I’ve officially spent the better part of a month rebuilding my home network, following a gigabit internet upgrade in late June.
As someone who writes about networking for a living, you’d think I’d have a better grasp on it. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but in my defense, it’s not entirely my fault. Google is every bit to blame as is my hubris. No, not Google search or my inability to use it, Google WiFi.
You see, when we made the switch to fiber, I really wanted to keep our Google WiFi system. As mesh networking gear goes, it’s actually pretty good for the money and has served us well for the better part of two years.
The problem is our Google WiFi didn’t exactly play nice with our fiber to the home installation. So I guess CenturyLink is at least partially at fault for this too.
Honestly, at this point, I’m simply justifying the $400ish of enterprise networking gear I somehow convinced my fiancé we definitely needed.
Why not. Faster internet is better right? Well, sort of. More reliable internet trumps fast internet and speed was only part of the consideration.
When we moved into our place a year ago, I begrudgingly became a Comcast subscriber. CenturyLink’s gigabit internet service wasn’t available yet, and we really didn’t need anything that fast either.
Honestly, I’ve never needed much more than 100 Mb/s on the downstream, but I’ve often found myself cursing Comcast’s dinky 5 Mb/s upload cap.
Come spring, and with the onset of a global pandemic, we were suddenly working from home and unsurprisingly we started experiencing the occasional outage.
Since we were going to be working from home for the foreseeable future, and our contract with Comcast was set to expire the end of July, we made the switch without reservation.
Little did we know this upgrade would have us completely rebuilding our entire home network.
The install itself actually went pretty quickly and only required me to snake a fiber optic cable through my surprisingly clean crawlspace. I am happy to report I experienced exactly zero Indiana Jones moments while down there.
I only ran into trouble when I tried to plug our Google WiFi router into the modem — technically it’s an optical network terminal since we’re using fiber — only it wouldn’t connect.
An hour and a half of Googling later, I discovered the problem. For some inexplicable reason, CenturyLink thought it was a good idea to use both PPPoE — an authentication protocol which the Google WiFi supports — and VLAN tagging which it most certainly does not.
VLAN tagging is commonly used to virtually segregate traffic across a network. Devices configured with the right VLAN tags can see the traffic, while those that aren’t can’t.
While PPPoE authentication isn’t all that uncommon, especially among DSL providers, as far as I can tell CenturyLink is using VLAN tagging as a cash grab to force less technically-inclined customers to pay for their janky wireless router. I could be wrong, but I can’t think of a better reason for doing it this way.
A smart solution
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who’d run into this problem. Lots of Google WiFi users had discovered CenturyLink’s VLAN-tagging shenanigans. The good news, the fix was pretty simple. The bad news, it wasn’t free, and ultimately it only solved half the problem for us.
This trick can be used with any router that doesn’t support VLAN tagging, and involves placing a managed switch configured with the proper VLAN tags — CenturyLink uses 201 — between the router and modem.
From there, enter your PPPoE credentials into your router and everything should connect. You can even configure the other ports on the switch to use a different VLAN to expand the number of LAN ports available, but you will need to run another cable to the router’s LAN port.
While this technically did work, it revealed another problem. PPPoE support on the Google WiFi doesn’t appear to be hardware accelerated. This means the CPU has to handle the authentication in software, resulting in considerable overheads.
You probably wouldn’t notice on a slower connection, but at gigabit speeds, we experienced overheads of anywhere between 40% and 50%.
A faster router
The solution seemed obvious: if the Google WiFi wasn’t going to work, we were going to need a new router, but which one?
I could have easily spent a few hundred dollars on a fancy WiFi 6 router and called it a day, but let’s face it, most high-end wireless routers look like they belong in a low-budget Transformers movie. Seriously, can’t there be a high-end router that doesn’t look like an Alien face hugger?
Instead, I ended up going the enterprise route and picked up a Ubiquiti EdgeRouter Lite. The EdgeRouter line is actually targeted at wireless internet service providers, but at a little over $100 for a router capable of processing a million packets per second, it has become quite popular among enthusiasts.
Now, this isn’t your standard wireless router. In fact, it’s just a router. For wireless access, we’d need a dedicated wireless access point.
But since I really wanted to continue using our Google WiFi pucks for their mesh networking capabilities, we planned to use the EdgeRouter for VLAN tagging and PPPoE authentication. That way the Google WiFis could do what they do best: fill our house with that sweet, sweet WiFi goodness.
Double the NAT, Double the trouble
But nothing worth doing is easy. At least that’s what my mother would tell me when I didn’t want to do my math homework anymore.
And it wasn’t long after I had everything up and running that I discovered how annoying double NATs are. For those unfamiliar, NAT stands for network address translation, and it’s what routers are really good at. A double NAT happens when you plug a router into a router, and it can result in higher overheads, firewall conflicts and in our case some strange network instability.
