After listening to an episode of the 2.5 admins podcast, I realized there was some sort of low-hanging fruit I could pick to better tune my WiFi at home. You see, I'm kind of a fraud in WiFi: I only started a WiFi mesh in Montreal (now defunct), I don't really know how any of that stuff works. So I was surprised to hear one of the podcast host say "it's all about airtime" and "you want to reduce the power on your access points" (APs). It seemed like sound advice: better bandwidth means less time on air, means less collisions, less latency, and less power also means less collisions. Worth a try, right?

Frequency

So the first thing I looked at was WifiAnalyzer to see if I had any optimisation I could do there. Normally, I try to avoid having nearby APs on the same frequency to avoid collisions, but who knows, maybe I had messed that up. And turns out I did! Both APs were on "auto" for 5GHz, which typically means "do nothing or worse".

5GHz is really interesting, because, in theory, there are LOTS of channels to pick from, it goes up to 196!! And both my APs were on 36, what gives?

So the first thing I did was to set it to channel 100, as there was that long gap in WifiAnalyzer where no other AP was. But that just broke 5GHz on the AP. The OpenWRT GUI (luci) would just say "wireless not associated" and the ESSID wouldn't show up in a scan anymore.

At first, I thought this was a problem with OpenWRT or my hardware, but I could reproduce the problem with both my APs: a TP-Link Archer A7 v5 and a Turris Omnia (see also my review).

As it turns out, that's because that range of the WiFi band interferes with trivial things like satellites and radar, which make the actually very useful radar maps look like useless christmas trees. So those channels require DFS to operate. DFS works by first listening on the frequency for a certain amount of time (1-2 minute, but could be as high as 10) to see if there's something else transmitting at all.

So typically, that means they just don't operate at all in those bands, especially if you're near any major city which generally means you are near a weather radar that will transmit on that band.

In the system logs, if you have such a problem, you might see this:

Apr  9 22:17:39 octavia hostapd: wlan0: DFS-CAC-START freq=5500 chan=100 sec_chan=1, width=0, seg0=102, seg1=0, cac_time=60s
Apr  9 22:17:39 octavia hostapd: DFS start_dfs_cac() failed, -1

... and/or this:

Sat Apr  9 18:05:03 2022 daemon.notice hostapd: Channel 100 (primary) not allowed for AP mode, flags: 0x10095b NO-IR RADAR
Sat Apr  9 18:05:03 2022 daemon.warn hostapd: wlan0: IEEE 802.11 Configured channel (100) not found from the channel list of current mode (2) IEEE 802.11a
Sat Apr  9 18:05:03 2022 daemon.warn hostapd: wlan0: IEEE 802.11 Hardware does not support configured channel

Here, it clearly says RADAR (in all caps too, which means it's really important). NO-IR is also important, I'm not sure what it means but it could be that you're not allowed to transmit in that band because of other local regulations.

There might be a way to workaround those by changing the "region" in the Luci GUI, but I didn't mess with that, because I figured that other devices will have that already configured. So using a forbidden channel might make it more difficult for clients to connect (although it's possible this is enforced only on the AP side).

In any case, 5GHz is promising, but in reality, you only get from channel 36 (5.170GHz) to 48 (5.250GHz), inclusively. Fast counters will notice that is exactly 80MHz, which means that if an AP is configured for that hungry, all-powerful 80MHz, it will effectively take up all 5GHz channels at once.

This, in other words, is as bad as 2.4GHz, where you also have only two 40MHz channels. (Really, what did you expect: this is an unregulated frequency controlled by commercial interests...)

So the first thing I did was to switch to 40MHz. This gives me two distinct channels in 5GHz at no noticeable bandwidth cost. (In fact, I couldn't find hard data on what the bandwidth ends up being on those frequencies, but I could still get 400Mbps which is fine for my use case.)

Power

The next thing I did was to fiddle with power. By default, both radios were configured to transmit as much power as they needed to reach clients, which means that if a client gets farther away, it would boost its transmit power which, in turns, would mean the client would still connect to instead of failing and properly roaming to the other AP.

The higher power also means more interference with neighbors and other APs, although that matters less if they are on different channels.

On 5GHz, power was about 20dBm (100 mW) -- and more on the Turris! -- when I first looked, so I tried to lower it drastically to 5dBm (3mW) just for kicks. That didn't work so well, so I bumped it back up to 14 dBm (25 mW) and that seems to work well: clients hit about -80dBm when they get far enough from the AP, which gets close to the noise floor (and where the neighbor APs are), which is exactly what I want.

On 2.4GHz, I lowered it down even further, to 10 dBm (10mW) since it's better at going through wells, I figured it would need less power. And anyways, I rather people use the 5GHz APs, so maybe that will act as an encouragement to switch. I was still able to connect correctly to the APs at that power as well.

Other tweaks

I disabled the "Allow legacy 802.11b rates" setting in the 5GHz configuration. According to this discussion:

Checking the "Allow b rates" affects what the AP will transmit. In particular it will send most overhead packets including beacons, probe responses, and authentication / authorization as the slow, noisy, 1 Mb DSSS signal. That is bad for you and your neighbors. Do not check that box. The default really should be unchecked.

This, in particular, "will make the AP unusable to distant clients, which again is a good thing for public wifi in general". So I just unchecked that box and I feel happier now. I didn't make tests to see the effect separately however, so this is mostly just a guess.

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