Okay, so in the current space a lot of people do buy inexpensive routers, such as a Netgear or TP-Link generic box or just use the one provided with their ISP. and wonder why they have occasional dropouts and a wireless coverage which doesn’t and mainly can’t cover the whole house. Sometimes some random speed issues which can be fixed by simply ‘restarting the router’ or ‘turning it off and on again.’ I think it’s time for an end to this and I aim to let you know why in this article consumer routers are small boxes of modern day misery and how you can fix your in home WiFi. This may have been worked out in the past but from personal experience and basic business sense there is a few reasons why this is the way it is.
The router? oh, it’s that box in the corner
The thing is the router leads a secret life, ask the majority of households what router they have and they won’t know, most will have to look at the actual device to tell you. Typically in the UK at least it will be the BT Hub 5, EE Router, any ISP supplied router or one of the models from the Netgear range. Although, quite a lot of people have invested money in the Apple AirPort range recently, myself included, and these devices are super fast with good range and very simple to set up using a free app from Apple.
To cover the whole house with WiFi using AirPort is the easiest thing in the world, but it loses a lot of the bandwidth in doing so. Apple sell a smaller model called the AirPort Express and can be wirelessly linked back to the main router, although on my 16mbps line and using the Express to connect I only saw around 3mbps, but results my vary and there is a very good reason for this which we will discuss in another article.
Routers work hard
Routers are effectively one little device with a cheap processor and it’s powering your entire home network, all the YouTube being watched, photos uploaded to Instagram and FaceTime calls, all wirelessly and with everyone else in the house using it at the same time. The thing is even if you have a good broadband speed the router mightn’t be able to handle it with 14 or so different devices, especially if some are close and some maybe in the garden, this makes the wireless section of the router work harder to time the packets to get to those further clients.
For one or two people living at home, the EE or BT Hub that comes with your plan may be fine but even that still isn’t enough, they are massed produced and are plain cheap and you’ll suffer from this, you may not realise it, but upgrade and you will.
In personal experience, I upgraded to a Apple AirPort Extreme back in 2013 from a terrible old Netgear box that caused issues with AirPlay audio buffering and other weird issues. The AirPort had the brand new 802.11ac standard too and this offered superb range across the house and on devices that supported 802.11ac and the 80Mhz channel width we saw 1300mbps data rates. However we still had weird drops in corners of the house, largely to do with some thick walls but it was manageable for a time. Don’t get me wrong the AirPort Extreme is a fantastic router for smallish houses, a significant upgrade from the ISP boxes that are provided and is very easy to use and setup. I can recommend the AirPort Extreme for most households.
All environments are different
I hear people complain about their WiFi or their router pretty regularly, but the trouble is the wireless engineers and network companies which make these things have to do a few things:
- Make it very cheap, let’s be honest not many people like to spend loads on a router
- Make it powerful enough to reach a good distance, again while adhering to that price
- Make it last
All of this has to be done for around £70 and that box is again three devices and without taking into consideration anything else like packaging, profit and all that stuff and it comes to £23.30 per device, so thats £23.30 for a wireless access point capable of covering a decent sized house with around 15 clients for a typical household, £23.30 for a network switch and £23.30 for a network router that is handling the packets, NAT, DHCP and DNS. This is without the profit and other expenses, so add that and it’s probably around £10 per device, this isn’t enough for anything to perform well and for a long time, also the whole thing is run by one cheap CPU that doesnt have to overheat and be small enough, probably the worst combination ever – so why do we put up with this stuff?
The thing is not many people have enough throughput requirements to even comprehend to notice this, but once in while maybe once a week or a few times a month the router may need a power cycle, like most of the things we have now and this process will carry on for the few years that you have the device until it dies the death around 2 years after you bought it, all along the way suffering from relatively poor coverage and inadequate speeds.
So the lesson is then, the product that exists and that people buy is the all in one router with routing, wireless and switching obviously doesn’t work and people do spend hundreds of pounds on these things but they don’t work well enough… So what can we do about it?
Enter, Ubiquiti Networks
Ubiquiti Networks, a company very much unheard of unless you work in the wireless industry or are really into serious WiFi solutions and performance at a relatively low cost. The company is run by former wireless engineer for Apple back in the early 2000’s. Robert Pera the CEO has an interesting story from quitting his job in 2005 to focus fully on his start up company Ubiquiti with $30,000 credit card debt and one room and he now is a multi-billionaire, owns the Menphis Grizzlies football team and has led his company into a serious competitor in the wireless broadband space, enterprise WiFi, network cameras, solar panels and other advanced products. But what I want to mention is the UniFi Enterprise WiFi range.
Lee Hutchinson over at Ars Technica posted an excellent review in October last year detailing the range, the setup process and his experiences with the kit and I’d recommend giving that a read.
Now, the first thing you’d probably think when you see “Enterprise WiFi” is lots of money, Ubiquiti’s main competitor Cisco offer one Access Point or WAP/AP for around £500-£800 per device whereas the base model from Ubiquiti costs £80 and the “Pro” version is just £140. Also what’s important to remember is that these aren’t routers with NAT capabilities, they are simply wireless access points providing the high capacity and range for your network while leaving the internet routing up to a router which is a pretty good combination and Ubiquiti also sell enterprise grade models for that too if you need even more performance.
