Upgrading my home network: part 1

Introduction

In part 1 of this article, I give a little background of how my home network has previously been set up. In part 2, I go through the plan of upgrading my home network and how that plan was implemented.

Background

I’ve lived in my current house for six years. It’s an old farmhouse out in the country and my wife and I fell in love with it as soon as we saw it. I had asked the previous owner if she could get ADSL and she reported she hadn’t signed up but was under the impression it was available. Upon moving in, I signed up with an ISP who thought it should be possible, but alas upon installation of the router and filters, it wasnt to be. I had British Telecom engineers out to my house, their Higher Level Complaints team on the phone frequently but it just boiled down to me being too far from the exchange. This was rubbed in further by houses on each side only a 1/2 mile away that enjoyed ADSL Internet access. BT’s line routing policy meant I was stuck.

So I used dial up for about a year and nearly went insane due to having to take this step back to the (1st world) dark ages. Migrating 750 MS Exchange users to a new domain via Powershell over a high latency\low bandwidth dial up VPN connection is about as much fun as sticking pins in my eyes. On top of the weekend overtime I was putting in, I was also on the on-call rota for one week in six. More often than not, I’d find myself driving around to my parents who live a couple of miles away to use their broadband if I thought the job would take more than 15 minutes. RDP over dial up is appalling more often than not. When you need to RDP on to your jump box via VPN to then RDP on the customer’s jump box to then RDP on to the server in question (I love customer’s requirements), a five minute job could literally take well over an hour.

Funding

I then heard about the Scottish Government stumping up a paltry £3.5M to fund it’s Broadband Outreach programme, to bring broadband to those that were currently unable to receive it for whatever reason. Enter me and about 10 neighbours of mine. I jumped at the chance to be our ‘cluster’s’ front man and was soon dismayed to find out that the final solution would be two way satellite, provided by Avanti who at the time didn’t have a great reputation. The fact that I spent every day under contract with them wishing I had an alternative should clarify if that reputation was founded or not. Quite frankly, they were appalling. The dish was almost the size of Jodrell Bank. The modem was the size of a DVD player and it had two thick strands of coaxial cable running to it via a hole in the wall. On a good day, the latency was 750ms. On a bad day, it simply didn’t work. It cost about £45 a month for a 2Mb\s connection which thankfully, my company stumped up the lion’s share. Something had to be done.

3G alternatives

I had tried a number of different 3G mobile dongles from T-Mobile, Orange and Vodafone and all were worse than the satellite. Even walking around the house outside with my laptop made little difference. My house has 12-18″ thick walls in places so I was still willing to have something mounted outside with a lead coming back in. After about 3 years of putting up with the satellite, I decided to look at the problem again, this time reviewing 3’s website, another mobile provider who were one of the first to market with 3G in the UK. I checked their site which claimed I could get 3G at my postcode. I decided to give their PAYG package a ‘low risk’ try out. When I got the dongle home to test, I got the same lame connection. But when I walked around the house with this one, I would find some sweet spots where the latency dropped to 70ms and I could get a solid 1Mb\s up and down speed! This was massive progress, despite some of my colleagues from the big smoke advising me their home connection had just been upgraded to 100Mb\s. I did a good selection of testing, including my work VPN, YouTube, general browsing and a long lost art for me…online gaming using Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. All passed with flying colours and I signed up for a contract.

Internal network

It is worth pointing out at this stage that my internal network was crappy too. Those hefty walls are great at stopping WiFi as much as 3G signals. When I got the MiFi device (a 3G modem and WiFi AP\router in one device), it was best placed in the main bedroom, plugged in for a stronger, more consistent signal and draped over the latch on the window. Unfortunately, the TV room is downstairs and at the other side of the house i.e. pretty much as far from the MiFi as possible. I bought a WiFi extender but it simply repeated the signal on the same channel and so, whilst it made the coverage better, it didn’t seem to improve connectivity if there were a couple of devices trying to connect at the same time. Access to the MiFi was affected with packet loss due to collisions\retransmissions. I needed a more resilient solution so I took a more holistic approach to my networking needs. In part 2 of this article, I outline the design I came up with and give some installation pictures. Hopefully, some people reading this might find some nuggets of inspiration. At the very least, I hope it puts a smug smile on some of the 100Mb\s+ brigade!

Need to go now, the electrician has just turned up to power up the loft.

Till the next time.

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