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Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Bringing The Internet To A Mesh Network

A mesh network allows network devices to extend range to end user devices over a greater area and create a better user experience compared to using network bridges or repeaters.

Super old Linksys WRT-54 series wireless routers are well known for being re-purposed as repeaters and bridges and much lower bandwidth mesh networking. Newer Ubiquiti Networks equipment offers additional functions that create even wider area high speed networks that leverage mesh technology plus easier ability to offer advertised services to users. More about that later....

Avoid older Linksys gear and purchase Ubiquiti equipment instead. Used basic "mesh" capable/compatible Linksys routers can be had for as low as $5-10/each but do not offer the features a modern person would prefer. 

The Linksys WRT-54 series of routers were first introduced 15+ years ago and there have been many versions out since.  Alternate firmware to provide more functionality has been around a long time with some of the most popular being Tomato Firmware and DD-WRT Firmware.

Upgrading Linksys to add mesh networking?

Up until a few years ago, it was possible to add mesh networking capability to these older Linksys routers, but struggled to keep up with more modern features. A lack of on-board memory limited more advanced features from being added in the firmware for mesh options such as AREDN.

The other major reason is older Wi-Fi standards such as 802.11b and 802.11g are just not speedy enough and efficient to allow for proper mesh networking to work well.  It is advised for anyone looking to experiment with mesh networking, to ignore older Linksys equipment and instead focus on Ubiquiti branded equipment instead easily sourced from E-Bay or local businesses upgrading to even newer equipment.

Ubiquiti Equipment = Better for Mesh Networking

Ubiquiti branded equipment offers 802.11n standards plus higher power output, which means greater range and speed.   Another benefit based on the chip-set used in Ubiquiti devices such as the AirRouter, Bullet, Nano, etc is the ability to choose additional channels below the standard 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi channels available to consumers.  These two other channels are part of the amateur radio only spectrum from 2.397 to 2.407 GHz. Standard Wi-Fi runs from 2.412 to 2.437 GHz.  The benefit of this spectrum is less users which means less noise/interference and slightly better range and signal quality.

Ubiquiti AirRouter HP model capable of running AREDN
mesh with other enhancements for under $50.

Mesh Networking

There is more background on mesh networking here on HVDN as well as the AREDN site.

An overlooked feature when talking about mesh sometimes is the ability to offer services or "apps" over a mesh network that are not reliant upon having access to the internet.  Having a mesh network to share just internet between different different nodes (mesh routers) and then to end use devices (cell phones) is only useful if there is internet to access information.  Without the internet, you can not do much unless there are services attached to the mesh network.

Services can be things like:

  • Cameras
  • Weather stations
  • Storage Devices (Network hard drive for file hosting)
  • Longer range communication devices (900 MHz radios, amateur repeaters, etc)
  • Informational broadcast receivers (FM, Weather, Satellite, etc)
  • Voice communications (VoIP phone)
  • Chat and file share (Text messaging, IRC and other messaging/"snapchat" sort of applications)

HVDN Mesh Chat

The HVDN offers a few services to members of HVDN, including "mesh chat" which is a messaging platform that lets users create channels and communicate across the mesh network wirelessly.

The application or "advertised service" also ties in for internet users to communicate across the mesh network as well from anywhere.

In providing a gateway from the internet into the mesh chat application will help show how useful this will be and allow HVDN to build out a wider area "wireless" component of the mesh network.

This will then to allow both internet in/out communication plus wide range communication capability should the internet not be available in the Hudson Valley.

The Major Challenge

Since mesh chat does transmit wirelessly on amateur radio spectrum, any text sent is considered a transmission and only licensed amateur radio operators can use this system.   If there was sufficient interest, a non-amateur mesh network can be set up the same way and use standard Wi-Fi channels.

Mesh chat user interface available over the internet as well as local "wireless" connection.

There are multiple security mechanisms in place to ensure that only licensed amateur radio operators use this current system, including password protection and self-identification using your amateur radio call sign.

If you would like the password to use the system, please consider joining HVDN.  Membership is free for the first year for all licensed amateur radio operators.

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