Scene 1: Covid-19 and 1000 Mbps cheaper than 100 Mbps
With the advent of Covid-19 and the family mostly working from home at this time, a reliable home network was becoming crucial for our household. So on to the first order of business. We had AT&T fiber, but it was the lowest tier 100 Mbps internet package. I noticed that 1 Gbps internet was actually cheaper than what I was paying for 100 Mbps, so I had that sorted out first- self service through the AT&T website.
To provide some background, we moved into our new house in early 2018. Your typical 2 story house, rectangular about 30 ft x 48 ft, close to 1400 sq ft per level, no basement, wood frame and dry-walled. The Arris BGW 210–710 gateway/router/Wifi access point that AT&T provisioned for us was simply not cutting it. We had constant disconnects and the range was bad too. Unfortunately you can’t get away from using the AT&T gateway as it needs to authenticate itself to the ISP’s ONT coming in. There are some ultra-geeky ways to get around it, but not really worth it.
So it was time to dust the old TP-Link Archer C9 from 2016.
This was a good router, although not Wave 2 . For WiFi it was capable of theoretical speeds of 600 Mbps on 2.4Ghz band and 1300 on the 5.4Ghz band. To use this as a router, I had to put the Arris gateway in bridge mode/IP Passthrough and disable wifi, there were some pretty good instructions I could find online.
Learned a lot about bridge mode, pass through, double NAT’ing and DHCP Fixed vs Dynamic etc.
The TP-Link was OK, but had some dead zones at the ends of the house and obviously was not taking advantage of the gigabit fiber internet connection.
It was time to rethink the home network situation.
Scene 2: Wifi 6 a.k.a AX
It was time to splurge. Wifi 6 was the new buzzword and I wanted to future proof our home, so I was set on an AX router. After some research I zeroed in on the Linksys Velop MX5/AX5300 single node router/ap. This thing is a beast 1 4x4 2.4 Ghz band, 1 4x4 5 Ghz band and 1 2x2 5 Ghz band and both 5 Ghz bands are usable. It was like 300 bucks at Costco, 399 at most other places. I didn’t have much luck with the Netgear Orbi before (out of my own naivete more than anything, I believe now that with their dedicated 4x4 backhaul, they probably have a very strong consumer mesh solution). So I figured I didn’t want to go the mesh route and a single node would be enough if placed strategically in the upper level in the middle of the house. Wow what a difference at close range, < 10 feet I was getting close to 800 Mbps to 700 Mbps. A little further away ~30–40 ft I was still able to get 400 to upper 300 Mbps. The far ends were still ok at about 100–200 Mbps. Also we had a Samsung S10 plus and Note 10 among ourselves, so we could test the AX wifi 6 capabilities as well.
Then Zoom happened, I noticed during conferences that my Samsung 10 would occasionally disconnect and the only recourse was to turn off wifi or put it in airplane mode and turn it back on. This probably also happened during regular usage, but I guess it was not so noticeable. Although it did not happen with the wife’s Note 10. There were some lame methods to get around the problem on the internet, airplane mode, turn off wifi and turn it on, clear network settings, clear cache etc. I tried clearing the network settings and the cache, but it made no difference. But this is a high end phone and a costly router, I was not convinced. The Linksys hardware itself was pretty impressive with Qualcomm chips, but I guess either the router or the S10 were not ready for wifi 6. Also there was no way to disable AX capabilities in either one. So back to Costco it went.
Scene 3: Back to the drawing board.
It seemed like AX was a no go, given the phone situation. So the next best option was a multi-band Wave 2 Wifi 5 router from what I deduced. I zeroed in on the TP-Link AC4000 a.k.a Archer A20. It had good specs: 1.8 Ghz 4 core chip, Triband MU-MIMO wifi chips. Costco had it for about $129, which seemed like a steal. There was no way this could go wrong.
Of course it more than met our needs. At close quarters, this was pulling about 600 Mbps and 400 to 300 Mbps at 20–30 feet. Not as good as the Linksys but it was good. At the far ends of the house I was getting somewhat near 100 Mbps, maybe a bit lesser in previous dead zones. It was stable for the most part, but I did experience occasional slowness during my Zoom calls. But still, I was not ready to resign to this solution. The geek in me just could not let it be.
Scene 4: Consumer grade single do it all routers, you say, bah!
