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Look how far we've come!

June 28, 2015

We’re about to be doing some really big things in the next few weeks. So we decided it would be a cool idea to look back at some of the bad old days when we had very little money and even less knowledge of WiFi. And boy does it show! But instead of just laughing at our noobishness, we thought it would be neat to see a contrast in the way we did things then and the way we do things now. We raided the vaults and put together a short collection of some… interesting attempts at making do with what we had at the time.

 

 

So when we first started out, we were using WRT54G’s– admittedly workhorses of the 802.11g era, but our solution to “waterproof” them was to buy some cheap Tupperware from Dollar General and use a lot of hot glue. As for the antennas, those are strips of 14 gauge electrical wire that we had laying around that we, very carefully, slathered in hot glue to the tiny stock antennas that are inside the rubber ducky antennas that come with the 54G’s. I think we were too ashamed to actually use them for anything- and those antennas did not improve the signal strength.

 

 

Here’s what we use today in Allentown, outside our office. This is a combination of two Ubiquiti brand Rockets, an M2 and an M5 seated back-to-back on a universal pole. Both use 10 DBi antennas for their respective bands, the smaller of the two is the Rocket M5 on 5GHz and the larger is the Rocket M2 on the 2.4GHz band. These antennas flatten out the RF signal’s propagation pattern horizontally so that coverage is maximized along East Warrington Avenue. This node can be used up to 3 blocks away although we tell people the expected range should be about 2 blocks. This node meshes with 8 other nodes in Allentown, most paid for by the URA. Thanks URA!

 

 

Yeesh. So I had the wise idea to get some 8 inch duct and shove a WRT54G in there. Obviously, I pointed the antennas down the shafts. Spoilers: this doesn’t work.

 

 

 It also looked really dumb. And yes, I did drag this out into a ball field in Hazelwood and plugged it into a UPS and tested the signal strength. I placed it on a folding chair, was disappointed that the signal strength was no better than stock antennas, and must have looked like a crazy person.

 

These are Ubiquiti branded 90 degree 5GHz sector antennas purchased by one of our coolest (and smartest, nicest, and prettiest) Meta Mesh team members. Originally, they were on the Brew House in the South Side but due to renovations starting in summer 2015 we had to move them. Thanks to StartUptown and the Paramount for hosting 2 each. These antennas have a very thin horizontal beamwidth so we had to aim them just right to cover the South Side in the PittMesh_Backhaul ad-hoc network. One of these days we’ll do some wardriving in the so-called “WiFi Wagon” and publish a coverage map. These four sector antennas (only 2 pictured) cover a lot of the South Side and the Slopes– even more than the Brew House location did.

Ok, to be fair, this was a proof of concept. I duct taped an 802.11n router in a WRT54G case to a satellite dish. I mean, technically it can work as long as your antennas are at the feed horn, it’s just ugly as sin.

 

Here’s an iteration of the parabolic dish design that DID work and worked REALLY well. That’s a wok lid (thanks Jared, I stole that, sorry) with a cheap 2.4GHz yagi antenna from China that cost $2.95 and took 6 weeks to be delivered. It’s pretty sweet though and you can get some SERIOUS range on that. In fact, using just the wok lid and a USB WiFi dongle, I was able to get onto the Schenley Plaza WiFi network from the top of the Cathedral of Learning. Don’t knock the wok.

 

 That thing was bad to the bone. 

 

 This was taken on top of the Caliguiri building in Allentown. We happened to have line-of-site to the Brew House from up there before the renovation and the Housing Authority of the City Pittsburgh was kind enough to let us use an existing gravity mount up there. This link is about a mile and it allowed us to connect our Allentown nodes with the rest of the network. Thanks HACP.

 It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a hacksaw, some duct tape, a pair of vice grips, and some hot glue. This is what sufficed as a basement workshop for me in 2011 and 2012. Money was scarce and lampshades were scarcer. This is where I built some wireless Frankenstein monsters. Experimentation is a stop on the road to success.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, we’re still in a basement. But this one has a couch in the bottom right, a build station with some Sprite on it in the bottom left, a ton of storage in the back left, a server cabinet with white board panels on the right and a peg board with an entire test network of Ubiquiti and TP-Link gear with serial cables running out of them on the far right. We spend way too much time down here, but we’ve been able to thrive because of the support of the Hardware Store and especially Josh Lucas. In a few weeks we’ll actually be renovating the Hardware Store’s network and building a dedicated server room with air-conditioning and Proliant servers for hosting some future projects and anyone who needs storage in the Hardware Store’s coworking space.

 

We’ve come a long way. From hot glue and aluminum to multi-mile WiFi links across the Mon, Meta Mesh has grown and will continue to grow. In the coming months we hope to lock down a few grants for interested communities and build out wireless infrastructure that connects residents not only to the Internet but to each other.

 

More to come soon.

 

 

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