The “Smart” Bulb Conundrum

For years, most home and SOHO routers kept 2.4 and 5 GHz networks separate. In fact, you can probably open the Wi-Fi settings on your phone right now and see SSIDs like “Pretty Fly for a WiFi 2G” and “Pretty Fly for a WiFi 5G”.

I recently moved to a new house. Although I hadn’t planned on creating a “smart home”, I kind of did. See, I already owned a couple Google Home Mini speakers when my missus told me that she wanted some kind of “digital” thermostat at the new house. Right on cue, our power company sent us an offer for a Nest thermostat, along with another Google Home Mini and a GE Smart Bulb, for a very reasonable price. So we took them up on the offer, and now had a Nest and several Home Minis.

Due to the layout of my new office – that is, the furniture and power outlets within – the best option for me, lightwise, was to put a lamp on top of a tall bookcase. But it would have been a pain for me to reach up to turn the light on and off, and my missus would have to get a step ladder every time she wanted to turn the light on or off. No worries – we have that smart bulb Duke Energy sent us, right? I can just put the lamp on top of the bookcase then say “Hey Google, turn the lamp on”, yeah?

I could. But the light put out by the “C by GE” bulb is ugly. I’ve always preferred daylight bulbs over traditional “soft white” bulbs, but the “C by GE” light looked more like an interstate rest stop sodium vapor bulb than soft white light. So off to Amazon to buy some new bulbs, and when that failed, off to Home Depot… which almost failed, too.

Why the failure? Well, most modern routers – especially mesh routers – treat 2.4 and 5 GHz bands as the same. My network has both, but only has one SSID, and most devices can automagically switch from 2.4 and 5 GHz, whichever is the best fit at that moment. My Roku TV, for example, typically uses 5 GHz because it needs the bandwidth when we watch The Crown or Jack Ryan in UHD. My phone defaults to 5 GHz, but might switch to 2.4 GHz when I’m out in the yard because 5 GHz won’t travel that far, and 2.4 GHz is better than zero GHz.

Here, at last, is the problem this whole post addresses: it seems like all – or almost all – smart bulbs are 2.4 GHz only. This makes sense, because 2.4 GHz is better at penetrating walls and appliances, and such devices only send small bits of data occasionally. But guess what? Neither the LOHAS bulbs I ordered from Amazon nor the Philips bulb I bought at Home Depot would connect to my mesh network.

One option would have been to go to the router’s settings and have it separate the Wi-Fi signals into discrete 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. You know, the traditional “My WiFi 2G” and “My WiFi 5G” situation. And when I did that, it worked. But I didn’t want separate bands. It’s almost 2020!

So… what to do? Well, I had an old TP-Link range extender – model TL-WA855RE – lying around. Fortunately, the range extender can connect to the mesh network, despite being 2.4 GHz only. And since it’s only 2.4 GHz, the smart bulb can connect to it… and, by extension, the rest of my network.

Setting it up is pretty straightforward:

– If your smart bulb and\or extender requires an app, go ahead and install them from your app store before doing anything else.

– I reset the extender to its default settings, then logged in to its Wi-Fi network with my phone. I believe the SSID is just the model number: “TL-WA855RE”.

– I then used the extender’s app to connect and initiate the setup process. This is basically just “let it scan for networks, then login to the target network”. Keep all other settings at default, unless you want to: a) use a more complex password for this extended network (which I did); b) hide the new SSID (which I didn’t, because the password I gave the extended network looks like I smashed my fist on the keyboard); and c) this extender also has a “power level” setting which I turned to LOW, because I only need to broadcast the signal a few feet. ‘Cos the neighbors can’t steal your Wi-Fi if the signal never reaches them!

– By default, the new network will have the same SSID as the “mother network”, but with “_EXT” added to the end. So: “My Wi-Fi_EXT”. I logged in to the “_EXT” network on my phone and went through the setup wizard for the WiZ software I had to download for the Philips bulb. The WiZ software inherits the Wi-Fi settings from your phone and sends them to the bulb, which is why you have to do this step.

– Once the WiZ setup was complete, I switched my phone back to the regular Wi-Fi network and added the WiZ service to Google Home. That way I can say “Hey Google, turn on the lamp”.

– Finally, just to be safe, I reserved the internal IP addresses of both the extender and the bulb. That way, now that it’s working, there’s no reason it won’t keep working.

So… if you find yourself in a similar situation, you can buy the same model extender from Amazon here for $14.99, or Netgear’s EX2700 2.4 GHz extender here for $24.99.

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