Category Archives: Local Area Networking

Distributing the Internet in your home

So your Internet provider has left you with some electronic devices, and maybe an antenna on the roof. In many cases it is connected to one of your home computers, so you can now get on the Internet. Now what?

Well, the first thing is to understand what you have. Typically, you have one of the following:

  1. A box inside the house with one Ethernet port that is connected directly to your computer, or
  2. A single Ethernet cable snaking in from outside the house and connected directly to your computer (actually, there is usually a little black box in the middle somewhere, plugged into the wall), or
  3. A box inside the house with several Ethernet ports and usually a wi-fi Access Point.

Most new Cable, DSL, Cellular, and Satellite installations will include a “combination” box (modem and router) which most closely resembles #3. This makes building out your network easier, in most cases, because it includes a router.

2Wire combination router

Most older Cable, DSL, and Satellite installations (and some new ones) just include a “modem” and resemble #1, while most Fixed Wireless installations include a radio (attached to the house) that most closely resembles #2. If your situation is like #1 or #2, you need to install a router to build your Local Area Network (LAN) and enable multiple machines to access the Internet simultaneously.

Netgear router

Inexpensive Netgear router

Routers are very inexpensive and pretty easy to configure. In general, there is no advantage to getting a more expensive router – good routers are available for about $35 from Amazon.com or Ebay (about $50 if you drive into town and go to the store; Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy all carry routers and Ethernet switches). The extras that drive up the price of routers are:

  1. Advanced wi-fi features – “N” wi-fi and dual-band (2.4 and 5.8 GHz) wi-fi are the main ones; sometimes useful if you have a very large house, but I have found that setting up a separate wi-fi access point provides better service. Wi-fi from your router just doesn’t have enough range to be very useful in a rural setting, in my opinion.
  2. Network server applications, like USB file sharing – nice, but I think it’s better to have a dedicated device for this kind of thing.
  3. Advanced security (firewalls, filters, etc.) – again, kind of nice, but a real pain in the butt to configure correctly and, honestly, the likelihood that you need this sort of security (or that it really provides more security for your network than you get from the $35 router) is very, very low.

I have tried routers from Linksys, D-Link, and Netgear. The last few I have bought have been Netgear routers (including the “3G” router I have in my car with the Verizon Air Card – more about that another time), because they are the most flexible of the “consumer-class” routers. There are certain things you can do with the Netgear routers that you can’t do with Linksys or D-Link routers. However, I should say that I have also had some reliability problems with Netgear routers; they cost $35 last time I checked on Amazon.com, and I’d suggest buying two.

Once you get your router and get it set up, you’ll have (typically) four Ethernet ports and a wi-fi access point, so you can now attach many more devices to your network and access the Internet from any of them. The obvious things to connect are more computers (desktops, laptops) and smartphones (I have an iPhone; it’s a pretty good phone, albeit crippled by AT&T’s service, but it’s a REALLY great wi-fi device), but just about everyone is going to have wi-fi enabled iPad-type devices soon, and there are a lot of other useful things you can put on the network once you have it up and running.

Gettin’ rural with it…

Up to now, honestly, everything I have written about is equally applicable to anyone, rural or urban. But this is where that ends…

If you live in town, once you have a network that spans your house and yard, you’re pretty much done. You might want to put up cameras around the house or link in your watering system so you can control it over the internet, but, once you have the router set up, the network-building part is finished.

If you live in the country, though, you typically have a house, a garage, a workshop (or two), offices, barns, stables, and a wide variety of other possible outbuildings, as well as fields, storage facilities, waterways, etc.

Your $35 wireless router will not reach all these places, and a $200 router will only do slightly better. Nor is “hard-wiring” an option: Ethernet can only go 100 meters, and, although fiber cable can go farther, running cable is a difficult and prone to needing repair (critters seem to love cable, especially for lunch).