What are these things?
These are wireless access points, typically aimed at the medium to large sized business, huge schools, hotels, hospitals and just about everywhere where high performance and guest networking is needed. In most situations installing an enterprise networking setup in a home would be expensive and serious overkill, especially the Cisco Meraki range which are around £1000 per AP. My setup for UniFi includes one UAP AC Pro which costs £140, one UniFi USG Gateway for £90 and one not necessary UniFi Cloud Key for £70. All costing much less than the Cisco variant and much, much easer to set up.
So what is UniFi? UniFi is Ubiquiti’s product line of wireless access points, enterprise routers and network switches that can all be configured easily and then managed through one software utility called the UniFi Controller, thus eliminating the need to log into each and every device on the network to change settings making changes and troubleshooting easier.
To be honest, Ubiquiti have done a good job with the hardware, especially the switches and routers which have a cold metal feel and seem solid in the hand, although the new AC access points seem to creak a little when pressed but these are built to a cost and it’s the internals and wireless radios inside which have had the most money spent on them.
The UniFi USG (above) is the entry level router or Security Gateway as Ubiquiti likes to call it it costs around £90 and features Gigabit WAN, Gigabit LAN and a dedicated VOIP port for phones or it can be configured for a secondary WAN port for failover. The WAN port connects to your modem using PPoE, Static IP or DHCP.
The wireless access points come in four different models:
- UniFI AP AC LITE – Entry level model
- UniFI AP AC LR – Long range model
- UniFI AP AC PRO – Top of the range, features full speed AC
- UniFI AP AC EDU – Education version, features integrated loud speaker for announcements
All these models can be mounted on the ceiling using the included brackets and screws, on a wall or just on the desk.
At the heart of the UniFi system is the UniFi Controller. This is a software package which monitors the network including the connected clients, data usage, AP utilisation, speeds, firmware upgrades, RF scanning, DPI data collection, frequency allocation and more. This is also the place where the wireless network is configured. As this product is aimed at the hotel market mainly this lets us do some interning stuff such as full guest networking with customisable portals which can be authorised with a password, auto expiring voucher, PayPal payment or anything else. If required guests can be speed restricted, sectioned to a separate VLAN with a restrained DHCP pool in a separate subnet and more. The access points can even broadcast up to four separate wireless networks and on different VLANs with separate rules if needed.
The UniFi Controller is software created by Ubiquiti and it can run on a Windows PC, Mac or Linux machine. Alternatively it can be installed on a Amazon Cloud server, which when using the lower tier it is free to use. However the simplest and easiest is to buy a UniFi Cloud Key device from Ubiquiti, this is a small device that runs a Linux operating system and comes pre-installed with the software on it, just plug it in to the network, it obtains DHCP and go from there. Now, a common misconception is that the UniFi Controller needs to be constantly running in the background and if it is installed on a computer this may be difficult and there are pros and cons on why you might want to keep it running.
The benefits of keeping a UniFi Controller running
- Continuous history reporting for data used, client stats, Deep packet inspection and speed tests
- Remote access from anywhere
- Email alerts for when something goes wrong
However keeping a controller running on a PC may be difficult, so maybe look at the Amazon hosted version or the Cloud Key from Ubiquiti can be used.
Examining the software
This is my UniFi controller and what the dashboard looks like once logged in. The first thing you see is the four green circles, the one on the left is www and this will show up if you have a current connection to the internet, the next one is WAN and this will show up if you have a UniFi USG on your network, the next one is LAN this is showing up green as the USG is reporting but also this is for the UniFi switches on the network and then the next one is WLAN – meaning wireless local area network and this will show up if any UniFi Access Points have been added.
Now, below each green circle is some information about each one. Under www is my public IP address I get from my ISP and this is greyed out for obvious reasons, my configured DNS servers, currently I’m using the Google DNS.
The next one is WAN and this refers to what the the UniFi gateway is picking up. Firstly it shows my LAN IP and since I am running on a 192.168.1/24 subnet my LAN IP address for the USG is 192.168.1.1 (and this can be set), it also shows how many devices are connected in total and how much traffic is going out to the internet in KB/s, although this is being changed to mbps in a future release.
The LAN section doesn’t have much information since I don’t have a switch, but it shows how many UniFi switches are connected, how many wired users there are and how many guests.
The WLAN box tells me how many APs I have on my network, how many wireless clients, how many guests and how much traffic is going through the wireless network and this can be local and internet traffic.
As it is all green, this obviously shows it’s working correctly. On times the WLAN can go yellow and this indicates that one access point (if you have a few) has gone down. Anything else will be red indicating that devices are disconnected or not working properly.
We will be covering the UniFi Controller in more detail in other write ups, but this article was aimed to let readers know why consumer routers are awful and that there are options out there for a lot less, with tons of useful features.