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Towards Better, More Reliable Home Wifi — Ditch the Products Meant for the Home

Posted by on | August 17, 2017 | Comments Off

For years I have been struggling with a variety of commercial home wifi products.  I have been plagued by issues — either they had poor range or they had to be reset every day or so or they did not play well with various extenders I needed to cover my house.  I have a one story house that sort of sprawls all over the place and is hard to cover, particularly since our internet connection to Cox Cable is all the way at one end of the house and some of the house has a cinderblock core just to make signal transmission even harder.

So my company had a contractor wiring up a customer location we manage and they were using a commercial product from Ubiquiti Networks.  I wondered why a commercial product would not work just as well in my home.  This Ars Technica article discussed how much better he thought the commercial products from Ubiquiti were than most consumer grade products.  I figured maybe the problem would be cost, but perusing the Unifi product line on Amazon, it seemed priced a bit higher than consumer products but not unreasonably so (also compare the Amazon star ratings for the Unifi products to consumer alternatives — you will not see ratings this high).

I was a little intimidated that the setup would be hard but it was manageable if you know even a little bit about network addresses and how they work. And this video is absolutely fabulous — I can tell you that if you follow along with this guy your system will work at the end of it.  Once it was running, the software is way easier to navigate than my old consumer products.

So several months ago I installed a Unifi system in my house with 6 access points (including on my patio and in my garage), a security gateway (the router, I think), a main switch, a couple of satellite switches, and the cloudkey which helps manage the whole thing.  I paid extra for the PoE switches (power over ethernet) so I could run the access points without having to plug them into an outlet and so in the future I could add PoE video.

What I like:

  • Reasonable cost
  • Setup not difficult if you follow the video
  • Rock-solid reliability
  • It reaches everywhere, with a single SSID so it acts as one seamless large wifi zone.
  • Ability to access the system remotely to check on status
  • Access points work via PoE so they mount on the wall or ceiling really cleanly and look great
  • Really good information about my network, not only every device and its IP and status, but also its bandwidth use and exactly how it is connected in the network tree (ie via such and such switch).

The only problem I have had so far is a moderately arcane one that took me a while to diagnose.  I use this system with my Sonos music system and I have a number of Sonos boxes around the house.  Most of these are wired, and so do not use the Sonos wired peer-to-peer mesh.  However, the Sonos boxes were trying to create wireless network amongst themselves that essentially created loops in my network where storms of traffic ran in circles.

This is where I had a learning opportunity.  Apparently network equipment has something called Spanning Tree Protocol (STP).  Basically through a priority and cost system, it allows you to specify preferred pathways and prevent data from looping.  But Sonos uses a really old version of this that does not play well with Unifi.  I will say that this is not just a Unifi problem as I had this exact same problem at another location with Sonos and the Google mesh wifi system.  At least with Unifi, there were STP settings I could play with (Google mesh wifi is a nice little plug and play product but forget it if you want to tweak anything at all).   As is usual nowadays for any known problem, the Internet has a bunch of articles on Unifi and Sonos compatibility issues.  Eventually by tweaking the STP priorities of the Unifi switches and simply turning off the wifi in Sonos units where I did not need the mesh wifi capability (a nearly undocumented feature that is revealed here) I got it all playing nice together.   I will add that though Sonos is a product I love (because my wife can actually reliably use it), their tech support never identified this problem — they said they saw evidence of loops but would not admit that the Sonos peer-to-peer networking was helping to cause them.

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 Towards Better, More Reliable Home Wifi    Ditch the Products Meant for the Home

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