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.

UniFi CloudKey Basic Setup

After the last post, my friend Thomas Fuchs asked me if I might do a little service journalism:

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So I toddled off to Amazon, and picked up a UniFi CloudKey ($79 or so), and a UniFi PRO AC access point ($130 or so) for delivery. I already have a router here at the house (Kerio Control Box, and a small POE Switch (Netgear GS110TP, $110 today). I won’t be covering the Ubiquiti Security Appliance ($110) or Ubiquiti 8-port UniFi Switch ($200) setup in this piece, though I’ll be ordering ones to play with for a future piece.

Ubiquiti CloudKey and UAC Pro

Ubiquiti CloudKey and UAC Pro

Why a CloudKey At All?

Ubiquiti Networks are designed to work with a controller of some kind. This can be a downloaded application that runs on a computer you already have, or be configured to run on an Amazon Web Services t2.micro instance (free for a year, $150/yr after that), but the easiest way to have a small dedicated appliance that’s ready to go at the first moment is the CloudKey, a small appliance, slightly longer, but slightly narrower, than a Raspberry Pi.

The CloudKey is your dedicated controller for your network, be it just an AP, or an AP and a switch, or a couple APs, a switch or two, and a security gateway.

What’s Included

Since Amazon is the world’s most efficient shipping operation, everything showed up in one medium-sized box. The Cloud Key and the PRO AC each come with (almost) everything you need to make this all go.

CloudKey

  • CloudKey Appliance
  • Ethernet Cable
  • Memory Card

UAC Pro

  • UAC Pro AP
  • Mounting Kit
  • POE Injector
  • Cover

This is almost everything you need to make a go of it. What’s missing? Well, if you lack a POE switch, you need a 5V/1A Micro USB power source for the CloudKey. And, for the UAC Pro, you’re going to need one Ethernet cable if you have a POE switch, and two if you just have a standard switch. So, plan ahead, and if you’re not using a POE switch, stock your supply kit accordingly.

Setup is a two-part process: CloudKey first, then Network.

CloudKey Setup

Open the box, and you’ll see there’s three things in there, save the manual: The appliance itself, a stubby 6″ Ethernet cable, and a Micro SD card.

Slide the Micro SD card into the rear of the device, taking careful note of the pictogram on the device to line it up properly. Once you’ve got the card in place, plug in the ethernet cable to the device, then into your switch. If you’re flying without a POE switch, plug in the Micro USB cable.

This will boot the device, and you’ll see a white light on the center of the CloudKey as it starts up.

The next step requires access to your router, or the installation of their Device Discovery Tool. Once you’ve determined the IP address of your CloudKey, visit that address in a browser. They recommend Google Chrome, or Mozilla Firefox, but my experience says Safari for macOS and iOS both work just fine.

CloudKey Initial Login Screen

CloudKey Initial Login Screen

This is the initial screen for the CloudKey. We’re going to start on the bottom half, Configure Your UniFi CloudKey.

The CloudKey will walk you through initial setup. You login with the ubnt : root combination of username and password, and it will take you through the rest of the easy steps where you set your locality, an administrator password, and the rest. Once you’ve gotten to the main interface, you’ll want to check to make sure that your CloudKey is up to date. Mine shipped with 0.4.3, and 0.5.5 is current as of the authoring of this post.

UBNT CloudKey Interface

UBNT CloudKey Interface

I found that once I upgraded the firmware, I still got a “Hey, turn the device back on!” message, for the first two refreshes of the admin page. That did go away eventually.

Ubiquiti Network Setup

Once you’ve got a password for the CloudKey and it’s been setup and provisioned, it’s time to start working on the network itself. Plugin the UAC Pro if you haven’t already, and make sure the LED in the main ring activates.

Go back to the CloudKey address, and this time, instead of setting up the CloudKey, you’re going to want to setup the Network itself, the top option.

First up, Location & Timezone. This one’s easy.

Initial Ubiquiti Setup Screen

Initial Ubiquiti Setup Screen

You’ll now see the UAC Pro and you’ll want to continue. Check the box next to your AP, and click Next.

Ubiquiti Device Setup

Ubiquiti Device Setup

Here’s where you setup your initial network name (the Secure SSID) and password (the Security Key) for your Wi-Fi network.

Configure SSID

Configure SSID

Then setup your Controller username (different from the CloudKey admin!) and password.

Controller Access Setup

Controller Access Setup

Last up, you have to setup your Ubiquiti account. If you haven’t yet, you can setup a Ubiquiti account before starting, otherwise, it’ll guide you through that process as well. This is what you can tie your whole chain together with – Security Appliance, Switches, APs and CloudKey.

That’s the basics of the wireless network configuration. There’s more control available, though. By default, the UAC Pro uses 20MHz channels in 2.4GHz and 40MHz channels in 5GHz. The sidebar of the main controller view will let you alter the radio controls of the APs. Select the Device, and click the Configuration heading.

Device Configuration Detail

Device Configuration Detail

Here, you can select the channelization of each radio, as well as the channel width and broadcasting power. You can enforce Airtime Fairness, if you’re worried about device dominance, or use Band Steering to force your devices to use 5GHz as much as possible. You can also configure your device’s IP information here, give the AP a specific name.

You can also setup basic maps of your APs using the Maps section and blueprints of your space. This will, if you have multiple APs, let you triangulate the location of devices, as well as map coverage areas and guesstimate signal strengths based on readings from each location. While no substitute for a proper survey, it’s a pretty good guess for getting started.

Next time: Setting up the Security Appliance and integrating the two.