Point to Point Wireless with LiteBeam

From time to time, we get asked a question like “Hey, I need to get signal to a building that’s not part of our regular building. Can you do that?” and the answer is usually, “Sure, we could bury a fiber, or fly a cable,” mostly because we haven’t felt the loss in speed and signal makes sense. We recently had a situation that called out for a wireless point to point link, though, and that got us thinking.

Our client took a new space on an upper floor of a warehouse building, across the loading dock from their storage space. They have a staff of two or three on the far side of the gap, and they wanted to extend their current connection to this space without paying for a second internet connection, relying on cellular hotspots, and the building is such that a flown cable or a trenched fiber was impractical.

They’re a Ubiquiti shop, and so we looked at our options. There are the NanoStation and NanoBeam options, but our reseller house of choice was badly backordered, so we ended up with a LiteBeam AC Gen2 setup. I think, given what we found regarding our mounting situation, it’s fortunate we ended up with the antenna geometry and power pairing that was present in the LiteBeam.

The LiteBeam gear is powered by 24V passive injectors, or, if your switch is capable, it can take 24V passive POE directly off a switch. Most places aren’t going to have switches capable of 24V power, and it’s a real bummer that’s what this requires. I’m still scratching my head why this won’t just take standard 802.3af.

When we toured the space, the client suggested that we could mount the warehouse dish on the exterior of the building and “easily” plumb the cable into their space. On the office side, we could position the dish in the north-facing window. There was no roof access, and definitely no exterior penetrations permitted in their space. So through the looking glass we went.

The LiteBeam antennas are parabolic reflector dishes approximately 14″ wide by 10″ tall by 10″ deep. They come with adjustable mounting equipment, including a super helpful hoseclamp mount.

Specifications of the LiteBeam Gen2

Assembly is fairly rapid. The dish ships in three panels which slot together nicely, then screwed together, the feed receiver attaches via tension tab mounts, and the antenna feed snaps into place. From there, you can attach the elevation and azimuth mounts, and which then attach to the pole mount kit.

But, what if we don’t have a pole to mount to?

It was off to the hardware store to talk to my friend neighborhood Annie’s Ace Hardware folks about ways to handle this. What we settled on was a set of galvanized flanges and pipe joints, which easily allowed us to mount an elbowed pipe to the vertical wall of the warehouse, and an offset pipe mounted to a piece of 2×4 with lag bolts for screwing into the window frame. This gave us superb stability at a cost of less than $50.

Two LiteBeam dishes with attached mounting kits, resting on a dining room table. A LiteBeam dish hanging from a pipe mount beneath a 2x4

Having mounted the office side, we went to mount the warehouse side. After several broken concrete anchors, and a trip for a bigger drill and better anchors, and a lot of creative cabling, we were able to get the second dish properly mounted. Time had come to setup and test.

Now, we’d laid the groundwork ahead of time, and everything had been firmware updated and tested and prepared from inside the warm office, before heading out into the cold. We knew these things should easily sync up, we just had to get there, and get the dishes aligned.

LiteBeam Wireless Link mounted in its final position

If we were smart, I’d have picked up a green laser pointer to help with the alignment of the two dishes, but Mark I Eyeball still does the job pretty well. On our first attempt we got the wireless link close enough to register without having to futz with the positioning, we’d gotten close enough for a functioning link:

An image from the setup up showing functional links

The patient lives! We were getting about 20Mbps through the link, on a connection that is often twenty times that fast, so we knew we had work to do. We were able to get the signal up to 40dB of signal, and that was about as good as we could get. With the LiteBeam good for kilometers, we knew we should be doing better at a distance of under 200 feet.

To test our theory, we unmounted the dish and stood outside with it, and sure enough, signal strength spiked back up to the top of the range. The window’s coating was messing with our signal. There was, unfortunately, no fix for that, as glaziers weren’t in the budget for the move, but we did get service on the far side of the link up to 50Mbps on our speed test, more than adequate for a staff of two primarily doing light streaming and office work.

Lessons Learned:

Building penetrations are never as easy as they say they are.

Window glass can be a tougher barrier to signal than you’d think.

A laser sight of some sort is required for point to point wireless.

Sometimes $50 at the hardware store is going to be plenty for creative mounting solutions.

The LiteBeam Gear is pretty awesome, but you need 24V Passive POE to power it, which is not awesome.