So, thought this might be of interest to you all, as suggested by Felix from BigPipe.
Bit of Background
I used to live in central Wellington where I had ADSL2 at about 25mb ish connection speeds. Fibre wasn’t available in my apartment block, but I was happy with that speed… ish… I always wanted more but couldn’t quite get it.
My partner and I bought a rural property in the Upper Hutt Region about 3 years ago. Being our first home together, we were understandably excited. We hastily moved in and got BigPipe to port our ADSL connection over to the new house. To my horror, the best connection speeds possible was <0.5mb and after some investigation work with the BigPipe Support staff (who were really helpful btw), Chorus suggested, based on the maps and their information at hand, that they were surprised we even had a connection at all and should be thankful for that!
Working in IT and being a reasonably keen online gamer, this wouldn’t do. So, the quest for decent internet began!
Discussing my options with some friends in Spark, Chorus had declared they were not going to upgrade the exchanges in the area, nor would they ever run fibre up the street regardless of the fact there are 87 registered businesses and about 300 homes up here (minor details apparently and to be fair the road is about 30 odd km long…). We (the neighbourhood) even petitioned the local MP to help at least get the cabinets upgraded, which turned out to be a fruitless endeavour.
In the end, we decided to look at 4G as an alternative. Satellite was ruled out quickly due to high cost and more importantly, high latency. As with everything on this property, nothing seemed to be easy; 4G at the house was terrain shielded from the tower and even with a x-pol directional antenna, max speeds were around 4 - 5mb. Getting better but still not cool.
Being a lifestyle property in a hilly area, the property extends up a fairly reasonable hill extending from 170m altitude at the road to about 537m. I decided to carry out 4G site surveys on the back of the quad bike, headed up and found a spot only 200m (as the crow flys) from the house that has full signal strength to the cell towers and full LOS to the house. Great!
The Relay Tower V1
I decided to build a 2.4ghz PtP relay tower with 4G as the backhaul link. The site was powered by two 80w solar panels, 2 x 40amp hr 12v batteries in 12v configuration, which had a Sierra Wireless MP70 vehicle modem which acted as the router/firewall attached to them. Speeds where around 50 - 60mb depending on the cell gods at the time. This was AWESOME (compared to what we had…).
But there’s a catch with 4G. One I knew about but conveniently disregarded due to the excitement of decent internet again - finally downloading game updates, discovering Netflix and rediscovering the joys of HD YouTube…
The dreaded DATA CAP.
Within 3 months, the speed was like crack, however along came that first month in which we hit the cap and were reminded that life was not that flash at rural properties when it comes to the Internet. We downloaded (via Netflix, steam and god knows what else) ~450GB over a single month with a 120gb data cap. This was not our finest hour…
We needed an unlimited data cap at max speeds.
Concept PtP and PtMP using Ubiquiti Gear.
As luck would have it, the view from the relay tower, up from the house, we can see Upper Hutt. This gave me hope, we can see all the people that have fibre at around ~8km away LoS. There must be a way.
Asking around I found someone on the opposite side of Upper Hutt on the Hills who had fibre already terminated in their house, and more importantly, had LoS to my relay tower.
To add to the requirement for internet, my parents had purchased the house next door to us about 6 months ago and they needed an Internet connection as well.
The plan was to terminate fibre at this guy’s house, then fire it via a PtP directional 5.8ghz range Wifi 8.8km to the Relay Tower, then rebroadcast to the two houses via a 120-degree sector PtMP 5.8ghz connection.
We chose to use Ubiquiti all the way as my experience with their Unifi products has only being positive and the cost was reasonable.
So, we chose the following products to put a link in place.
- Ubiquiti USG https://www.gowifi.co.nz/routers/usg.html .
- Ubiquiti Litebeam AC GEN2 https://www.gowifi.co.nz/wireless/lbe-5ac-gen2.html
- Ubiquiti Litebeam AC 120 Degree Sector Radio https://www.gowifi.co.nz/wireless/lbe-5ac-16-120.html ; and
- Ubiquiti Unifi AP Pros for the houses https://www.gowifi.co.nz/wireless-access-points/uap-ac-pro.html
- Ubiquiti Cloud Controller and the new Ubiquiti Network Management Server (UNMS) running on an Ubuntu Server hosted in MS Azure Cloud to control and manage the entire network. More info here https://www.ubnt.com/software/
Here’s the proposed network topology.
Here is the LoS Profile according to airlink.ubnt.com
The Relay Tower V2
The relay tower is basically a 2.4mx200x200 H5 Pole as the Mast Base, anchored in the ground with about 75kg of concrete and steel concrete anchors. During the upgrade I installed a 40mm galv steel pipe acting as actual mast with wire stays welded mid-way up (previous pole was a 15mm galv pipe with no stays attached). The new pole is attached to the base via two 12mm thick galv steel plates welded to the pole and bolted to the base using 2 x M12 250mm bolts. There is some green anti-rust paint covering the welds to protect them.
The Ubiquiti equipment is all 24v PoE so a new single 270w 24v solar panel was acquired. It also has two new 12v 120amphr AGM batteries wired for 24v. The calculations I did with Reid Technologies in Auckland worked out it could last about 2 or 3 days without sunlight so it’s overkill but it gives me room to add things like a LoRaWAN system later if I wanted to.
