From Integrated Product to Challenging Goliath: How airMAX AC Generation 2 Technology Completes our Industry Vision

Ten years ago, Ubiquiti was just a new entrant in the WISP Industry, known to be little more than a manufacture of niche mini-PCI radio cards that could be used with Mikrotik router boards.  At that time, I saw the writing on the wall as Mikrotik was starting to bring to market their own radio cards.  They had a complete monopoly on the growing WISP Industry with a decade head start and an operator customer base they built around their routing software foundation.  However, I saw a critical flaw in their strategy that could possibly be exploited.  Mikrotik believed in an after-market assembly world where they would market hardware and 3rd party companies would supply the mechanicals, antennas, and cable components for WISP’s to assemble solutions themselves for deployment.  But, I saw the future differently — I believed WISP’s would welcome product integration with a greater attention to user experience.

 

Ubiquiti at that time was made up of just a handful of people.  Myself and Patrick Jabbaz worked together on the schematic design, he owned the layout and digital design while I owned the RF Design, radio tuning, and manufacturing testing.  Also around that time, we put together a small talented developer team in Lithuania who worked on our firmware called “AirOS” and we hired a mechanical design consultant as well as an antenna design consultant which would help us in our first foray into manufacturing a complete product.  Like all airMAX products since, I have taken an “outside in” design approach where I worked with the designer on my vision for the product first and then we customized the hardware and antenna to accommodate.

PowerStation

 

This project we would market as “PowerStation” and I hoped it would become an Industry standard for CPE deployments.  The initial response in our U.S. channels was positive and we received orders for several thousand units.  It was at this time, I took my first trip around the world with a PowerStation sample in hand to try and garner international channel interest.  Within a couple weeks, I would travel from California to  South America and Africa, then on to Russia, the Middle East, Europe, and finally on to Asia.  By the time I was finishing the trip, I had become quite demoralized.  While the PowerStation design was acknowledged as being beautiful in appearance, it was universally criticized as very expensive, bulky, and impractical for the various emerging markets we were targeting.  Why? The Power station was large and heavy making it problematic for shipping and with a manufacturing cost of nearly $100, it just could not be competitive in these markets where solutions assembled using components from Asia were being sold at nearly 1/4 the price.

Even worse, after I got home and shortly after shipping PowerStations into the U.S., we began seeing numerous quality and performance issues from firmware crashes to reports of our high-gain antenna not having any gain at all.   The situation was a mess — I was frustrated having little gained from all the development efforts, nervous at the prospect of not being able to compete in the market as Mikrotik was quickly moving to lower cost solutions and solidifying their lead, and concerned financially  — speculating how much this misstep would cost us as Ubiquiti was a completely bootstrapped operation.

NanoStation

But sometimes your best ideas and achievements arise in times of great adversity and in those next days, we took a hard look at the PowerStation design as well as what I learned from my recent travels.  What struck me now about the Powerstation’s mechanical design (which followed traditional practice) was it’s over-complexity with several plastic parts, various waterproofing gaskets, and heavy die cast parts for the antenna ground plane and hardware enclosure.  Coincidentally at around the same time, Motorola had a popular product gaining attention called “Canopy” that was priced far too expensively for the emerging markets that I sought after, but was very successful with higher-end WISP in the U.S.  What intrigued me most about their design was a very simple plastic bucket enclosure that was light-weight, low-part count, and eliminated all of the complex weatherproof gasketing.

Within the next 6 months, Patrick and I executed on a new product idea from concept to volume shipping (an outstanding achievement) that would be known as “NanoStation”  Where as PowerStation was bulky and over-engineered, NanoStation exemplified minimalist design.  We found new mechanical engineering resources and inspired by Motorola’s direction, made the industrial design even sleeker as well as took advantage of the full PCBA backside and using it as a ground plane for a cost-effective dual-polarity directive antenna array (which was designed successfully this time).  Plus we even integrated a software selectable external antenna connector.  We essentially added the directional antenna and weatherproofing around the hardware for only a few dollars in a way that integrated seamlessly.  We also had the fortunate timing of solving critical SW issues on the heels of the failed PowerStation experience.

As soon as we had NanoStation prototypes ready, I went back around the world to pitch the new product to the same international channels, and the demand was overwhelming.  Supply constrained, we would ship over one million NanoStations within that next year — it was the company’s first growth inflection point.

 

airMAX Software Strategy Coming Together At Long Last:  A Complete Set of Software Technologies

 

Bringing NanoStation to the WISP Industry put us on the map, but our ambitions have always been much greater.  We have never settled for being a typical equipment provider.  We do not market to big telecom carriers nor have sales teams.  Instead we opted to disrupt the status quo.  We wanted to give the tools to any ambitious entrepreneur — even ones without financial backing or technical training  — to compete in the big carrier dominated ISP Industry.  We created a community platform where  these very entrepreneurs could share experiences to help make our collective technology better.  One way I like to think of our strategy is essentially supplying the slingshot in David’s fight against Goliath.

Unfortunately, as many of you know first-hand, we have had bumps along the way towards reaching our end vision .  But just like how we hard pivoted successfully from our failed PowerStation product to NanoStation, we have made hard pivots in our development strategy over the past couple years that have achieved outstanding results.

