Ubiquiti $99 Mesh Node Challenges Wireless Competitors

By: Brian Karas, Published on Jan 05, 2017

Ubiqiuti has become a significant force in wireless video surveillance applications but they have never done mesh.

Historically, mesh has been associated with larger scale systems and larger scale costs (thousands instead of the hundreds for Ubiquiti).

Now, Ubiquiti is launching UniFi Mesh, a wireless radio with true mesh network capabilities for ~$100, potentially allowing them to compete directly with higher priced alternatives. There are some limitations to Ubiquiti's mesh products, which we cover in this report, along with potential optimal use case scenarios. 

Mesh Networking Vs Non-Mesh

In a traditional wireless network there is an access point, which provides connectivity to the wired network. Client devices (like cameras, or other wireless radios that provide connectivity to cameras) need to be able to reach the access point directly, meaning they typically need to be within a few hundred feet at most. If a device is out of range of the access point, it will not be able to reach the wired network. Range can be limited by barriers, such as buildings, between the access point and the remote device.

In a mesh network, there is typically an access point that provides connectivity to the wired network, but each remote device is a sort of mini router as well. If a device is too far from the access point, it can communicate with another device that may be within range of the access point, and in range of itself, using that mid-point device to relay the connection through. This also allows a network designer to "shoot around" an obstruction like a building (the black diamond in the image below), which greatly improves design flexibility.

Each mesh node can link to multiple other nodes that are in range, so that if one link goes down in has a backup route. In the image above, the mesh node with the yellow link has two paths to reach the network, and will automatically choose the best one.

The flexibility and resiliency of mesh networks allow them to solve many common problems with wireless networks for security devices.

Unifi Mesh Overview

Ubiquiti's recently released mesh products come in two form factors, both have similar functionality, but offer different amounts of max throughput.

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Comments (15)

From the info that I have received on these new "MESH" radios, I would not use them for video backhaul.  These are designed for WIFI deployments.

1) Mesh on 5.8 radio only.  No way to use 2.4 for Mesh as it is used for WIFI.

2) Mesh in not really mesh.  No auto path reconfigurations and no high-speed hand-off.  

3)These radios are designed for WIFI deployments.  Basically an improvement over their last outdoor WIFI APs that adds WDS to communicate between 5.8 radios if you need it. 

Mesh on 5.8 radio only.  No way to use 2.4 for Mesh as it is used for WIFI.

Michael, why would you want to use mesh on 2.4 anyway? 2.4 is typically congested as is, yes/no?

Yes, 2.4 is more congested but if you are going to try to use these for backhaul you could use both radios.  Receive on 2.4 and send on 5.8.   

When I asked questions on the UBNT forum about these radios the consensus was not to use these for backhaul like most people here would want to use them for. 

I have used many brands of Wireless over the years and for the last 3-4 years have been using Ubiquiti exclusively without any failures or communication issues. Price point is great but normally when designing a complex wireless system the price point is not a major consideration for us it is reliability of the product and NO call backs.

Its a fine product for 98% of our security and IP video solutions!

I have been in the wireless business for 35 years starting with Motorola. I have repped both Trango and Firetide. I can tell you from experience that these inexpensive mesh radios are fine for a parking lot however you need to run carrier class equipment for large city wide deployments. There is a huge difference in performance on many levels between a $ 99 radio and a $ 3,000 radio. I agree with Michael Miller and from my experience deploying many city wide systems over the years once you start loading a mesh system up video has real trouble. If at all possible design your systems Point to Multi-Point. 

Terry, can you elaborate on the differences?

From a basic sense, my understanding is there are two core components to building a mesh node:

1) Hardware, mostly in the form of radios, particularly the number of transceivers you can cram in the device that can operate on non-overlapping channels/bands

2) The software component that creates the mesh network, which has typically been where a good part of the R&D for the "bigger" companies has been spent.

The hardware side has certainly gotten much cheaper in recent years, and on the software side projects like "B.A.T.M.A.N" have made that more accessible as well.

How much of the price delta between a $99 and a $3,000 mesh radio is the manufacturer trying to recoup R&D, and sales/support costs vs. actual differences that affect performance?

Brian - There are many differences between carrier class radios and inexpensive over the counter radios.  There are too many factors to list but some of the main differences are on board DSP horsepower, transmit power, complex modulation schemes, interference immunity, receiver front end selectivity / sensitivity, GPS synchronization ( allows greater channel overlap / re-use ),  internal antenna components and overall physical construction. 

One analogy I like to use is walkie talkies. You can buy a pair of $29.00 walkie talkies at Home Depot however a walkie talkie used for law enforcement typically costs upwards of $3,000.00. The $ 29.00 radios will work to a degree but in no way as well as the professional industrial grade radios.

John - You are correct. There is without a doubt a far greater place in the world for these short range inexpensive radios that use Wi-Fi chip sets than the carrier grade stuff. We have seen great advances over the years with manufacturers investing in the quality and performance of their products with Ubiquity being one of them. For us our go to "parking lot / car lot" radios are the Cambium Force 180. It's a $100.00 non GPS radio that works exceptionally well. They still have traces of the old Motorola DNA in them due to Cambium acquiring the Motorola Canopy product line years ago. Along with that acquisition were many of the Motorola engineers that built the original Canopy and Point to Point microwave radios. I'm in no way knocking Ubiquity. They make a really good product it's just that we prefer to use Cambium because of our relationship that goes back years with Cambium and their excellent track record. For larger city wide / campus wide systems we use Cambium 450i radios. Over the years we have built numerous large scale robust wireless video systems for Law Enforcement, Transportation, Utilities, Higher Ed Campuses, etc.

