A Better Broadband Router: Linksys WRT54GL and the Tomato Firmware

Midcontinent Communications

My family has been using Midcontinent Communications for our broadband internet for about three and a half years now, and have had a very good experience with it. About a month ago though, things seemed to really slow down. This was especially noticeable whenever I loaded up a video from YouTube – or any other streaming video site, for that matter. There was simply no buffering going on, and it meant for a very frustrating experience. Speed tests confirmed there was something weird going on, so I gave Midco’s tech support a phone call.

A very helpful support person listened while I explained the situation. He then had me do some more tests using the company’s internal speed test tool, which confirmed that our download speeds were about 1/6th of what they should have been.

Speedtest Results for Linksys BEFSX41

While we were scheduling for a technician to come out and take a look, I told him I wanted to try one more thing while I had him on the phone. Just to rule out my Linksys BEFSX41 router as being the issue, I unplugged it from the cable modem and instead directly plugged in the iMac. One more speed test, and what do you know – I’m getting the fast speeds I should be. Since the problem was on my end, I canceled the technician visit and thanked the support person for his help. I was on my own with this problem.

Speedtest Results - Linksys Cable Modem and No Router

I’ve been using Linksys (now owned by Cisco) home networking equipment since Casey and I first got DSL in our first apartment. It seems to work well – until it decides not to. After a couple of years of use, our original broadband router (a BEFSR41) died randomly one night while we were sleeping. Years later, its replacement (the BEFSX41) was suddenly and mysteriously working at a fraction of its capacity. Restoring its settings to factory condition and trying a different version of the firmware software both turned out to be dead-ends. With my options exhausted, I started router shopping.

The Hunt for a new Broadband Router

After looking at all of the wired broadband routers currently available, I came away frustrated. Since everything has moved to WiFi in recent years, it appears that wired routers are now the ugly stepchildren in the broadband business. Except for a gigabit D-Link router marketed at hardcore gamers, the choices were exactly the same as the last time I shopped for one – four years ago.

We’ve already got an Apple Airport and Airport Express providing wireless throughout the house, so we didn’t have a need for another base station. My research gave me a good idea though – because their prices are now the same or less than their wired cousins, it actually now makes sense to buy a wireless model and simply disable the radio. Suddenly, my options multiplied.

In my router search, the one feature that I was really interested in was the ability to replace the factory firmware (software) with 3rd party creations. This feature is quite rare, so I was quickly led me to the Linksys WRT54GL, which is based off the Linux operating system. Because Linux is available under an open source software license, it means Linksys is required to make its code available for download and modification by anyone who’s interested. For me, it means I no longer have to depend on a slow, lumbering corporation for new features and bug fixes. W00t!

The Tomato Router Firmware

There are currently a number of Linux-based firmware options for the WRT54GL. From what I gather, the two best ones at the moment are Tomato and DD-WRT. Both offer many improvements over the factory installed firmware and are updated on a regular basis, but I decided to start off with Tomato because its interface is easier to use. Compared to the stock Linksys firmware, among other things it offers a real-time bandwidth monitor, more advanced quality of service (QOS) options to prioritizes certain classes of traffic, and the ability to set very specific access control rules (e.g., disable Bittorrent traffic for a single PC from 7:00pm-12:00am each weeknight).

I’m well aware that the vast majority of people don’t think or care about the software running on their home network router, and I’m completely fine with that. But for me, a geek and a tweaker, it gives me some satisfaction to know that I’m not locked at the mercy of a corporation when it comes to bug fixes, security patches, and feature upgrades.

Oh, and getting back to my slow network speeds, the new router did the trick. Things are much faster now:

Speedtest Results for Linksys WRT54GL w/ Tomato Firmware

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. By using the Tomato firmware your dl speed actually increased by ~%40??? I’ve got a WRT54GS that won’t let me at the setup page. I might have to try this.

    Also, you’re a tweaker??? I never figured you for a meth-head…but it does explain a lot…or maybe not. ;)

  2. Sorry, I should have been a bit more clear. It wasn’t specifically Tomato that give me the boost in speed – it was the new router.

    There is/was something serious messed up with my old Linksys router, which was causing download speeds to be significantly less than expected. Interestingly enough though, upload speeds didn’t seem to be affected.

    I did do some tests before I upgraded the firmware though, and the factory router configuration was about 750 Kbps slower than when it’s running Tomato.

    I’d suggest trying Tomato or DD-WRT on your Linksys, but you might want to do a factory reset first by holding down the reset button on the back for about 30 seconds. You’ll need to be able to get into the factory setup in order to upload the replacement software.

    Cheers,

    Jason

  3. Ah yes, thanks, I was doing my usual “not paying enough attention/getting too excited/maybe I can benefit greatly/if I just skim the article” routine.

    Part of the problem is even with a factory reset I still can’t access the setup page. That problem blew the minds of the Linksys support folks. (and probably Mr. Borene as well (remember that stuff?))

    -Sam

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