Georgetown Cabins WiFi
- Date: November, 2010
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About two years ago, when I did the initial HugesNet install out at Georgetown Cabins (in Mimbres, NM), the client had wanted to provide WiFi access to a series of cabins over an area of about 200m2. We looked into doing a wireless bridge solution with a series of access points, but the price quickly crossed the $10,000 mark and was deemed not-feasible. We elected instead to install a single high gain 802.11g amplifier and antenna from RadioLabs. While this solution provided (intermittent) wireless to four out of the six cabins, it was by no means ideal.
I was asked this year to do a reassessment of the wireless technologies available, to determine if we could improve coverage and throughput of the existing system. And I discovered AyrMesh.
The AyrMesh Hub, by AyrStone Productivity, was released just a couple of months ago— it’s targeted at the agricultural sector (remote monitoring of farm equipment, etc.), so it lacks some of the features that enterprise-level meshing systems offer (bandwidth monitoring, load balancing, advanced diagnostics). I also suspect it may not provide the throughput needed to handle larger installations with 50+ users, but working with a HughesNet connection that only offers 1mbps to begin with, the AyrMesh was perfect. And, at $299.95 (inc. shipping), it hands-down beats the next product we were looking at: the Cisco Clean Air Antenna, $8,097.61 for a pack of ten.
I ordered three of the units, and had them on my desk three days later:
I had included four days in my estimate to figure out, configure, mount, and optimize the wireless network. We were able to get a working wireless setup with two nodes in just a couple of hours, and I returned the next morning to set up the third hub and weatherproof everything. We finished the install on budget and a week ahead of schedule.
AyrStone takes an interesting approach to system management, which I was skeptical of at first, but I think it ended up saving me a lot of time and frustration in the end.
A user creates an account at www.ayrmesh.com, where they log in and add the MAC address of one of their hubs to the account. Once the hub is connected to the internet, it will “check in” every 5-10 minutes or so with the AyrMesh servers, and appear on a list of configured hubs (see right).
Once a remote hub has been added to the system (by adding the MAC on the website and leaving the hub plugged into the internet for 5 minutes or so), the hub can be placed anywhere within range of the gateway hub and it will automatically configure itself as a “remote,” and connect to the gateway. This means you don’t (and can’t!) go to a local IP for each hub and configure them— the hubs decide which DHCP scheme they’re going to use, and how they’ll handle clients. We elected to use the “network isolation” option (which prevents connected users from accessing the shared files of other connected users, and limits each user to 1mbps): this option is set on ayrmesh.com, and then the configuration gets passed to the hubs by the server. It really works.
Little red light…
I only had one problem with the setup, and that involved the status lights on the first remote hub I activated. The hub was placed high on the wall of a building, about 200 feet (line of sight) from the primary hub. The hub registered and checked in on ayrmesh.com, but the signal status light on the hub only showed one bar of signal. I plugged a laptop into the LAN port on the power inserter (a great feature for troubleshooting), and ran a speed test. I found that I was getting the same speed and ping that I had been getting off the primary hub— still, the red light was troubling. It was getting dark so I went home for the day.
I shot off an email to AyrStone support, and got a reply within just a few hours from the company’s president himself, Bill Moffitt. He provided some great diagnostic information, and said that he had seen that problem before, and usually it would resolve itself within a few minutes. He also mentioned that he had experienced cases where hubs placed too close to each other would report weak signal, “they are yelling at each other so loudly that they can’t hear.”
Diagnostics and Optimizing
I returned the next morning, and the hub still only had the one red light lit. I put it out of my mind and installed the third hub, further up the hillside through the trees. About five minutes after it had connected the third had all four signal lights lit. I then went back down to the second one, and it too had all signal lights lit. Not sure what fixed it, but it seemed like something to do with that third hub being present.
For testing and optimizing the setup, I elected to try Ekahau’s HeatMapper software— Windows only (so I had to wrestle with Bootcamp for 3 hours to get it to work), and limited to 15 minutes of sampling, but it worked out very well for what I needed.
You load a map into HeatMapper (I had to draw one in Illustrator, but a blueprint or topo would have been ideal), and click on your current location. As you walk around the area, continue to click on your current location… I was sampling every five feet or so. Once you’re done walking around, right click and HeatMapper will generate a heat map of the area. Screenshot it quickly to save— after fifteen minutes the points will begin disappearing.
You can see, at right, the two heatmaps I took: the first is with two hubs active, the second is with all three.
In the End
In the end things couldn’t have gone better. We finished the project on budget, ahead of schedule, and had provided greater coverage than I’d originally estimated. I was able to sit at the kitchen table of the most remote cabin and place a voice/video call over Skype without any connection issues. I’m looking forward to being able to do more of these setups in the future.