SSIDs Everywhere

As someone who has been an apartment dweller for a relatively long time, there are some extremely solid perks to it. It’s nice to never have to worry about things like maintenance, for example; if something goes wrong, I open a service ticket and someone shows up to fix the problem. When my furnace wouldn’t start on a cold day, for example, I wasn’t scrambling to figure out who to call. There are some downsides as well, though. For one, many people are frustrated by the fact that they can’t customize their home to the degree they’d like with respect to things like the color of the walls. Anyone who knows me knows that I couldn’t possibly care less about that. What does give me grief, though, is how significantly the spectrum around me is completely polluted by my neighbors.

I had issues with this in my last apartment, which was roughly the same size as my current apartment but with a longer, narrower layout than my current home. When I moved my home office to the bedroom, which was at the opposite side of the apartment from where my router was, I saw a noticeable performance decrease in my home network; this was a problem when I was working from home and an even bigger problem when I was trying to reach Platinum in Overwatch (spoiler alert, I didn’t manage to do it.) At the time, I replaced my cheap home router with a mesh WiFi setup so that I could utterly drown out my neighbors with sheer WiFi dominance. I ended up buying a pack of 3 access points because it was only slightly more expensive than buying 2 access points individually. That was more than enough to blanket my 900 square foot apartment, and I didn’t really think too much about my setup after that.

Fast forward to my current apartment, which is located in a much more populous area than where I previously lived. Pre-pandemic, I still didn’t think too much about my home network setup. The only bandwidth-intensive activity I did was video streaming, and that was mainly done from streaming sticks connected to my TV that was literally right on top of the router/access point connected to my modem; I never ran into issues with it. After the pandemic kicked into high gear in this area, though, I started living from my home office and spending unholy amounts of time on web conferences. While they worked well enough most of the time, I’d periodically have spikes of extremely high latency that would cause me to sound like Megatron’s cousin while on calls. This was annoying on work calls and infuriating when trying to record podcast episodes.

At first I assumed that the problem had to be upstream with my ISP being overloaded since suddenly everyone was staying home all the time. As the problem persisted, though, it made less and less sense to me. It would be reasonable if this behavior happened during the evenings when everyone is sitting around binge-watching their favorite shows because they can’t go out. When my network is choking to death on a 9 AM call, I was scratching my head. Surely not enough people could be doing video calls at that time, right? While latency affects VOIP traffic heavily, it isn’t exactly the most bandwidth-intensive thing to be doing in 2020.

Thinking my mesh network was the problem, I even tried ripping it out and replacing it with a single router connected to my modem. While it at first seemed to have a bit more stability, I still ran into some of the same problems. Finally, I realized that I was seeing a lot of networks when I just looked at what was available from any of my client devices. I fired up WiFi Explorer and was presented with this nightmare.

If you’re thinking that looks disgusting, you’re correct. Every channel in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands is completely packed with networks. I’ve been checking this periodically since realizing it could be the problem, and I regularly see anywhere between 50 and 70 different wireless networks from my apartment. Yikes.

Admittedly, I’m part of the problem. I’m broadcasting with a 5 GHz and a 2.4 GHz network from a router that I use exclusively for work. I’m also broadcasting a main and guest network on my main mesh setup. That causes matching SSIDs to broadcast on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum on each of the 3 access points per network, meaning I’m technically broadcasting 12 SSIDs. Even so, I’m still competing with, at minimum, 40-ish other devices crowding the same spectrum.

After coming to the realization that I may have been blaming all of the wrong things, I adjusted the setup of my access points so that the main router/access point which is connected to my modem is in direct line of sight across my apartment from the mesh access point at my office desk (which moved from the desk proper to a table next to the desk.) Since doing that, knock on wood, things have at least seemed to be a bit more stable for me. Either I’ve been having a better experience on web conferences or no one bothers to complain to me about it when my audio suddenly sounds like garbage because they’re just used to that happening from my end.

All that being said, I do still have an issue where the network stack on my MacBook Pro will crash, leaving me with no network connectivity until I disable and then re-enable WiFi. I haven’t managed to find a fix for that particular problem yet, though I imagine having 4 different flavors of VPN client installed probably isn’t doing me any favors.

Google Wifi And The Curse Of Simplication

As you likely know if you listen to the podcast, about 6 months ago I started a new job, and about 3 months ago I moved to be closer to that job. With Brandi’s help, I managed to get moved without too much hassle, but I cut a few corners in getting my new home set up. One of those corners was my home network; after using the “kit” from my ISP to get my Internet service activated I had never bothered to swap out their equipment with my own. Given the number of devices I had connected to the Wifi (2 laptops, a phone, a tablet, 2 streaming sticks, 3 smart speakers, etc.) I didn’t want to bother with getting everything connected to a different network.

That being said, I’ve been spoiled by mesh Wifi and coverage in my bedroom was occasionally problematic; in apartments like mine it’s easy for crowded channels to drown out your signal. I had a little free time one evening earlier this week and decided to finally bite the bullet.

My Wifi setup at my last apartment was Google Wifi with 3 access points. 3 APs may seem overkill for a roughly 900 square foot apartment, but when I bought them the bundle of 3 was essentially the same price as buying 2 individually… plus it ensures that I have total Wifi dominance over my neighbors.

The initial, out-of-box experience with setting up Google Wifi was fairly simple. Connect the first AP to the modem, install the Google Wifi mobile app, have it discover the AP, and then configure it through the app. Once your Wifi is working, repeat the process for the additional APs to get them to form the mesh network. The full instructions are available here.

However, configuring them when they’ve already been configured once turned out to be much more irritating and far less straightforward. Given that I had a brand new phone, I needed to install the Google Wifi app. I did that and logged in with my Google account. Naturally, Google had stored the information about my APs and how they were configured, but told me they were offline. Taking one of the 3, I connected it to my modem and bounced the modem. The light ring on the AP stayed orange, indicating that it didn’t have a WAN link.