Wi-fi is the answer, but not the typical wi-fi router. A typical “consumer-grade” wi-fi router has an output power of 60 milliWatts (mW), or 0.06 watts, to a 2 deciBel omnidirectional antenna, which gives it an “Effective Isotropic Radiated Power” (EIRP) of about 100 mW or 0.1 Watts. If that doesn’t sound like much, that’s because it’s not – it is designed to provide a wi-fi signal inside a suburban house while not interfering with the house next door.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Industry Canada (IC), however, allow unlicensed “point-to-multipoint” stations on 2.4 GHz, like a wi-fi access point, to operate up to 1 Watt of power to a 6 dB antenna, for a total EIRP of 4 watts.

Now, 4 watts is going to go a lot further than 100 mW, and there is no restriction to how many of these higher-power devices you use. So we are faced with two problems:

  1. Where do I find a device with a whole lot more power?
  2. What do I do to get the most range out of it?

The first one is easy: there are a few companies out there building high-power, low-cost access points for the Wireless ISP (WISP) market. The second one, however, is a little tougher.

Wi-fi, at least the “b,” “g,” and “n” variants operate at 2.4 GHz (“n” can also operate simultaneously on 5.8 GHz), which is a very high radio frequency. For reference, cell phones operate at 0.8 GHz (sometimes at 1.9 GHz.), and FM radio operates at 0.1 GHz (100 MHz).

A friend of mine told me it’s best to think about it this way: the higher the frequency, the more radio waves behave like light. Lower-frequency radio waves will “bend” around or pass right through obstacles, but high-frequency radio waves will be weakened (“attenuated” is the technical term) by any solid objects. How much they are attenuated depends on the object, but, in general, the more solid, dense, and metallic the object, the more it will attenuate the signal. Metal is the worst – it is possible to build a structure with metallic mesh that you can see through but will stop almost all radio emissions from entering (called a “Faraday Cage“)

So, to get the best range from your wi-fi access point, you want to have it outside, so it doesn’t have to pass through the walls of your house.

However, the radio waves don’t all follow a completely straight line from transmitter to receiver – it turns out that they are distributed in the air in a football-shaped regionFresnel zone image between the transmitter and the receiver called the “Fresnel Zone.” For short distances, the Fresnel Zone is not that important, but, once you get out over 100 yards or so, it becomes increasingly important: for “good” radio transmission (constant contact with the source and a good rate of data transmission) you want to have the Fresnel Zone 80% open; to just have a fairly reliable connection, it needs to be at least 60% open.

What this means, for instance, is, even if you can see the antenna above a dense stand of trees, you may not be able to access the wi-fi access point from your computer because the trees are disrupting too much of the Fresnel Zone. Indeed, if you have the access point out in the open but only 4 feet off the ground, the ground will start to be more and more of an obstacle as you get further away.

The size of the Fresnel Zone increases as the distance between the transmitter and the receiver; for instance at 2.4 GHz and a distance of 1 mile, the Fresnel zone is approximately fifty feet across.

The keys, then, to getting the a wi-fi signal out to your garage, office, workshop, and stables are:

  1. Getting a powerful wi-fi signal to start with; and
  2. Removing as many obstacles as possible from the path between your wi-fi access point and your computer.

We’ll look at that first one in the next post.

High-Power Wi-Fi

So, in order to use the Internet from all over your property, you need something a little more powerful than your typical wifi router. But what, exactly?

If you’re like me, the first thing you do is go to Google and search for “high power wifi” or “long-distance wifi” or something like that, and you get back… almost nothing useful. The searches return (at least as of the time I am writing this) numerous pages of links to industrial-grade wi-fi systems (for tens of thousands of dollars), do-it-yourself projects (“build a wifi antenna out of cans and baling wire), high-power indoor wifi routers (e.g. Bountiful and others), and high-power wi-fi adapters for your laptop (so you can access the free wi-fi at the coffee shop from a block away).

A few of the ads are for things like “high-power AP & CPE” which, believe it or not, is what we’re looking for. These ads are aimed at Wireless Internet Service Providers, who use them (usually “tweaked” so they can’t be used for wi-fi access) as Access Points (AP) and Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) – the AP goes on a tower, and the CPE goes on the side of someone’s house to provide them with an internet connection. Because this equipment is meant for use by this rather demanding but low-margin business, they are tough, weatherproof (for mounting outside), and remarkably low-cost.

You’ll see, looking at those links, that there are two general kinds; most of them are directional, which means they have an antenna that “focuses” the radio energy in one particular direction, and some of them are omnidirectional (or don’t have an antenna at all), meaning they cast the radio energy in all directions around the unit.

