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  • Writer's pictureFrederick Dopfel

Distributed Wi-Fi System and Improvised Backhaul

My parents live in a house with walls literally made of concrete and metal mesh, making each room effectively a faraday cage, AKA Wi-Fi hell. Walking as little as 20 feet between two rooms could completely cut off a signal. Even powerful routers were defeated by this absorption. Wi-Fi repeaters suck, not only because of connection issues, but also because they virtually all use a form of WDS that halves bandwidth at each hop (even some mesh Wi-Fi networks do this). So solution was simple: distributed Wi-Fi access points. Plume makes great little Wi-Fi pods that you can scatter around the house and uses different frequencies for backhaul and broadcast, but I wanted to improve speeds further with a dedicated hardwire backhaul.

Problem 1: Backhaul:

My parents love this home, and would NOT allow me to drill any holes in the walls. I had experimented with PowerLine as a backhaul, but with all the electronics on around the house, there was a lot of noise and connections would regularly cut out (plus speeds were well below advertised levels). Fortunately, there was coax cable (designed for TVs) running from each room in the house to a hub in the garage. I disconnected all the coax lines from the hub, then individually tested and labeled them. In some cases, bare cable had to be crimped. I decided to run a dedicated MoCA line from each room to the garage (5 MoCA to ethernet adapters in the garage, 1 MoCA to ethernet adapter in each of the 5 rooms I wanted to backhaul to). The reason for the dedicated lines was to avoid interference from network traffic in different rooms. I then connected all these backhaul connections to a 5 port Gigabit switch. Fortunately, some old (and inexpensive) DirectTV ethernet adapters support MoCA, so wiring each room only cost $20. Testing showed consistent fast ethernet connections.

Problem 2: Choosing the access points:

My first attempt at a distributed Wi-Fi system was using Airports and Airport Expresses. Given Apple's reputation of ease of use and word of mouth advice from friends who had success with them as distributed antennas, I decided to experiment with two airport extremes and 2 airport expresses. The system worked, but one constant point of frustration was handoff. Devices would try to hold on to access points with poor reception rather than switch to ones right next to them. This frustrated my not-so-tech-savvy parents, who I had to train to power cycle the Wi-Fi antennas on their devices to connect to the right access point. When I had the opportunity to test the Plume distributed Wi-Fi system, I bought a pack of 6 and put one in each room connecting the ethernet . The results were impressive. Not only were speeds up in every room (less devices per access point helped) but handoff worked great too. I tested this using Skype video calls while walking between rooms and even outside. Further, the system comes with a nice little app that visually displays which devices are on each access point as moons orbiting planets (my parents really liked that).

Overall, I was very impressed with the "lots of small antennas instead of one big antenna" approach, and the handoff between access points works great. MoCA on dedicated lines works great, and was an effective (and inexpensive) solution for people who can't install real ethernet jacks in the wall. I would recommend Plume to anyone who has good backhaul in their house and wants an easy packaged solution (although it can use Wi-Fi as a backhaul as well), and would recommend MoCA as the preferred option to PowerLine for backhaul using a house's existing wires. I recently discovered that the phone lines in the house are actually wired using Cat5e cable, so I may make a further upgrade from MoCA to Cat5e backhaul in the near future.

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