Ubiquiti UAP-AC-LR wifi access point
I live in a "BC Box" home, a rectangular house designed to maximize the interior space. These homes put the natural gas furnace and hot water heater in the center of the house, in the basement, with sheet metal ducts and copper piping spreading tentacle-like throughout the home.
My Internet service arrives via an ADSL cable in the basement, at a corner -- the worst possible location. For more than a decade, I battled to get a strong, reliable WiFi signal past all that metal in the middle of the house. A few years ago, I installed four WiFi access points, roughly one near each corner, with three connected by ethernet cables, cables that mostly are out of sight by snaking them through utility and storage rooms. The fourth one is a WiFi repeater.
(When we renovated the basement, I was clever enough to run a network cable through the ceiling, from one end of the basement to the other. But not clever enough. The year was 1999, and the network cable was coax with BNC connectors -- useless today.)
One drawback to four WiFi access points is that they employ four different SSIDs. Devices such as smartphones will disconnect from one, once the signal is too weak, and then automatically connect to the strongest one, but only once the first signal really is weak. So, I began looking for a single-SSID solution.
Another drawback to WiFi is that the network occasionally disappears as we watch streaming video (such as Netflix). My wife waits patiently as I work to reconnect. The access point second-closest to our entertainment room has a reliable signal, but isn't strong enough as it is just a bit too far away; the closest one has a strong signal, but isn't reliable. So, I began looking for a strong, reliable solution.
And then there is the son-in-law problem. When he comes to visit, he uses my otherwise-unused XBox 360 to play online multi-player games. WiFi speeds don't cut it, and so he strings an ethernet cable from the nearest access point, over a couple of doors, to the XBox. Thoughtfully, he unplugs the cable when he's done. So, I began looking for a wired solution. (I think I found one, but the equipment has not yet arrived for me to report on its success or failure.)
I first looked into mesh WiFi, which offers the benefit of a single SSID, but these systems are really expensive, ranging from CDN$400 to over $500 for a set of three access points. I read in reviews that the hand-off between access points is not necessarily smooth. I suspect it's not as bad as using WiFi at the airport, where I'm forever having to manually reconnect, but still.
While researching mesh WiFi, I came across commercial-grade access points. These are ones used by businesses. You may have seen white boxes or UFO-like shells with blue lighting mounted near ceilings. That is them. Commercial-grade WiFi is much stronger than consumer-grade WiFi (I want signal strength!), provides far more granular control over settings (which I don't care about), and isn't all that expensive (bonus!).
Commercial-grade access point mounted on a ceiling
Now, commercial-grade WiFi has a bit of a bad rap, given the poor WiFi experience we have in hotels and airports, and on airplanes. This can be excused by the number of people putting a big load on the system; or the system being too weak to handle the numbers of users. It is just like an insufficiently-strong air conditioning system.
When it came to picking one to buy, I found it confusing, as the names are awfully similar between models that have awfully similar specs. Do I choose a "Pro" version (the most expensive one) or the "Long Range" version (it sounded more attractive to my needs, and it cost less). I puzzled over why the Pro would have a shorter range.
I finally picked the Ubiquiti UAP-AC-LR, I hoping it would provide a strong, reliable WiFi signal. Its claim of a 600-foot range (for my 50-foot house) promised strength, while the commercial nature promised reliability. Its multi-character model number translates as follows:
UAP = Ubiquiti access point
AC = newest WiFi band it supports (a, b, g, n, and ac)
LR = long range
I ordered the UFO-looking device for CDN$129 from Amazon.ca with free one-week delivery and it arrived in a Prime-like time of the next business day. (I noticed then the list price rose to $131, perhaps reflecting that price changing tactic Amazon is being accused of.) The price was $170 at BestBuy.ca.
Commercial access points use PoE, which, when I came across it first, I nodded my head at knowingly, noting to self, "Yet another TLA [three-letter acronym] that means something to the network guys." Then I clued in that PoE was important to me, because it meant "power over ethernet." I panicked: did I have PoE?