On the software side, I believe we have finally achieved a true end-to-end solution for operators to not only deploy and manage their networks, but also to scale their business.  This impressive collection of software resources Ubiquiti provides free of charge in an effort to “level the playing field” against larger carriers with more financial resources.

From link planning (AirLink), to deployment ease (U-Mobile), radio optimization (AirOS), network management (AirControl), and business operations (UCRM), we are empowering this Industry with an unprecedented software technology arsenal.

Radio Configuration and Link Viewing — The New AirOS

Nearly all WISP products (including prior airMAX/AirOS technology) have UI design roots based in the WiFi router world.  But where as WiFi routers are deployed in indoor environments, outdoor wireless is about long distances links focused between two points in a widely varying and difficult to assess outdoor environment

Looking at things from this perspective, I realized a good UI for WISP applications should sharply focus on providing insight into the outdoor environment and how it affects a specific long distance link.

Our development team has done a fantastic job in creating by far the most impressive WISP product UI brought to market.  The new AirOS quickly gives insight into link distance and settings, capacity in each direction, and air-time.  In addition, it gives the operator an instant overview of the total spectrum behavior (powered by our dedicated AirView “always-on” spectral analyzer radio) as well as provides fantastic insight into the relationship between signal strength, modulation, and capacity.  Finally, cumulative distribution charts give insight into the links time-dependent variation.

 

 

Radio Deployment — The New U-Mobile (both Android and iPhone support)

 

In less than a year, UniFi mobile has in excess of 120,000 active users and over 1 million downloads!  So, the thought occurred to us — let’s put the same team on building an equivalent app for the airMAX world!  With this plan in mind, we designed into all airMAX AC Gen2 hardware (more on this later) an additional dedicated U-Mobile management radio allowing for a direct connection to any smartphone or tablet via wifi, greatly improving the deployment experience.

Network Analysis — The New AirLink

AirLink has been successful as a simple point-to-point performance estimator, but in order to make it a  powerful tool WISP’s can use to better understand their existing networks, we are introducing terrain signal mapping for multipoint coverage analysis to greatly reduce the need for in person site surveys.  AirLink will also have an increasingly important role in our future WISP technology roadmap.

Network Monitoring and Management — The New AirControl

Yes, AirControl has a history of stumbling.  The original AirControl had a well-received WebUI, but was quite sluggish.  The upgraded AirControl2 was very fast and scalable, but required Java to the dismay of a large part of the market.  The “cloud” aspirations of AirCRM was poorly architected.  We finally took a step back, came up with a final plan and have executed very well in the past couple years.

The new AirControl (v2.x to be exact) has taken the best pieces of the past experiences.  It has a powerful and scalable back-end (like AirControl2), an elegant WebUI foundation with rapid feature development (much like UniFi), and a native development path to optional cloud hosting.

Customer and Operations Management — The New UCRM

As with AirControl, UCRM development had some challenges, but in the past year, a new team has done a fantastic job in making it into an outstanding tool.  UCRM offers tight levels of integration between Ubiquiti device management and customer management  such as customer Internet access suspension for past due bills and advanced QoS controls. With nearly 1,0000 WISP’s using UCRM in it’s early stages of development, we are hoping the solution helps to solve many of the challenges associated with scaling from a start-up WISP to a large service provider business.

New Generation 2 airMAX AC Hardware

Traditionally, we have designed airMAX technology for long-distance open-environment links.  In this case, antenna gain is king as higher signal strength leads to higher modulation rates and increased capacity.  This was the logic behind our hi-gain dishes, sectors, and integrated radio products.  However, a strong focus of our “Generation 2” airMAX AC hardware development was urban deployments where signal containment (and noise isolation) were often more important than pure link gain.

The IsoStation is a die-cast metal enclosed airMAX AC Gen2 radio that comes standard with a 45deg 15dBi horn antenna that has phenomenal energy isolation performance and is designed specifically to perform well in the harshest of RF environments.  The PrismStation takes the concept to the next level — bringing our Prism active RF-filtering (in addition to the extreme antenna energy isolation) performance to the radio.  Either product can be used as either an AP or a Station and can be upgraded with a variety of aftermarket horn antennas with varying coverage patterns.

Urban vs. Rural

 

IsoStation & PrismStation

 

The PrismStation and IsoStation (along with all Gen2 hardware), contain an independent AirView spectral analysis radio as well as a dedicated wifi management radio allowing U-Mobile support from any tablet or smartphone.  In addition, Gen2 hardware ESD protection has been significantly enhanced in attempt to eliminate ethernet field failures.  Best of all, the receivers of Gen2 radios have been redesigned with hardware tricks we have learned allowing them to be further resilient to RF noise.

Finally, the LiteBeam and PowerBeam Gen2 hardware have significantly improved mechanical mounting.

 

 

 

Breakthrough airMAX Wireless Performance

Perhaps the most important focus of our recent airMAX development was improving the upgrade path of new networks from airMAX to airMAX AC.  Although it has been a challenging past few years, we finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Recent AirOS firmware advances (especially with V8.1), have shown terrific results in adding airMAX AC radios to existing airMAX networks.  Combined with Generation 2 hardware improvements, airMAX

 AC is now consistently outperforming expectations.

Coming Up Next….

 

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply