A Tale Of Wonky Wifi Part 4: A Doubleheader Featuring 802.11B/G vs N, And WLAN vs Mesh

When last we left this story our protagonist had returned the Cisco AP to BUY.COM leaving le maison du Graves without functional wifi for about two weeks. Fortunately I was out of town a lot during that period so it wasn’t much of an inconvenience. If anything it gave me some time to evaluate my options regarding replacement gear.

I’ve noted that whereas I had a lot of problems with 802.11n type wifi APs I’d previously had far fewer issues with 802.11g type hardware. Very recently I was reminded by someone who should know that 802.11a/b/g is more mature hardware than 802.11n. This certainly rings true as my very old Linksys WAP-54G ran for literally years with no problems at all.

How I long for the Linksys of old.

In fact, my move to 802.11n was prompted by the opportunity to review the Polycom/Spectralink 8002 Wifi SIP handset. Spectralink was very explicit that the device requires WMM (aka 802.11e), which at the time meant migrating to 802.11n.

WMM is essentially wireless QoS extensions. The theory is that without such measures plain vanilla wifi traffic like browsing the web can cause break up in media streams on the same WLAN.

If you have any interest in the real world details of WMM I suggest your read Tim Higgins excellent three part overview on the matter over at Small Net Builder.

What I’m working my way around to is the simple fact that I don’t really need the kind of performance that 802.11n promises. My wifi network supports a limited number of clients:

  • Logitech Squeezebox (dining room, 802.11g)
  • Logitech Squeezebox (living room, 802.11g)
  • My laptop (802.11n)
  • My wife’s netbook* (802.11n)
  • Blackberry 9700 (occasionally, 802.11g)
  • EyeFi (Stella’s camera, 802.11g)
  • EyeFi (Michael’s camera, 802.11g)
  • The occasional guest

As you can see we do make use of streaming media, but we don’t generally use VoIP-over-Wifi. The exception being when I feel like tinkering with the Blackberry’s UMA mode. Finally, we definitely don’t use any streaming video-over-wifi. Our bandwidth needs are modest.

Where the 802.11n access point really shined was in its extended range. When it worked (argh!) one centrally located APin the house covered the entire property. That was extremely handy as I very occasionally need to relocate one of my Squeezeboxen to the front porch to provide dramatic underscore for the events of the day.

Prior to the Netgear 802.11n device we had one AP located in the house and another in the back office. That worked fine but they were actually two completely separate WLANs. Yes, a pair of 802.11g APs were a good solution, especially if such hardware was both cheap & reliable.

That brought to mind a completely new angle; a wireless mesh. The potential of mesh had occurred to me some time ago while at Astricon 2009. For that event Digium had partnered with someone to augment the host hotels wireless network. That company had setup a wireless mesh throughout the conference center using gear from Meraki. As I recall the mesh was back-hauled by a Wimax connection. Very novel.

The performance of the wifi at Astricon was not perfect, but given the nature of the audience I’d say that it held up rather well. So I did a little research into Meraki products.

While they have very interesting hardware what I discovered is that it’s costly and more than a little specialized for large scale mesh application…as in municipal wireless networks. Moreover, many of their more capable products required the use of their “enterprise” configuration tool which has a hefty annual license fee per access point. The lesser products include a perpetual license for their “Pro” configuration tool. Both of the configuration tools are web hosted services, not locally installable.

What I discovered was that a Meraki mesh was simply beyond my scope & budget. It was interesting to see that Small Net Builder just this week posted a review of the Meraki mesh hardware.

However, I happened upon Open-Mesh.com and found some hardware that seemed more approachable. The folks behind Open-Mesh.com seem to understand where Meraki has turned away from its roots as purveyors of low-cost wifi hardware.

Open Mesh OM-1P Wifi Router

Open-Mesh.com sell an entry level 802.11b/g router for a very modest $29. They also support a list of hardware from other manufacturers that can be flashed with their firmware to target mesh installations. This list includes some recognized names such as EnGenius and Ubiquity.

More or less impulsively I decided to order a pair of their OM-1P 802.11b/g access points (pictured above.) Each of these comes with a 2.5 dbi monopole antenna & power supply. I also ordered a pair of 7 dbi high-gain monopole antenna’s and a pair of weatherproof exterior housings. The exterior housing includes a passive POE injector (non-802.11af) allowing the OM-1Ps to be powered over the cat 5 lead.

The entire order came to about $160 with shipping, similar to the Cisco AP that I had just returned.

The hardware arrived in just a few days and has now been in service for about two weeks. I’ll have more about it’s installation, setup, exactly what it does and doesn’t do in my next installment.

* Yes, my wife recently relieved me of my HP Mini 2140 netbook. She borrowed it for a a couple of trips to Austin and found it just too handy to return it. I am left considering its replacement.

  • At one time, I was doing the WiFi mesh thing with DD-WRT and Linksys routers. Now I am using two access points (same SSID, different channel) where they are hardlinked to the same LAN via Powerline Ethernet. I gain the benefit of extended range without losing bandwidth to “the mesh.”

    • This is essentially what I’m doing as well since I have hardwired both the house and the office. I like wifi as a convenience but still believe in cat5 or 6 to hard wire device that are not portable. Even if I left it as a two node mesh I doubt that I’d have a performance issue.

  • EarloftheWest

    I just spent the past several hours (interspersed with dinner and other activities) reviewing the open-mesh.com product. I’m interested in reading your continued review of the product.
    It seems like a REALLY easy way to setup a mesh network. Much cheaper than spending hundreds of dollars on other providers Access Points.
    For me, I would just need one Access Point. Can I control the thing at my home without an open-mesh account?

    • It doesn’t seem so. You use their dashboard to administer the WLAN. However, from looking at the dashboard there is a way to have SSH access to a node, so perhaps that’s a good question to put to the folks at open-mesh.com?

    • It is possible to use open-mesh gear/firmware (based on ROBIN) without their dashboard – but you will loose some of their “finish”. Their is no fee for using their dashboard – so I would advise you to atleast start with it. If you get adventurous and want to host your own mesh server (dashboard), the Open-Mesh dashboard is built on Orange Mesh – available here:
      http://orangemesh.sourceforge.net/