It turns out it's a clever solution to providing power to network devices without needing to run two cables -- power and network -- through walls and ceilings. Ubiquiti provides the PoE adapter in the box. Excuse me: it's not an adapter; it's called an "injector". A regular power cable plugs into one end, and the box transforms the 110V to 24V. The other end has two ethernet plugs:
Incoming (LAN): one plug is for the network cable coming from your router or Internet modem.
Outgoing (PoE): the other plug is for the network cable going to the Ubiquiti access point; this cable carries the 24 volts and the data signal.
I was relieved: no special network cable is needed; in fact, Ubiquiti includes no network cables in the box, and just a short power cable. But attaching the network cable to the Ubiquiti is difficult, as the unit is round, the cable end is a long rectangle, and Ubiquiti squeezed the port into a tight location. Eventually I wormed it in.
In short, the unit is hooked up just like any other access point: by plugging a network cable into your router (or ISP-supplied modem). The only tricky part is where to locate the access point. The ideal location is in the center of the house, on the top floor. This is because the signal radiates like a sphere; having it in the basement loses some of the possible range. But I can't do that. Mine has to be in the basement, so I fitted it close to the ceiling, centered in the house as much as possible. In my wife's shoe closet, as it happens.
A mounting plate is included for wall and ceiling installation. Mine rests on the upper shoe shelf. Installation instructions are provided on a single sheet of paper printed in 6pt font (I figure), almost big enough to be legible.
There is no on-off button, just a reset hole. The unit turns on when the power is plugged in. You will experience panic, as the device does not react for nearly a minute. Then, finally, a circle of light begins to glow. (I had a bonus duration of panic, as I had not fully inserted the power plug.)
The device is configured through any computer connected to the network. (You don't attach a network cable directly to the access point to configure it, as with some other brands.) Software runs in a Web browser, and so works on any operating system. It has a ton of configuration and monitoring details, which quickly become overwhelming, and some functions are available only when you have other Ubiquiti gear.
Me, I was concerned only with a very few options:
- Setting a user id and password to access the configuration utility; Ubiquiti does not provide any defaults, thankfully, as vendor-provided ones are a security risk, such as the infamous 'admin' and 'blank'
- Specifying the SSID name and password for the access point; again, no default for greater security
- Turning on guest mode
- Moving the signal to a better, less congested channel
The first two were straight forward, although the software wanted yet a third set of uid and password for an account with Ubiquiti.
Guest mode is a nice addition. It has no password, so guests can access the Internet easily while visiting here. It provides access to only the Internet, with no access to the rest of my network and its computers. I could even set up "hotel mode," where guests are limited in the duration during which they have access, but I have no need for that.
This device broadcasts WiFi at two frequencies, which is standard these days for access points:
2.4HGz is the older, more common frequency, sometimes called G2 nowadays
5.0Ghz is the newer, faster frequency ("G5," not to be confused with 5G), which delivers data twice as fast as 2.4GHz, but has the drawback of a shorter range (due to the shorter wave length). Another drawback is that a surprising number of devices do not support 5GHz.
Among the myriad of options, I could not find where to change the channel number. By default, the WiFi signal is on channel 1, which is pretty crowded in any neighborhood. Moving it to an emptier channel allows the signal to run faster, without interference -- kind of like a football rush. At one point I needed to turn off the access point, and when I turned it back on the WiFi had moved to nearly-empty channel 8. So I suppose it figures it out itself; I could find no online help on this topic.
TIP: The Android app WiFi Analyzer is very helpful in seeing which channels are crowded and for monitoring signal strength in realtime.
Ubiquiti has an app that runs on Android and iOS devices, but it is in beta and so failed repeatedly on me. It has a much simplified interface, with just a sprinkling of options.
This one unit replaced an older WiFi access point in the closet, as well as the repeater I had elsewhere in the basement. It is strong enough to reach even my shed at the far side of the yard (where I use an aging Android as my boombox). I have not had the Ubiquiti unit long enough to confirm whether the signal is reliable. Guest mode is handy addition. The number of options is overwhelming, and so I hope the simple phone app gets working soon. The price is half of what I would pay for a strong consumer-style access point.