by William Waites
12 Aug 2012

The Long Link to Eigg

Sgurr of Eigg

Spent the weekend on the Isle of Eigg with Simon Helliwell taking in the Small Isles games on Saturday and then heading most of the way up to the Sgurr of Eigg to a spot with a mast that has a panoramic view over the Sound of Sleat to the Northeast, Knoydart, Mallaig and Arisaig to the East and Glenuig, Ardnamurchan and Coll to the Southeast and South.

We aimed, to make a 44km link to the Coille Mhialairigh to the West of Beinn Sgritheall in order to connect Hebnet, the network on the Small Isles to the Loch Hourn network. This was to be our longest link, with most of the others being in the 10-20km range. On either either end we used being the 5 GHz Ubiquiti Rocket M with parabolic antennæ and the Loch Hourn end was set up on the previous trip to Arnisdale.

The weather was beautiful and we were fortunate that, as with the previous link from the Creagan Dearga in Southwest Knoydart to the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig college, the link came up immediately, at more or less full signal strength – in the neighbourhood of -65dBm, corresponding to a Signal to Noise Ratio of about 25:1. So far so good. After some tidying, we headed back down the hill to take a closer look at what was needed for Eigg to make use of this new link.

The network on Eigg is flat. That is, it doesn’t employ routing, all of the radios are set up as one big bridge. Though there are disadvantages to such a setup, it does have a couple of advantages. In this case it meant that we could use the new link at Simon’s house without changing any of the other end-sites simply by changing the default gateway on his local router. When we did so, we immediately found that something was wrong.

The physical layer data rate at which the link synchronised appeared, according to the diagnostics on the radio on the Sgurr, to be some 180Mbps in the Eigg – Loch Hourn direction and 6Mbps in the reverse. Even at that, dropped packets made the link almost unuseable. Checking, we found that the distance setting on the Sgurr radio wouldn’t go beyond about 25km. This setting really governs the 802.11 acknowledgement frame timeout – there’s a paper here that discusses this in some depth, but the brief version is that the farther apart the radios are, the longer they must wait for acknowledgement of their transmissions, due simply to the fact that electromagnetic radion travels at a certain speed (the speed of light, actually). The Loch Hourn end, running OpenWRT, happily accepted a distance setting of 50km (the usual practice is to overestimate the distance by about 10% for best results).

Some pulling out of hair, and a lot of trial and error later, we found that this was related to the channel bandwidth. With 802.11n there is a choice of channel bandwidth. Channels can be either 5, 10, 20, 30 or 40MHz wide. In general, and assuming good conditions, the wider the channel, the faster the link since more information can be sent per unit time. The usual tradeoff is that in areas where the radio spectrum is congested, it might not be possible to find a contiguous block of 40MHz that is free from interference. This is often the case in cities, but the West Highlands and Islands is a pretty RF-quiet area.

However, there is another circumstance in which it is not possible to use wide channels. Because 802.11 works by transmitting a frame and then waiting for an acknowledgement before transmitting the next one (and possibly re-transmitting if the acknowledgement is not received in time), if you increase the speed at which frames are sent, you also increase the speed at which acknowledgements are sent. But this speed is also limited by the physics. To see this is simple, assuming no time spent processing between packets, a packet may be sent at most once every t seconds:

[ t = \frac{2d}{c} ]

where \(d\) is the distance between the radios, and \(c\) is the speed of light. The maximum rate, in packets per second, is then the reciprocal,

[ r = \frac{1}{t} = \frac{c}{2d} ]

In our case, setting \(d\) at 44km, \(r\) works out to about 3400pps. If we take the average packet to be the best case, 1500 bytes or 12000 bits, and call this \(s\), we have,

[ b = rs = 3400 \times 12000 = 40.8 Mbps ]

which, ignoring other overhead like forward error correction and such, is the maximum possible transmission speed. But these speeds are possible with a 20MHz channel. Using a 40MHz channel is simply a waste of RF spectrum. This is the reason for the seemingly arbitrary limit in the Ubiquiti firmware.

So, we set the channel bandwidth to 20MHz at both ends and, presto, the link came up and began to function perfectly.

By way of testing, we watched the webcam at the Coille Mhialairigh mast that Peter Buneman had pointed at Eigg. After a short time, we lost connectivity. The link remained up, but we couldn’t see beyond the radio on the other side. After a minute or so, it came back. We repeated this a couple of times, and the same thing happened. Very strange.

Back in Edinburgh, we conducted some more specific tests. It proved to be possible to crash the switch by simply running the iperf tool between the radios. This test didn’t involve the switch directly at all. It turns out that the answer has to do with the Coille Mhialairigh mast being self powered, or rather powered by solar panels and batteries about 50m down the hill. The Ubiquiti radios are designed to be fairly tolerant of different input voltages from their power supplies. They ship with a 24V Power over Ethernet but will happily accept anything from about 10V. The little Netgear GS108T-200 on the other hand wants something pretty close to 12V. The extra draw caused by continuous transmission must be enough to cause the supply to the switch to fall outwith its tolerances, causing it to reboot.

This is to be fixed by, in the immediate term, removing any extra cabling to improve the efficiency of power delivery to the mast at Coille Mhialarigh, and in the medium term arranging mains power for the mast. This shouldn’t be too hard as there are power lines only a couple of hundred meters away.

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