The funny thing is that folks usually start with a directional unit because they are thinking of getting wi-fi to a specific place (e.g. a workshop) and a directional radio is the obvious way to do that. The problem comes later on when they realize that it’s also useful to have a link to some other place (e.g. a barn) or two (garage, storage building, stable, grain bin, etc.), or just to have internet access all around the house.

Some of these directional devices have external connectors that can be used with omnidirectional antennas. Good examples include the Ubiquiti NanoStation, the EnGenius EOC2611P, and the Deliberant AP-Solo. If you’re uncertain about how you want to proceed, these APs can provide flexibility. You can also start with one of them and simply add more in additional directions; 4-6 of them (depending on the directional gain of the antenna, pointed in various directions) create an omnidirectional signal.

However, best of all is to simply use an omnidirectional access point; my favorites are the Ubiquiti PicoStation 2 HP Ubiquiti Picostationand the PicoStation M2; their cousins the Bullet 2 HP and Bullet M2 are similar, but comes without any antenna or power supply.

These Access Points are quite inexpensive, and they can be used up to half a mile away with a normal laptop. In addition, they have a function called “WDS” that allows you to set up additional APs as “repeaters.” This can allow you to cover a very large area with a WiFi signal, although my own testing shows that the practical limit is two repeaters. The WDS system creates a lot of network “overhead” traffic, and more than two repeaters seems to overload the network.

These high-power APs can broaden the distribution of your internet connection considerably, making a reliable WiFi signal available across your property.¬† But there is a lot more you can do…

Point-to-Point links

When you think of WiFi, you think of something that can provide connectivity up to about 100′ away. In the last post we talked about how a high-power access point can extend that up to half a mile away or more. But WiFi can go for miles, and some WiFi gear can be used to send a high-bandwidth signal tens of miles.

One of the keys in any long-distance UHF signal (radio signals higher than 300 MHz; WiFi is at 2.4 GHz. or 5.8 GHz.) is what is called “line of sight,” and the key concept in line of sight is called the “Fresnel zone.” Fresnel zoneThe Fresnel zone is a football-shaped space between two transceivers – the longer the distance and the lower the frequency, the further across the Fresnel zone is. The strength of the signal, and therefore the bandwidth of the connection, is dependent on how “clear” the Fresnel zone is – 60% clear is considered the minimum clarity for a solid high-bandwidth signal. If you want to learn more about Fresnel zones, I recommend starting with the Wikipedia article on the topic.

To give you an idea, at 2.4 GHz. and half a mile, using the formula on the Wikipedia page, we find the radius of the Fresnel zone is just over 16 feet. 60% of that is just under 10 feet. If you are transmitting over 10′ high corn, this means that you’ll need to put your antenna up 20 feet to reach half a mile reliably. At 2.4 GHz. and 20 miles, which, as we’ll see, is possible, the radius of the Fresnel zone is 104 feet, and 60% of that is 62.4 feet. So, to get a reliable link at 20 miles using 2.4 GHz. radios, you’ll have to get the radio antennas at both ends at least 62.4 feet above ANY obstacles between the two stations. Note also that, as the distances move into miles, the Earth becomes a significant impediment – remember, it’s a big curved ball, but the radio signals move in a straight line. So you have to take the curvature of the Earth into account for longer “shots.” For example, at 20 miles, the curvature of the earth appears as a 50-foot “hump” between the antennas, so you actually have to mount your antenna 50 feet higher. For a 20-mile link at 2.4 GHz. with 10-foot corn in between the two stations, you’ll need to be up 62.4+50+10 (Fresnel zone, Earth curvature, and corn) or 134.4 feet to make the link.

The simple rule of thumb is, “higher is better.” When in doubt, mount the antenna higher.

Now, your Linksys router won’t go 20 miles, and even a high-power omnidirectional access point won’t go that far. To go more than a couple of miles, you need to use high-power radios with highly directional antennas. For a link of a few miles, you can use a pair of high-power devices with built-in “panel” antennas – examples include the Ubiquiti NanoStation, the Engenius EOC2611P, or the Deliberant AP Solo. These are relatively inexpensive and easy to set up and mount.