The "MESH" acronym is thrown around a lot when people describe a networked radio system. In a true MESH radio system the throughput suffers by approximately 50% for every "hop" plus as more radios are introduced into the MESH. There is a greater chance for system self interference leading to diminished throughput resulting in video drop outs. MESH radios typically use 360 degree omni directional antennas that leave the radio open for interference from nearby sources. In a Point to Multi Point (PtMP) system antennas are directional and thereby less prone to adjacent transmitter interference. This is why we only design PtMP / PtP topographies utilizing radios that support GPS synchronization allowing dense channel reuse which is a whole other topic. 

I can tell you from experience that these inexpensive mesh radios are fine for a parking lot however you need to run carrier class equipment for large city wide deployments.

Terry, from our surveys, what you describe (i.e. parking lots) is the Ubiquiti core market in video surveillance. I am sure there are some larger scale Ubiquiti video surveillance wireless systems but the most common use case remains in smaller / 'closer' scenarios.

Something that might require mesh is definitely more complex than I would want to handle, and we have a staff of 5 IT people total. We could do it. But I would rather subcontract it to the experts in this particular field as they have way more experience than me, so I would rather shoulder the responsibility of making it work and servicing it on them. And the products they use are not Ubiquiti. (Usually Cambium or something like that.)

I think one thing that should be noted that wasn't mentioned in this article or in the comments yet is the software required to run. With Ubiquiti's airMAX line of products such as the NanoStation, when configuring, you simply log into the device via a web browser. With this line of product you must use the UniFi software. I cloud host a UniFi server currently. You can also use their Cloud Key to remote in or setup a local instance somewhere on the network to configure. I prefer cloud hosting over the other options.

So there is no web browser in these new UniFi Mesh products. This does add a slight layer of complexity or simply an extra step before one can start configuring the devices. I love the UniFi products for hosting WiFi but I'm still not to the point to use the UniFi switches as changes on the controller generally require refresh/reboot on devices which add time to the configuring process due to waiting for changes to take effect. After devices are online, additional changes cause provisioning which can cause slight downtime. For WiFi configuring, this is my big complaint is that every major change kills the WiFi network while provisioning.

I haven't tested these products specifically so I don't know if changes after setup will cause downtime while provisioning. Hopefully, that's not the case.

I use Ubiquiti in my home on a very small scale (4-port EdgeMax router, 8-port UniFi switch, and a single UAP-AC), and I have to agree with the point about configuration changes and updates. I get frustrated myself just on my little home network with how long it takes some changes to apply there, so I can't imagine if I was working on a production network and having to make changes. Even worse is having my technicians sit and wait on the constant reboots and provisioning. Blech.

I love Ubiquiti and have had great luck in my home, but I have difficulty imagining their use in the surveillance world.  I guess if you keep the product range small and reuse configurations on a regular basis, it wouldn't be too bad, but for anything that is dynamic or changing very often, I don't think I could do it.

The EdgeMax is a different software package than Unifi though. I use the NanoStations for many installs that require wireless backhaul to a remote camera. The thing about those devices is making sure you configure everything on all pages and then apply. Otherwise you will be waiting for a while if you commit changes on every page as that will require a reboot. EdgeMax hardware devices such as switches and routers don't require the reboot after every change if I recall. They also have more processing power.

The nice thing about the Unifi APs is that you really don't need to touch the devices after initially configuring. I use these for many businesses without many issues. This is where cloud hosting works well. One downside is making changes when troubleshooting is needed such as when interference is an issue. Making quick changes to antenna strength or disabling radios quickly takes a lot longer than desired.

I just mentioned the software because the devices require a location to run the controller and aren't like a lot of the EdgeMax devices where you have a quick web page.

As mentioned by some posters above these are from Ubiquiti's Unifi product range not their AirMax products. I would avoid Unifi for CCTV applications for three reasons:

1. Unifi is 'standard' WiFi, whilst AirMax is a custom MAC designed for outdoor use with a TDMA protocol that automatically prioritises video packets and provides predictable latency.

2. Unifi requires a controller to configure /manage. This can be cloud based (requiring a permanent Internet connection) or local using controller software on a specific PC or  Unifi CloudKey. AirMax gives you direct management access to the device - which is more straightforward for small deployments.

3. Better to use higher gain directional antennas on links - that way you get higher received signal strength (faster data rates) and less susceptibility to external interference. 

If you were trying to connect a camera around a corner for example, 4 Nanobeams (2 at  the middle location back to back) would be cheaper than 3 mesh nodes and a considerably more robust solution.

Andrew, good information, thanks.  We will take this into consideration for some upcoming tests.

Interesting topic! I have a question for the wireless mesh industry experts out there...

This topic sometimes comes up with our customers (mostly large critical infrastructure and defense). Their perception is that wireless mesh networks can't be trusted - they can too easily be disrupted through EM interference. Can anyone comment if this is still the case? Are directional antennas a possible solution? Are there innovations coming up that might address this, and make it suitable for more security-critical applications than just parking lots?

NOTICE: This comment has been moved to its own discussion: Can Wireless Mesh Be Trusted?

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