WiFi Access Points

Before our new house even had walls I started looking for the WiFi access points that I wanted to install when the house is finished. I have previously used Netgear WiFi range extenders for work and have set these up as access points before. My experience with the range extenders has not been great so I want to avoid them. The biggest problem with them is that each extender creates its own unique SSID so there is no hand-off from one access point to the next. If you walk around the house on your phone and move out of range of the connected access point the phone won’t seamless switch to the next closest access point. If the WiFi signal decreases the phone will still try to maintain connection to the weaker signal and not connect to a closer access point due to the different SSID.

The Ubiquiti Unifi access points I have been looking at can each provide the same SSID. The phone will simply reply to WiFi signals from the closest access point. The access points determine amongst themselves which access point is best to connect to a client and instruct the other access points to ignore the client. As someone walks around the house and moves closer to another access point that access point will realise that the signal is stronger than the first access point and switch the active access point. This creates a seamless hand-over and the end user doesn’t even know that they have been connecting to multiple access points.

I have already decided that I like the look of the Ubiquiti Unifi range of networking gear. The heart of the system is their controller software. All device and network settings are made through this software. I want to learn how this system works. There is an online demo available and lots of YouTube tutorials but that is nothing compared to getting your hands on a real network to play with.

Remembering that our new house has only just started being built I don’t need the whole system yet. I decided to start with a single access point and download a free copy of the Ubiquiti Unifi Controller software and load it onto my laptop to get a feel for the Unifi system. So for my birthday I bought myself a Ubiquiti Unifi AP AC Lite.

I started off by just connecting the access point to my existing router and launching the controller. The access point showed up quickly and I was able to adopt it and update its firmware easily. I was then able to go into the controllers settings and created a new wireless network. As an experiment I created the new network with the same SSID and password as the one that came with my old router. The idea was that all the devices in my house knew the SSID and I wouldn’t need to reconnect them all. The old router had 2 SSIDs, one for 2.4Ghz and one for 5Ghz. The new access point has an option to use the same SSID for both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz and automatically connects clients to the most suitable frequency. Once the new access point was setup I went into the old routers settings and switched off its WiFi for both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz.

Immediately the kids started complaining that they had lost the internet. I could see that my phone was connected to WiFi but my laptop wasn’t. The laptop could see the new WiFi network but was not able to connect. It seems that a majority of devices were having this problem.

A quick Google search didn’t help so I quickly flipped through the access points Config Settings. I found a setting labeled “Band Steering” that was defaulted to “Prefer 5g”. I changed this to “Balanced”, hit apply and within a minute the complaining from the kids had stopped. I checked the list of connected clients in the controller and everything seemed to be connecting.

With the “Prefer 5g” setting the access point seemed to use only the 5Ghz radio for the initial connection. Any older or cheaper client that doesn’t have a 5Ghz radio but could see the SSID transmitted on 2.4Ghz could not connect. This seems like a poor choice for a default setting but was the only issue I had setting up the access point.

After the access point was setup the controller is not needed. The controller is capable of displaying WiFi usage and statistics only while the controller is running and if my laptop is off then this isn’t recorded. So to get started I loaded the controller software on a Raspberry Pi and restored the settings from a backup from my laptop.

After setting up the new access point my wife hasn’t noticed the change and has stopped complaining about the wifi signal in the bedroom. So the final verdict is positive.

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