Wireless access points or mesh networking?
January 5, 2017 8:58 PM   Subscribe

Our house is not tremendously big, but is challenging to cover with wifi signal because it has plaster walls with metal underneath. Currently we have a router wired to two wireless access points, a setup which provides pretty good coverage. Our internet service supposedly runs at 1 gigabit per second, although we are told to realistically expect 40 MB. I'd like a router that has parental controls and wondering which way to go:

1. New traditional router with some level of parental controls, although they will probably not be as slick and easy to use as those of our beloved, defunct Skydog. Either keep the wireless access points we have (Cisco WAP4410N) or upgrade to WAPs that support the 802.11ac standard (worth it?). I've read a recommendation for home use of the enterprise Ubiquiti UniFi, but it looks like a chore for me to install and manage as a non-expert.

2. A mesh networking product such as Google Wifi or Luma. It doesn't look like these would take advantage of our existing wires for speed purposes, but maybe the benefits of mesh configuration make up for it? I think their user interfaces would be nicer. I really liked being able to change Skydog's settings on my phone while away from home and expect I could do that with these.

3. Something else.

The price of mesh networking seems to hover around $500 or a little less and that's okay but I wouldn't want to go much higher than that. The real objective is to get parental controls, but if sacrificing a nice user interface would mean everybody's internet experience was noticeably better, it'd be worth it. The aesthetics of the units are not a concern. The clients on the wifi network usually consist of one smart TV, 4 smartphones, 3 iPads, and 4 laptops. Advice?
posted by lakeroon to Technology (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I came across Eero from DaringFireball. From what I read, it looks like it covers your need. It's a mesh setup.

- uses ethernet, if you have it, for speed
- has some level of parental controls (controlling access times by user, not sure about content)
- configured from an app on your phone
- supports guest networks

They have a package of 3 units to cover a "normal" house at, you guessed it, $499. But you can buy them one or two at a time as well.
posted by michswiss at 9:09 PM on January 5, 2017

I recently acquired the Netgear Orbi based on this recommendation in the wirecutter and it provides excellent fast wifi across our whole apartment where our previous non-mesh router failed to do so (tested using fast.com)

It has parental controls via the Netgear Genie app but I have no idea if they are any good.
posted by simonw at 10:00 PM on January 5, 2017

Wire the APs to your new router with whatever parental controls you desire. If running actual Ethernet cable isn't easily possible, you can get 100+ Mbps using cable TV coax with MoCA bridges. (1.1 only does 125Mbps, but 2.0 is faster)

Unlike PNA over power lines or phone wires, MoCA bridges actually work reliably at the advertised speed.
posted by wierdo at 11:20 PM on January 5, 2017

The Ubiquiti UniFi stuff is pretty awesome but definitely not something that a "non-expert" should tackle unless you enjoy learning and getting your hands dirty. Their strategy revolves around having a software-based controller hosted on your network. You don't seem to have a candidate such as an always-on PC for that.

From a networking perspective, you have several problems that you're trying to solve. End user solutions typically try to solve several issues at a time, which usually means that there are compromises made. This is kind of the nature of the beast, alas.

If you already have some wireless coverage in the form of the Cisco's (which I'm not familiar with), your network design may already be a bit more "enlightened." Wireless access and wired distribution are separate but related problems. NAT (what people like to call "router") and parental controls are also separate but related problems. You can solve all of these problems in a single product, but you're compromising. Solving the problems separately is always more work, but also offers the possibility of picking better technology.

The difficulty with wifi is simply that the technology evolves, and every year or two there's a new crop of standards and devices. You probably don't want or need to upgrade unless your network is showing signs of stress, or other signs such as being not fast enough in actual use. Keeping your access points as a separate problem does mean that you have opportunities to upgrade the wireless separately, without worrying about re-solving the parental controls issue.

Likewise, the parental controls issue is constantly evolving, and having to swap out all your wireless "all-in-one" devices just to get better parental controls kinda sucks.

Are the current access points "fast enough" for the things you're doing?

For an area where the signal is weak, would adding another one of the existing access points (which appear to sell for about $20 used) be feasible?

The wifi mesh devices may struggle a bit in an environment with lots of shielding interference such as yours. A device that can optionally be wired like the Eero doesn't have that limitation, so IF you go that route, try to find something along those lines and wire them in.

As for the NAT router...

It isn't clear what you mean by "40MB". If you mean 40 megabytes per second, that works out to around 350 megabits per second. In general, wireless-N won't reliably hit those sorts of speeds - 100Mbps is pretty common, faster under good conditions isn't that hard. Multiple clients that are on separate access points are likely to be able to exceed that.

For parental controls, if you're looking for content-based controls, it may be worth looking at something like OpenDNS's parental controls offering as an equipment-free way to help with that. If you're looking to be able to authorize and deauthorize devices, say to limit time-of-day access to before bedtime, lots of products can do that. Ironically, you can probably find a cheap deal on a "home wifi router" that does basic filtering and just disable the wifi on it. Buying a NAT gateway without the wifi but with filtering options will probably be more expensive.
posted by jgreco at 3:54 AM on January 6, 2017

You have two different questions. First is how to improve wifi coverage. Second is how to do parental controls.