To go further, you’ll want something with a much higher-gain directional antenna. Ubiquiti makes some really nice products for longer-range bridging. The NanoBridge is good for links of about 10 miles or so, and the AirGrid is one of the highest-gain systems available. These high-power radios and antennas can help you get data connectivity at very long distances. The only real tradeoff is that the higher the gain of the antenna, the more narrow the “beam” of radio signal it casts, so the more precisely it must be “aimed.” To make a link of 20 miles, you’ll need to have a very tall (and very rigid – you can’t have the antenna swinging around in the wind) tower, and you’ll have to aim the antennas very precisely.

These units all have another trick to concentrate the signal even more for even more range. Normally, WiFi channels are 20 MHz. wide, meaning that they send signals across a 20 MHz “chunk” of the spectrum. However, the “narrower” the signal, the more “concentrated” the radio power is, and all these units can be configured to use a 5 MHz channel. This technique trades bandwidth for distance; a 5 MHz. channel can only carry 1/4 as much data as a 20 MHz. channel, but a 20 MHz. channel can carry 54 Mbps or 65 Mbps of bandwidth, so even 1/4 of that is a lot of data bandwidth.

With the large Airgrid radio and antenna, set to use a 5 MHz. channel, and a good Fresnel zone, you can absolutely create a reliable link up to 20 miles away.

One interesting tradeoff is using 2.4 GHz. versus 5.8 GHz. radios. The tradeoff is multi-faceted:

  • The higher the frequency, the smaller the Fresnel Zone is. This means that, while a 2.4 GHz. antenna for a 20-mile “shot” has to be up 62.4 feet above any obstructions, a 5.8 GHz. antenna only needs to be up 40 feet above those obstructions.
  • The higher the frequency, the greater the signal loss due to “free space loss” – just the loss of the signal due to distance. Higher frequencies just don’t go as far. For example, at 2.4 GHz., the free-space loss at 20 miles is about 130 dB. On 5.8 GHz. at 20 miles the free-space loss is about 138 dB, so you’ll need 8 dB more “gain” from your system to produce the same signal strength
  • The higher the frequency, the more gain you get from an antenna of a given size. For instance, the large Ubiquiti Airgrid 2 provides 20 dBi of gain, while the large Airgrid 5 provides 27 dB of gain. So, if you have these radios at each end of the link, you’re getting 15 dB more of gain in the link on 5.8 GHz than you would at 2.4 GHz. On our previous example, the free-space loss was 8 dB more at 5.8 GHz, but you get 14 dB more gain from the antennas, so you end up with 6 dB more signal from the 5.8 GHz. radios than the 2.4 GHz. radios. At longer distances,of course, the free-space loss will be greater, until, at about 40 miles, 2.4 GHz. is the better choice.
  • Interference: there are a LOT of devices that use the 2.4 GHz. band, far fewer (at least currently) that use 5.8 GHz. All those devices will create interference, raising the amount of ambient noise (called the “noise floor”) that the signal has to be “heard over.”

The bottom line is that long-distance point-to-point links are best made with directional 5.8 GHz. radios; there are several to pick from, depending on the distance you want to cover.

I used the calculators at Afar.net to come up with the numbers in this article; they have a Java-based link budget calculator and a Java-based Fresnel Zone calculator. Thanks, Afar!

The middle ground between Access Points and Point-to-Point

In the last two posts I have talked about high-power outdoor access points that you can connect to your router and provide WiFi connectivity across a wide area and about point-to-point links that can connect one point to another.

In many cases, however, you want some of each: an access point that can provide good wifi coverage for the buildings around the house, and something that can “pull” that signal out to another building 2 miles away.

I call that piece of equipment a “directional client” but there are really two very different devices that fit this category:

  • A high-powered directional WiFi adapter like the WiFire or the WiFiStation – these plug into the USB port of your computerWiFire adapterWiFiStation adapter
  • A directional WiFi radio that’s really the “client half” of a wireless bridge – for example, a NanoStation – that provides an Ethernet extension of your wireless network.

