In February of 2011 I was assigned by the Department of State to serve at the U.S. Embassy in Rome Italy. Transitioning from the US to Italy was a big step for me and my family. I learned quickly that moving to a city abroad is very different from visiting a city. Everything, even brands to which one is accustomed, seems just a little bit different. And, while Rome is certainly a beautiful and historic city it wasn’t long before we yearned for familiar items from home. My hope had been that once we had our internet service installed that at least we would be able to easily access websites (banking, entertainment, etc.) with which we were familiar.
This, however, wasn’t the case. Many of the sites we wished to access were denied to us because our IP address was identified as being located outside of the US. This was a disappointment when we tried to access websites like Netflix or Hulu and truly frustrating when trying to access financial sites which house our bank and retirement accounts.
The solution was to make use of a VPN service. We chose StrongVPN’s PPTP service. PPTP stands for point to point tunneling protocol. Essentially this service allows us to connect and send all of our incoming and outgoing traffic via StrongVPN’s servers which are located in the US. For all practical purposes even though we are physically located and connected to the Internet in Europe we appear on the Internet “AS-IF” we were directly connected to the internet at a physical location in New York.
The tunnel service worked great and we were soon able to connect to the US based websites and services we desired. We were banking again! Surprisingly, even sites that streamed video worked well. We had low hopes for sites that streamed lots of video and graphical content especially sites that hosted games enjoyed by our children. We anticipated latency with these sites but experienced very little trouble.
So while we were a one computer family all was well. Then, our things arrived from the US. We now had several laptops and gaming consoles all of which were much more useful and capable when identified as being connected directly to the Internet in the US. On most of these devices it wasn’t practical (the PCs) to use the same StrongVPN account. One would have to drop off of the VPN service/tunnel on one PC so that another PC could connect. On some of our devices (game consoles) it didn’t appear as if they could be configured to use the PPTP protocol/service.
Fortunately, one of the devices that arrived from the US was our Cisco/Linksys wireless router. The idea was simple… connect the router to our local ISP and configure it to connect to StrongVPN’s service. In turn connect all of our local devices to the router.
House Hold Devices ßà Cisco/Linksys Router ßàISP (PPTP) ß à StrongVPN’s Servers
(Even without the use of StrongVPN’s PPTP service this was desired as the power output of the Wi-Fi router supplied by the local ISP wasn’t powerful enough to cover the entirety of our apartment.)
This plan quickly came to a halt as the Cisco/Linksys router (model wrt320n) was not able to be configured in a fashion as to be able to use the PPTP protocol. Also, the router didn’t seem to be able to bridge the devices I connected to the network required and pre-configured by the modem/router provided by the ISP. I could connect devices to the router, of course, but was unable to route traffic from the private IP address block of the router across the SAME private IP address block enforced by the ISP’s modem/router. StrongVPN’s support site pointed to a solution.
The solution offered was to upgrade the firmware on my router to a firmware package other than that preinstalled on the router by the manufacturer!
At first thought I was weary of this solution. I was concerned that I would be unable to restore the unit to factory condition if the non-OEM software didn’t work at expected. Or, even worse, that I would damage the router hardware and would be stuck with a dead piece of electronics.
Before going this route I decided to check the manufacturer’s website and upgrade the firmware to their latest release in the hope that the latest version of the firmware (188.8.131.52 in this case) would have included in it a feature set that would allow me to configure my network to take advantage of the PPTP protocol and StrongVPN’s service. The router upgrade to the latest OEM firmware went fine but the feature set of the software was pretty much the same as the software that came preinstalled on the router. So, I decided to take a calculated risk and install the non-OEM software.
The non-OEM software was dd-wrt found at http://www.dd-wrt.com. Dd-wrt is a Linux based open source firmware package that was written to run on a number of different router hardware devices. The package seems mature and seems to provide a great deal of functionality. I downloaded the most recent copy of the software from ftp://ftp.dd-wrt.com/ and loaded the image for my particular model router into my router device. A few minutes and a reboot of the router and I had a brand new and much more capable software package along with a neww user interface on my old router.
From the main setup screen I was able to setup PPTP as the main WAN connection and enter all the information needed to successfully connect to StrongVPN’s servers in New York. All of my house hold devices were able to connect to the router using its new software without a hitch. Now, by way of this router, all of my devices are using StrongVPN’s service at the same time without any extra configuration.
StrongVPN’s website offered good documentation on getting a dd-wrt router working with their service. There was also good general documentation on the dd-wrt software found at dd-wrt.com. The hour or two it took to get this solution working has been well worth it. And, having access to our favorite US based websites help to make Rome seem a little bit more like home.
In conclusion, if you are living and working as an expatriate and need access to otherwise blocked US based websites and services give the StrongVPN (along with the dd-wrt router software) solution some serious consideration.