For the first - I just bought two Belkin Wifi Range Extenders and they seem to have fixed that problem in my house. No need to change anything else about your current home network or internet service. Setup takes 5mins max.

For the second - I used to use a filtering proxy called Diladele, which I liked a lot but was hard to maintain, especially for iOS clients. Now I use OpenDNS, which doesn't have all the features but it's free and takes zero maintenance, and the control is still effective.

Maybe there's some other product out there that answers both questions at once, but I don't see any need to spend 100s.
posted by rd45 at 4:38 AM on January 6, 2017

It may not be two totally different questions, in that there's some overlap in terms of what is available in the consumer product spectrum. It could be as many as four separate questions, but I would certainly agree that it deserves to be looked at as something that could be solved separately, even though some all-in-one solutions may exist.

Wifi range extenders may not work all that well with plaster/metal lath walls, especially as some metal lath is very effective at 2.4GHz absorption. This is the same general issue that means a wifi mesh solution may not be all that viable. The mesh may be able to adapt to the conditions, and my guess is that if you sprinkled them liberally around the house, you'd get coverage, but this is mostly due to the ability to automatically adapt. The wifi range extenders would need to be much more carefully placed and might be more frustrating. A wired mesh solution should have no problems, as long as you commit to placing an access point where needed.

It might also be worth seeing if there are any antenna options available for the Ciscos. Replacing antennas can result in better performance in some cases.

The current high end standard is 802.11ac Wave 2, but 802.11ax is coming quickly.
posted by jgreco at 6:15 AM on January 6, 2017

For wireless coverage, I went with the Ubiquiti Unifi series of access points (APs), specifically because I can roam between APs with the same SSID (Wireless network name) on WiFi calling on my phone and not drop the call.

You'll need a server you can run Java on, and there are complaints about using this hardware at enterprise scale because all the APs have to use the same channel for roaming to work and if you get a ton (tens to hundreds) of users on it you get channel congestion even when they're on separate APs, but for a people in a relatively small office or at home.

Wiring each of the access points is kind of a pain, but means that you're not getting all of the issues that happen with repeaters. And they're easy to mount, and can get power over their Ethernet cable (they use their own injectors, it's not standard PoE, alas), so they're easy to drop in the ceiling in as many rooms as you need.

They do require a server which you can run Java on for configuration (and changing the configuration).
posted by straw at 1:38 PM on January 6, 2017

Ubiquiti has a gadget called a Cloud Key which you can install instead of running its management software on a computer, but the power over ethernet requirement for Unifi access points might be a pain for you. (I just installed three AC Lite access points and failed to notice that when you buy the five pack it doesn't come with injectors, so I bought a PoE switch a little earlier than planned just so I could be done with everything instead of upgrading piecemeal).

But anyway: is it just your router you want to replace, or do you want to improve your wifi at the same time? If you're OK with the coverage you have from your existing setup and you just want a new router, just get a new router. If you want to manage your wireless network to limit hours or sites, then maybe it makes sense to install a mesh system. That said, if you have cabling already, you should be able to use it for backhaul with Eero, Orbi, and Google Wifi at least. Wired backhaul will always be faster than mesh (or dedicated radio) backhaul.

Ubiquiti stuff is as awesome as everybody says it is and it's price competitive with most of the fancy mesh gear, but if you don't want to deal with the management I can't say I blame you.
posted by fedward at 2:00 PM on January 6, 2017

The pricier Ubiquiti AP's actually do implement standards-based power-over-ethernet, and the less expensive units can be powered by a device such as the EdgeRouter-PoE, which is a very rugged device compared to most home gear. A PoE switch is an awesome way to go if you can justify it, but for a small deployment, the extra cost of the higher-end AP's and the PoE switch is probably a nonstarter.

I think what straw is referring to as "roaming" is zero-handoff, which is an old feature that is designed to make a bunch of UAP-Pro's look like a single wireless access point. This isn't a standards-compliant feature, and most gear these days isn't as sensitive to switching AP's. The downside to ZH is that all the AP's need to be on the same channel, which provides awesome coverage for a small number of devices, but in a dense or busy environment, cannot optimize for throughput on multiple channels. This isn't supported on the newer AC gear anyways, as far as I know, and the UAP-Pro is only up to -N anyways, which is where you are at now, so that wouldn't be a feature you'd get on a new Ubiquiti network deployment.
posted by jgreco at 3:13 PM on January 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for these thoughtful comments! Learning that the eero can be wired-in was hugely useful. I've since confirmed that Luma and Google Wifi also have Ethernet ports on every unit, so I have several choices.

(Yes, we have had a high-performing network for a long time thanks to the excellent work of Supercalibrations, a Twin Cities firm that I heartily recommend. Home networking isn't even their bread and butter and they did a wonderful job. I'll ask them to consult again if I have trouble with the new setup.)
posted by lakeroon at 8:58 AM on January 7, 2017

Response by poster: Just a followup for anyone who finds this via search: It turns out that Luma and Eero, at least, do not support PPPoE (point-to-point protocol over ethernet), which is a requirement of our CenturyLink fiber internet service. So if you're thinking in that direction, see whether they're compatible with your ISP.
posted by lakeroon at 7:28 AM on February 11, 2017

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