Here’s how it works: let’s say you have your Access point up on your house, but you need access for a computer or two out in the barn, and the signal just isn’t quite “loud” enough out there. You might just get a WiFire or WiFiStation, put it on the computer, and put the antenna in the window facing the house, so it will pick up the signal better. You might also mount a NanoStation on the outside of the barn facing the house, and then hook up the Ethernet port to your computer. If you have multiple computers, you can attach an Ethernet switch to the NanoStation and run Ethernet to each of them. You can also attach a WiFi access point (another PicoStation, or just a consumer-grade router) to the NanoStation to provide WiFi in the barn – just configure it as a “bridge.”

You may be surprised by how well this works – I have used a NanoStation to connect to a PicoStation 2 HP at well over 2 miles (hilltop to hilltop – nice, clear Fresnel zone).

It should also be mentioned that there are high-power OMNIDIRECTIONAL WiFi adapters – there is a version of the WiFiStation that is both omnidirectional and outdoor-mountable (so you can put it outside the barn or even mount it on a vehicle) and a variety of small USB adapters with big antennas on them (Alfa seems to be one popular brand, and Engenius has a nice one). You can also use a PicoStation or something similar in “client” mode just like the NanoStation. You’ll lose some “gain” because of the lack of directionality, but you won’t have to point the antenna at it – extremely desirable if you are mounting on a vehicle.

Next – on to the REALLY good stuff!

The Rural WiFi Mesh Network

Just a few years ago, mesh networks were considered so esoteric that no one would even think of using one unless you had wads of money and a cadre of geeks at your beck and call. The notion of someone using a mesh network to provide rural WiFi on a farm would have been laughable.

Some years back, though, those clever kids at MIT decided they wanted a mesh network across the campus (and beyond) at the lowest possible cost. The result was RoofNet, which eventually gave rise to a commercial offering from Meraki and, later, Open-Mesh and, eventually, AyrMesh. These mesh networks all use low-cost WiFi radios and the internet in clever ways to provide a very flexible WiFi “cloud.”

What’s a mesh network?

A mesh network uses multiple Access Points (called “nodes” or “hubs”) which communicate with each other via wireless links. WiFi MeshOne or more of these nodes may be connected to the Internet; they are usually called “Gateway” nodes. Nodes at the outer edge of the network are referred to as “Leaf” nodes, and nodes between the Gateway and the Leaf nodes are frequently called “Repeaters.”

The major features of a mesh network are:

  1. Practically unlimited expansion – you can use mesh nodes to extend your network around all kinds of corners: into buildings, around physical obstacles, and, potentially, across large distances
  2. Simple networking – the mesh can present as a single network, so anything in the network across a broad area can be addressed via its IP address
  3. Easy maintenance and administration – modern mesh networks like the ones we are discussing here use a central “dashboard” on the internet to manage the nodes, so you never have to go out and “touch” a node (unless it physically fails).

Of course, while a mesh network can be expanded almost arbitrarily, it requires additional mesh nodes to do so. One of the most extraordinary things about the mesh systems mentioned earlier is that the nodes are quite inexpensive – from less than $100 apiece to a few hundred. Besides requiring enormous technical expertise, previous mesh networks cost thousands of dollars per node.

The upshot is that, while mesh networks were previously only for the military and large companies, they are now perfectly suitable for your farm or homestead.

A mesh network of a single node is, essentially, equivalent to a single access point. You connect it to an internet source and turn it on, and it behaves much like a wireless router. The big difference is that you can simply install more nodes to “repeat” or “relay” the signal to different areas: further away and around obstacles to line-of-sight. You can also use those additional nodes to connect “wired” devices into the network by plugging them into the Ethernet ports of the nodes.

This makes the mesh network an extremely useful and practical tool for building your “Farm-Area Network.” A mesh network may not be the “be-all and end-all,” and you may still want to use point-t0-point links and directional clients to expand your network. But I believe that a mesh network on the farmstead¬† is the right place to start.

Rural WiFi Mesh Networks, part 2

As I mentioned, I think that a mesh network should form the “backbone” of your farm or ranch network. I have to admit I found the entire subject somewhat intimidating when I came to it, so I want to present the alternatives to you to highlight the tradeoffs, so you can make the best choice for your operation.