The housing for the batteries and systems are two ex-army 50cal ammo tins, with a pipe welded between them for airflow. These tins are attached to the mast/solar frame to add weight to it and stop it flying away. A 12v digital fan controller monitors the temps inside the ammo tins which turns a fan on when the temp hits 30 degrees, keeping everything nice and cool. The fan controller has a step-down convertor from 24v to 12v too. The fan intake and outflow are dust filtered and have RF shielding over top, mainly to stop bugs from getting in it but does reduce any residual noise to the environment from the solar controller which may(?) cause interference… but let’s be real, its mainly for the bugs... The battery boxes are then covered with a plywood box to stop the sun from hitting the metal and cooking everything as well as adding a second protection layer from the elements.
To power the radios, I used two gigabit passive PoE injectors, which have been patched together with ethernet, so no switch required. https://www.gowifi.co.nz/power/apoe03g.html
So far, the wind loading on the site hasn’t been too extreme (compared to what we can get), I believe its survived about 120kmph winds thus far. The concrete is dug into clay rock (which required a jack hammer to “dig” the hole) and, coupled with the weight of the batteries attached to the frame, I’m not expecting to see it go anywhere anytime soon.
On the mast itself, I mounted the 120-degree PtMP sector antenna up high, as it can handle a little vibration, however the PtP firing over 8km is mounted low to give the maximum stability. It also made it a lot easier to sight the antenna in, as I could reach it without a ladder. In the recent high winds, I could not see any movement on the antenna at all so think its solid. I’ve used Ubiquiti outdoor CAT6 STP for the cabling as well.
All up, we have spent around $2400 so far on the upgrade to the relay tower and all the radios required. So not bad considering what it could have been.
The REAL QUESTION: Was it worth it????
So all the radios are advertised to reach 450+ Mbps and keeping in mind the alignment, I don't believe, is quite right yet, so I think its only running at 60 - 75% capacity. Here is what we actually achieved:
Link Speed Tests Between Fibre Termination Point and Relay Tower
Current Fibre connection from BigPipe is only 200Mbps currently, with a speedtest of about 189Mbps at the firewall.
Speedtest.net results from the house on the other side of the link to the fibre.
And downloading a random game from Steam
So in Summary, YES VERY MUCH WORTH IT.
If we wanted to up the speed, the radios will need to be changed to get a better throughput. In which case I would consider looking at the Ubiquiti airFiber 5 radios https://www.ubnt.com/airfiber/airfiber5/ which can get speeds of 1.2Gbps. However, at approx. $1300 an end, and realising that they are 48v PoE meaning more batteries, solar panels and a 48v charge controller…. I am going to have to gain some serious (read not achievable) brownie points with the Mrs to let me do that or win Lotto… either way, I think I have the best possible connection I can get with the money we have invested currently.
Lessons Learned (well kinda)
For anyone wanting to do something similar, here are some lessons I learned along the way…
- Antenna Masts need to be insanely stable for the PtP link. The longer the distance, the more stable the antennas MUST be. 1 degree of movement can put you off tens to thousands of metres at the other end depending on distance! Wind vibration is a pain, so engineer it well.
- Ubiquiti gear is SUPER easy to setup and using things such as Constellation Maps is ACTUALLY helpful so read up on wtf they are if you don’t know! I didn’t know until I needed to figure out what end was affected by the wind!
- Don’t over think the network topology, think security yes but don’t go nuts on separate networks for everything as it makes it really hard to diagnose problems… of course if you are a keen network engineer or a person with way too much time on your hands, go nuts.
- Do not underestimate the total cost of the setup. I budgeted $2000, in the end some things were cheaper but others like the MTTP Solar controller where way more expensive than expected.
- With saying that, go MTTP instead of PVM for the solar controller. You’ll get longer battery life saving you in the long run. Just make sure you do the power budget appropriately so you have room to move if you choose to add kit later or we have a really bad winter.
- Vegetation likes to grow around your solar panel, particularly if it’s in the bush… This sounds obvious but after a few months if you get random issues like power problems or a decrease in speed, it’s worth going to the relay station and checking the vegetation and cleaning the panel.
- VISUALLY CHECK LOS BEFORE YOU BUILD AND TERMINATE ANYTHING! Seriously, do not solely rely on tools such as airlink.ubnt.com, although they are super helpful. Check the visual line of sight before you build. On our first attempt at the backhaul link, we discovered 20 odd 40-50m high Pine trees in the way! Would have been a great shot otherwise!
- Pine Tree Needles are the perfect length to really stuff up your wifi link particularly when wet… They are the right wavelength to wipe out your link so AVOID PINE TREES IF POSSIBLE.
- Ubiquiti radios in AP mode have a feature called AirMagic. This is your friend when selecting the right freq at the right channel width to ensure maximum data rates and more importantly stability of the link. Going to a thinner channel may mean your throughput is actually better based on a more stable link. Just make sure your receiving station is set to receive what ever channel width you choose!
- Ubiquiti also has a feature which allows you to TEST a configuration. So, once you have the link established and aligned right, you can make small changes and test them. If the link doesn’t come back after 120 seconds then it reverts back. SUPER handy!
- Aligning antennas takes longer the further the endpoints are from each other. Don’t think you can achieve it in 10mins for an 8km shot unless your either lucky or just amazing at aligning things you can barely see with bino’s. This process turned out to be really painful, but good communication between the endpoints is key. And only one side adjust at a time!
- Think through the remote management of all the kit before you go buying it. The cloud controller and Ubiquiti Network Management Server (UNMS) has made life soooooo much easier including firmware updates.
- Think about the environment of where your kit is going to be put. The Ubiquiti USG at our first endpoint for example was in a metal uninsulated shed. We discovered that the USG has NO temperature sensor so could not notify us of heat issues. You need the USG Pro for that feature!
- Lastly, BigPipe have been awesome to deal with. Recommend them.