All this research had pushed me into a new obsession and I was getting pulled into the dark side of ‘Home Labs’. People discussing how consumer grade routers are so costly and just taking advantage of the naive consumer with spaceship shaped gizmos. I started reading about how people in the ‘prosumer’ segment were starting to use enterprise grade level network equipment at home: Ubiquiti, Mikrotik, Ruckus and also TP-Link’s Omada EAP access points to name a few.
What stuck with me was that as long as you had a good Wave 2 WiFi AP/Router and if you had wired ethernet at home, you could place a couple of cheap AC1200 APs at the wired points for reliable coverage. And you would be far better off than buying an alien spaceship shaped consumer grade router/AP. Case in point:
Do you see these routers, they almost seem like they can take off any moment now.
Scene 5: We have created a demon
I had 2 wired Ethernet outlets on the upper level and 1 Ethernet outlet downstairs, and in Cat-5e no less. Damn, for once I basked in my foresightedness. Now it totally made sense to go with 2 wired APs in each level and it appealed to my inner tinkerer as well.
So I figured I would ditch the TP-Link AC4000. Thank you Costco for your generous return policies.
Now I was torn between adding 2 TP-Link EAP-225s or the tri-band EAP-245 APs. But for the APs to really work seamlessly, I would need to run the Omada Controller software provisioned on a server to manage the APs and handle roaming etc. as a single coherent working system.
Or go with the slightly costlier Unifi AC Lite APs. This called for a controller type solution, but once setup, the controller software did not have to be running.
I was also looking at some other exotic solutions, like the Mikrotik Audience all the way from Latvia. I guess the Linksys Velop form-factor was still lingering in my head. Apparently Mikrotik is not that exotic after all, quite revered in the networking community for their Router OS firmware.
Or a very cheap solution was to get a bunch of Aerohive AP 230s off of ebay, on an average sold for $30-$40 shipped. These are enterprise level APs supporting dual band AC, highly capable with 3x3:3 radios. But for the most part they need a license to work with the HiveManager cloud controller. There is a way to get around using some CLI sorcery, by SSHing into the device after doing a factory reset or de-registering them through their support email and re-registering on the free for life HiveManager Connect cloud controller. This really appealed a lot to me. But then I also wondered if it was worth going through all this trouble.
Scene 6: Le fin
On a quick grocery run to the local Walmart, all purposeful in my mask and gloves, I chanced upon the clearance section and saw the older Linksys Velop dual band router/APs on clearance. These were single nodes, also available as a set of 3. I didn’t know they came in black too. Now the dual band routers were released in 2018 to provide a cheaper alternative to the original pricey tri-band ones. These were AC1200, wave 2 WiFi 5 routers. From the MX5 experience from before, I knew what to expect hardware wise, Qualcomm processor and wifi chips, so pretty solid. The ones in Walmart had the model number as VLP0101 and were labled as AC1200, but everywhere else these are sold under model# WHW0101 and labeled AC1300. My previous experience with the Linksys AX, had left a somewhat bad after taste, but still had the clerk scan them all the same. For $45 a pop, you couldn’t go wrong. On paper they almost had similar hardware specs to the TP-Link EAP225s except for Tx/Rx sensitivity maybe.
Now I knew the Linksys firmware was pretty limited, but still wanted to give these itty-bitty things a chance. It seems like these could still be setup through the web interface, totally circumventing the app. So after a quick firmware update, I set them up in bridge mode and had separate SSIDs for the 2.4 and 5 Ghz bands, figured I could still use the Arris gateway/router for routing duties. Obviously the mesh capabilities would not work in bridge mode. But I figured that our roaming devices like iPads, phones, laptops etc. would roam on their own and the other stationary devices like smart TVs, switches, thermostats etc could maintain their affinity to the APs once set.
These worked out really great, at close range I was getting close to 450 Mbps and about 200 Mbps in the farthest corners and have been pretty stable so far. I figure at this price point, these could work as a stopgap for a while until I am ready to make a bigger commitment.
A little problem in bridge mode is that these APs don’t show their connected devices. But the devices do show up on the Arris Gateway router under the Ethernet port that the APs were connected to. But the interface is downright unreadable on the phone and not organized well, so it’s really difficult to tell what device is connected to which port.
Initially I toyed with the idea of hosting a server on an older tablet that could screen scrape the device list page and display it better. But then I figured this called for a quick Android app. So I ended up building an Android app to show the connected devices in a much better view. This also started my foray into delving into Android apps.