There are two general types of mesh networks: single-radio (store-and-forward) and multi-radio (continuous). The difference is that a single-radio system receives a “packet” of data, stores it, then turns the radio to transmit, and transmits that packet. As a result, each node on a store-and-forward system reduces the effective bandwidth by half (since it can only be receiving half the time or transmitting half the time). This means that the speed of the network diminishes the further away from the “Gateway” node (the node attached to your router) you get, and that the expansion of the network is limited. If the bandwidth between the nodes is fast enough and the range of the nodes is far enough, however, this may not be a significant limitation.

A multi-radio system has one radio dedicated to “receiving” data and another radio dedicated to “transmitting” data. By cutting out the “store and forward” aspect, both radios can run at full speed all the time, so there is no loss of bandwidth. This provides the advantage of ensuring maximum bandwidth throughout the network and enabling the network to be arbitrarily expanded. However, since the “receiving” and “transmitting” radios have to be on different frequencies, it requires a LOT more planning and expertise to set up this kind of a network. And, of course, since there are two radios and some intervening electronics, each node costs a lot more and takes a lot more power. In fact, many of these systems will have a third radio as a dedicated access point (so that bandwidth is not coming out of one of the “mesh” radios) and even a fourth radio for redundancy on the mesh or the access point.

The multi-radio mesh was originally invented for military and commercial use, where large numbers of “clients” are using large amounts of data and failure can be disastrous. These mesh nodes, besides being very complex to set up and install, are usually very expensive (thousands of dollars per node). Cisco, Motorola, Aruba, Meshdynamics, Ruckus, and several others market these systems. Meraki and Anaptyx also have multi-radio mesh networks (Anaptyx uses the Open-Mesh platform).

Some years back, the folks at MIT decided they needed a campus-wide WiFi network, and they invented something they called Roofnet. Many of the folks who created it went on to found Meraki, which is still the leader in low-cost mesh networks. Meraki, as noted earlier, has also branched out into higher-cost mesh networks. Meraki started out with an “open” platform for experimentation, and attracted hackers who wanted to develop mesh networks for their own purposes. When Meraki “closed” their software, a group of coders developed Robin in open source, which became the basis for Open-Mesh and for AyrMesh.

On a personal note, when we were starting Ayrstone, I evaluated both Meraki and Open-Mesh. Meraki, at the time, was “locked” into “client isolation,” so it did not create a Local-Area Network. This was a deal-breaker, although the higher cost of the Meraki nodes, the closed architecture (meaning we couldn’t do anything to make the nodes behave better) and the requirement of a subscription payment for their management software also served to dissuade me. Open-Mesh overcame those objections, but was only available on small, low-power, indoor-only access points – not suitable for our vision of a rural mesh network. The Meraki and Open-Mesh “dashboards” are also very full-featured, which is to say, too complex for a networking “beginner” to understand and use confidently.

So we undertook the task of building our own firmware (using ideas from Robin and another open-source mesh firmware package called “Nightwing“) to run on the very good, high-power PicoStation access points from Ubiquiti. We also developed our own greatly simplified “dashboard” at ayrmesh.com so that “normal people” could install and manage a “household” (or “farmhold” or “ranchhold”) wifi mesh network.

The bottom line is that any of these solutions (and there are even more out there) will work to build a wireless LAN on your rural property. Which one to choose depends on what you want to do. For absolute simplicity on a typical farm, ranch or rural home, I think AyrMesh is the best choice (but, of course, I’m biased). Open-Mesh and Meraki are also perfectly viable choices (Meraki even used to offer a solar-powered outdoor node, although I no longer find it on their store), especially for those who have more ambitious goals than just having WiFi on the homestead. Cisco and Motorola have long been considered the “gold standard” for this technology, and Aruba and MeshDynamics are kind of the “fast followers,” but they’ll require a certified installer and tens of thousands of dollars. Somewhere between these options lies Ruckus, which is fast developing an outstanding reputation among the Silicon Valley wireless networking folks. If I were looking to build an “enterprise-class” WiFi network, I’d certainly include them in the evaluation.

For now, I think that’s enough about the technology… next, I want to dive into implementation – “how to do it” for the do-it-yourselfer.