmware, Sebastian Gottschall, comes from. WRT is a common acronym for wireless receiver/transmitter.

That’s probably all you need to know about DD-WRT in terms of its origin. Knowing how to use the firmware is a different story entirely.


Flashing a router into DD-WRT is similar to that of Merlin or any other standard router. However, depending on the model, the process might be a little more involved.

On top of that, the firmware itself is quite advanced and therefore suitable only for savvy users. Within this post, I’ll give you specific instructions on connecting a supported router’s Wi-Fi band, be it 2.4GHz or 5GHz, to an existing Wi-Fi network and use the other band(s) to serve clients.

Step to turn a router into Wi-Fi-based Internet gateway with DD-WRT

All routers running DD-WRT, no matter of what vendor, will have the same web interface. That said, for the most part you can apply the steps below to any router.

Steps 1: Flash the router using DD-WRT firmware

Here’s the full list of DD-WRT-supported routers and detailed instructions on how to flash the firmware.

Basically, you need to download the firmware, then loaded to the router manually. As a rule, keep in mind that messing up this part can render the router useless.

DD WRT web interface
The interface of the DD-WRT firmware. For this post, you don’t change any settings on this page.

Steps 2: Log in the router’s DD-WRT interface

Leave the router’s WAN port alone, connect a computer to one of its LAN ports. Now open a web browser and navigate to the router’s default IP which is almost always 192.168.1.1.

You’ll be asked to create a new admin username and password, do it!

You’ll need that the interface includes two rows of tabs. We’ll work only with:

  • The Wireless tab of the top row
  • The Basic Settings and Wireless Security tabs of the second rows.

Leave the rest alone.

Step 3: Change the settings

This is the crucial step.

The Basic Settings tab

You’ll see the list of Wi-Fi bands. The router I used is a dual-band router.

Local network settings (the 2 area of the screenshot below): I’ll use the 2.4GHz band (listed as Wireless physical Interface wl0) as the band for local Wi-Fi clients. This is the brand I’ll use for my own devices.

Two important settings for this band:

  • Wireless mode: AP
  • SSID: Dong-Knows-Tech (you can choose whatever you want)

The rest, you can leave alone or customize to your liking.

(Note: If you want to create a 5GHz band for local users, you can click on Add Virtual AP follow through. Alternatively, you can use a tri-band router.)

DD WRT Wi Fi Settings Page
The Basic Settings tab where you can enter the information for the local Wi-Fi (2) as well as the remote Wi-Fi (1), which is the Internet source. Note the WAN IP is not available, also note the 5GHz band’s MAC address which can come in handy.

WAN setting (the 1 area): I use the 5GHz band (listed as Wireless physical Interface wl1) as the band that connects to an existing Wi-Fi network which I will use as the Internet source. (Again, for this post, the existing Wi-Fi is “DKT” and “12345679” for SSID and password, respectively.)

Important setting for this band:

  • Wireless Mode: Client
  • Wireless Network Mode: Mixed (or the mode supported by the remote Wi-Fi broadcaster.)
  • Wireless Network Name (SSID): DKT (or whichever network name of the Wi-Fi network you have access to.)
  • Network Configuration: Bridged

Click on Save then on Apply Settings. Now move to the Wireless Security tab.

Wireless Security tab

In the # 2 area, enter the security setting to your liking. This is what you’ll use for your devices.

DD WRT Wi Fi Security Page
Change the Wi-Fi settings accordingly. Make sure the #1 area meets that of the remote Wi-Fi network. If you do everything right, the router will show the WAN IP which is given out by the remote network.

In the number one area, enter the Wi-Fi security of the remote Wi-Fi network, the one you want to tap into. In my case, it’s WPA2 and “12345679” as the password.

Click on Save then on Apply Settings. Wait for the router to apply settings which take about a minute or two.

Now, as a rule, restart the router manually by unplugging it from the power and then back in. Log in to the interface again, and if you have done everything right, you’ll note the WAN IP is now available. Missioned accomplished.

Your local client can now connect to the router’s LAN port (leave it WAN port alone) and Wi-Fi (mine is “Dong-Knows-Tech”). All will be part of a local network hosted by the router and share the Internet of the remote Wi-Fi network.

OK, any way to get free Internet with this setup?

This depends. If you’re living within a free public Wi-Fi hotspot, you can.

Specifically, if you live within the Xfinity wifi hotspot of Comcast, follow these steps to register the MAC address of the router’s band that you want to use as the WAN source. You’ll get free broadband. For feal.

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8 thoughts on “Making the Most out of Free Wi-Fi: Turn One into Your Broadband Internet”

  1. Why can’t I use the ASUS repeater mode instead of flashing DD-WRT? After all I’d being doing is using one of its bands 2.4GHz or 5GHz to connect to the Xfinity Hotspot and then rebroadcasting it a personal SSID on one or both frequencies. Thanks!

    Reply
    • If you read the entire post, you’ll know why, Anthony. Repeater mode doesn’t give you your own network unless you use another router with it. What you mentioned was just different “SSIDs” of the same “network”. The devil is in the details, pay a bit of attention.

      Reply
  2. So, if your converted router doesn’t find any public WiFi hotspots during its scan, you are hosed, right? No, not really. There are several articles that could be written about extending that routers reception by placing it on the second floor or higher, or adding an external antenna (up high and in the clear). Ok, that external antenna may not be strictly legal, but fun to play with non-the-less.

    Reply
      • It might be a different topic, but if you find that your home is at least a mile away from the nearest public WiFi source, then you might be hosed with a converted router, unless you consider external antenna options. It’s not really a discussion of extending your back haul through mesh or wired interconnect inside your home. Thanks.

        Reply
  3. Hi Dong
    Our place is large (245m2) over two floors. Broadband capability is for at least a couple of years limited to a 4g connection or 10-30Mbps. I’m thinking of getting a Nighthawk M1 to get access but need to expand coverage throughout and so need to purchase a decent mesh system. Can I use the method above to feed the mesh? and do you have any suggestions for the mesh at the moment the house is not cabled – I had thought of ASU’s Aimesh. Fibre is being rolled out but is likely to be 1 Gbit at most and so would like to think the mesh could be future proof (assuming it is not too far in the distance) Many thanks in advance

    Reply
    • The M1 has a network port, Peter. You can literally use it with any router or mesh system. Consider it a modem if you will. So the short answer is yes.

      Reply

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