Now to save you some time, I recently discovered the Google WiFi supports a bridge mode. Once enabled, NAT functionality is disabled, effectively turning it into an access point. You will lose out on the mesh networking capabilities along with some of the software-defined networking functions, but it will do the job in a pinch. To achieve this, open the Google WiFi app, navigate to settings, advanced networking, and set the networking mode to bridge.
Bring in the WAPs
At this point, I’d pretty much given up on the Google WiFi and decided to pick up a couple of used enterprise wireless access points — WAP or AP for short — on eBay.
We placed one access point in our living room and the second close to an exterior wall of my office. The first would provide wireless connectivity to most of the house, while the second was positioned to maximize backyard connectivity.
However, getting the access points dialed in took a few weeks of fine-tuning. Since we live across the street from a school with dozens of access points, interference was something we needed to take into consideration.
We also didn’t want to cause problems for our neighbors, many of whom are also working from home. This meant turning down the transmit power on the access points considerably.
Here’s how we configured our access points to provide high throughput while still being neighborly.
|AP 1||AP 2|
|Radio 1: 2.4 GHz||Radio 1: 2.4 GHz|
|Channel: 6 (Auto)||Channel: 1 (Auto)|
|Channel Width: 20 Mhz||Channel Width: 20 Mhz|
|Tx Power: 11 dB||Tx Power: 11 dB|
|Radio 2: 5GHz||Radio 2: 5GHz|
|Channel: 48||Channel: 153|
|Channel Width: 80 Mhz||Channel Width: 80 Mhz|
|Tx Power: 16 dB*||Tx Power: 16 dB|
By lowering the Tx power and using wide channel widths on the 5 GHz band, we were able to achieve high-speed connections while limiting our impact on our already crowded WiFi neighborhood.
Using my 2014 MacBook Pro connected to a 5 GHz connection with 80 MHz wide channels, I consistently achieved real-world upload and download speeds in excess of 600 Mb/s using Netflix’s Fast.com speed test. The best our Google WiFi routers had ever mustered was around 500 Mb/s, and that was with a single client connected.
This, however, is kind of a best-case scenario and assumes you’re connecting to an AP and device that support three spacial streams. Since most of our devices only support two streams, connectivity is limited to between 450 Mb/s and 550 Mb/s depending on range and interference. Still, that’s plenty fast for WiFi as far as I’m concerned.
More importantly, the access points have been rock solid, even when confronted with multiple Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or WebEx calls. My fiancé and I spend much of our week in meetings or on the phone, so reliable WiFi was an absolute must.
A word of caution
While this worked for us, I don’t recommend running off to eBay and picking up the cheapest enterprise access point you can find.
The tricky thing about old enterprise gear is it’s often tied to expensive software licenses. So while you can find used wireless access points for a few bucks on eBay, they may not work without expensive controller software. You can also run into weird registration issues if the access point hasn’t been disconnected from the previous owner’s controller. And don’t expect a lot of help from the manufacturer if you run into trouble.
If you do go down this road, make sure you do your research so you know what you’re getting into.
A much safer bet is to pick up a couple of Ubiquiti Unifi AC wireless access points. New, these can be had for as little as $80 or about $50 used on eBay. The important thing is the Unifi controller is free and runs just fine on a Raspberry Pi or in a virtual machine.
If you do decide to go with Unifi APs, I’d also recommend swapping the EdgeRouter Lite for Ubiquiti’s Unifi Security Gateway. Functionally, it’s the same as the EdgeRouter but is specifically designed to work in conjunction with the Unifi Controller and APs.
So, was it all worth it? Ah… that’s debatable.
As I mentioned earlier, I could have picked up a high-end WiFi 6 router for a few hundred bucks and called it a day. And that’s really my recommendation for anyone who runs into trouble while upgrading to a gigabit internet connection.
If you want the absolute greatest flexibility, are technically inclined, and you don’t mind spending a few weeks troubleshooting, going the enterprise route is an excellent option.
And since you’re unlikely to replace your router, switch and access points all at the same time, it could save you money in the long run. This was actually one of the reasons that I decided against going with a more traditional wireless router.
Perhaps the biggest pay off to this upgrade has been the WiFi performance. Even though our access points only support the older 802.11 AC wireless standard, they consistently provide better coverage and speeds than our Google WiFi mesh network ever had. And since both were hardwired to a power over Ethernet (PoE) switch, there was only one wire needed for power and connectivity. Best of all, they look less like Alien face huggers and more like big smoke detectors.
All in all, I’m pleased with our network upgrade, even if it turned into a month-long headache.
And for anyone wondering, my Fiancé hasn’t called off the wedding.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below:
- Have you embarked on a network upgrade recently?
- Did you have any problems with your gigabit internet upgrade?
- Which do you prefer? The simplicity of an all-in-one wireless router or dedicated routers, switches and APs.
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