WiFi Woes…Plume to the Rescue!

by admin on Nov 15th in Uncategorized

As a company that frequently installs networks in homes, small businesses, churches, and schools, we often run into the issue of weak wifi signals, or ‘dead spots’.  In the past we have dealt with it in multiple ways.  We have used PowerLine (using a building’s electrical system to distribute data) adapters to get the network to another location, then setup an access point.  While this is a great way to get data to the far reaches of a building, there are two caveats…first, if the building has multiple electrical panels, the PowerLine adapters may not work (they have to be on the same panel, but not necessarily on the same circuit).  Second, using an access point requires setting up another SSID and passphrase.  Yes, you can use the same as other locations, but the ‘average’ access point will not ‘hand off’ from one signal to the next.  This feature is usually only found in higher end APs that cost way more than most are willing to spend in a home or small business.

Another way to deal with the dead spots is to use a ‘wifi extender’.  These are basically small access points that you plug into an outlet within range of your working wifi, it picks up the signal and sends it on its way…basically allowing the signal to ‘hop’ from router to extender to your device.  However, these devices also require an SSID, and don’t hand off the signal, either.

The supposed answer to this problem is something called a ‘mesh network’, which creates a net of wifi over a large area that utilizes a single SSID, and hands off as needed.  The market is currently blossoming with systems that provide a ‘mesh network’ for homes and small networks at a much more affordable cost.  However, affordable is still WAY more than the other options, but way less than the previously required enterprise level hardware.

My first dealings with the mesh network came when we needed to address an issue a client was having in their house where we had installed multiple access points, router, etc.  It was down more often than being up, we tried multiple brands of APs, re-wiring, using PowerLine adapters, etc…but still had issues.  As a last resort, we purchased a full set of Netgear’s new ‘Orbi’ units.  After a few minor glitches in the setup, it started working flawlessly.  In fact, it has now been in place for about six months, and it hasn’t produced a single service call or service outage.  The only problem is that the system with 3 units cost about $500 (probably coming down as there is more competition).

An issue we see with the mesh concept is if you have a specific router you want to use (due to features it contains) rather than the mesh network router.  For our company, this is a major problem, since we recommend having a router that has strong and flexible controls (see post on filtering routers).  However, we have found a model of the mesh concept that works with a router other than the one that is built into the units.  We are testing the ‘Plume‘ wifi network.  While the coverage PER unit isn’t as good as many of the competitors, the cost per unit is much cheaper (currently $179 for three units).  So far, it has been flawless in the setup and usage.  My only complaint at this point is that it requires either an Android or iOS device to do the configuration and setup.  Since we are a Windows only type shop, this is bothersome.  All devices should have the option of configuration/setup through a web browser.  We just bought a cheap Android tablet to do the setup.

The company even claims that it monitors your wifi signal usage to determine where more signal is required, etc.  The concept is called ‘adaptive networking’.  We are impressed at this point.  Check back to see if we change our minds…

 

Update – October 2018

We have had Plume installed now for nearly a year, and it is wonderful!  Signal strength has been improved on ALL floors in our house (four levels, one Plume Pod on each floor).  I have had to unplug/re-plug the main Pod (connected directly to the router) several times.  Now for the good news/bad news.  Bad news – Plume has gone to a subscription based model…$60/year or $200 lifetime.  This seemed odd since I’ve never seen a router/extender have a subscription.  However, the good news explains the bad news.  The good news is that the Plume app will now include parental and access controls!  This now ties into one of our major focuses at Mars Hill Data, that of providing safe internet access.

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