I can only assume this is where I made the first of many mistakes that I’ll take partial responsibility for and partially blame on how kludgey this whole experience is when you’re tied to a mobile app. Rather than repeating this process potentially two more times to find the AP that was expecting to be the router (and that assuming the memory was still held despite being off for months), I figured I would just factory reset the APs and start from scratch. I could select the factory reset option from the app to clear the APs out of it, but naturally that wouldn’t do anything to the physical devices since they couldn’t connect to the Internet to see that configuration. A quick web search let me know that I needed to hold the button on the back of the AP for 10 seconds while the device is on, pull the power while continuing to hold the button, and then plug the power back in while still holding the button until I saw the light ring. Talk about a secret handshake. Regardless, I did that, and then proceeded to wait until the light ring began to pulse blue. That indicates it’s ready for setup, per the aforementioned instructions.

At this point, I open the app on my phone. It does a quick search, confirms for me that it sees the AP, and then starts trying to connect. For the next 15 minutes I stare at this:

Umm… not great. At this point, I figure something must be amiss in the app. The instructions in step #4 say I should be prompted to scan the QR code on the bottom of the device… a prompt that I never receive. I kill the app and re-launch. I get the exact same experience and end up stuck at the same screen as above.

This is what we in the IT industry call a problem. At this point I’m mumbling “stupid fucking app” to myself, so I grab my laptop and an Ethernet cable. I connect my laptop to the one LAN port on the AP; sure enough, I get a DHCP address and can reach the Internet. So the AP is making a WAN connection. The mobile app just won’t connect to the AP for some reason. I can check the network settings on my laptop, though, to see the local IP of the AP. While being salty at Google for designing this for the less technically inclined, I do a quick nmap to see if ports 80 and/or 443 are open on the AP, indicating HTTP and HTTPS, respectively.

nmap -Pn -p 80,443 192.168.x.y

80 was open while 443 was closed. I open a browser and navigate to:

https://192.168.x.y

Sure enough, this loads a web page on the device. In most consumer routers this is where you’d normally do all of your configuration. In Google Wifi it politely recommends that I get bent and use the mobile app:

Shit. With the app being my only option, I hop back over to the setup instructions online to see what I may have missed. At this point I notice a chat pop-up at the bottom right corner of the screen for Google support. I click on it and get connected to a support agent. After I describe the situation, she instructs me to:

  1. Kill the Google Wifi app on my phone.
  2. Turn off cellular data on my phone.
  3. Open the Wifi network settings, search for the network named on the bottom of the AP, and connect to that.
  4. Re-open the app and now go through the setup.

At this point, it actually connects and gets past the screen I was stuck on so that I could configure the device. I was happy to have it working, but I was also extremely confused; nothing in the setup mentions connecting to the setup network on the device. Nothing like this was mentioned on the common issues page, either.

Regardless, with the Wifi network running, I connect a second AP to build the mesh network. I even clarified with the support agent in chat that for this AP, I don’t connect to the setup network… I should be able to be connected to my new Wifi network, tap the option to add another AP in the app, and have it connect. Unfortunately for me, the exact same thing happens as before. The AP is found, but I again sit endlessly at the “Connecting to Wifi point” screen. The support agent has me reset the AP again to no avail. Next she has me use an Ethernet cable to physically connect the mesh AP to the first AP and then repeat the setup:

Unsurprisingly, this makes no difference. On a whim, I grab my iPad, install the Google Wifi app (which doesn’t actually have an iPad variant and looks like garbage), and repeat the process. The app on my iPad immediately connects and prompts me to scan the QR code on the bottom of the AP. Within two minutes the AP is connected and working.

I then head back to my bedroom where I had already plugged in the third AP during one of the instances of watching the app on my iPhone refuse to connect. It also immediately completes the setup when using my iPad.

At this point I’m just shy of 3 hours in to something that I assumed would take me 30 minutes at most, and I still have to go through the painful process of connecting my smart speakers to the new network. I’m glad it’s all working, but I’ve got so many points of confusion.

  1. Why are the setup instructions Google publishes wrong?
  2. WTF is going on between the mobile app and my iPhone 11 that it wouldn’t work, but it works fine on my iPad?
  3. Why on Earth does Google not permit you to do configuration locally, and then have the device sync that configuration to the cloud to keep everything in sync.

#3 is a particular sticking point for me. Google only permits the configuration to sync from the cloud down to the device. Why not permit me to configure the device locally, and then make the device sync any changes to the cloud; the sync could work in both directions instead of in 1 direction. I understand wanting to leverage the app to (hopefully) simplify the process for people who would find webbing to their router way too confusing, but not permitting you to do a local configuration when you know how to connect but the shitty app doesn’t work is infuriating to me.

That being said, this was 100% my own fault for not doing the research to realize that Google Wifi doesn’t permit this prior to making the purchase. And to be complete clear, I’m not opposed to the app. The first setup was good, and I love being able to quickly check and configure my network from my phone regardless of where I am. I just feel like it should be mandatory to allow some degree of local access for when the app goes haywire. Unfortunately, this appears to be a standard practice. I verified that Eero also uses an app-based setup, and that if you don’t have data on your phone, you still need to use your phone but do some janky local connections between your old router and your Eero. How that is less complicated than connecting a laptop and opening a browser I’ll never know.

Despite my copious amounts of salt, I’m glad I finally got everything connected. As Wifi 6 becomes more prevalent, though, I’ll be on the lookout for new networking hardware. This time I’ll be sure to verify that whatever I buy at least offers local configuration options in conjunction with an app.