In this post, I’ll explain how handoff works in a network with multiple Apple AirPort Extreme base stations.
With the influx of connected devices in modern households, good internet connectivity has become increasingly important. Many devices are pretty useless when they are not connected to the outside world. When that happens, productivity suffers. Just think about how frustrating it is trying to work while on an airplane with a bad internet service.
Shop mentioned products
- Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station (Amazon*)
I work from home and heavily rely on the internet and phone service. Unfortunately, I have very weak LTE connectivity where I live, but since AT&T started offering Wi-Fi Calling, that has become a non-issue. As the name implies, Wi-Fi Calling relies on Wireless Lan and the internet connection it is hooked up to.
Distance may be good for the heart, but it weakens WiFi signal. Same goes for walls, doors, appliances, neighbors’ networks, metal, water (water heaters and fish tanks alike), dogs, anything solid. When you and your router are at opposite ends of your house, there are too many obstacles in between. Your WiFi signal simply can’t make it that far.
That’s why I invested in a business-class uplink from Comcast and 4 of Apple’s AirPort Extreme base stations that I spread out across the house. For the best possible performance, I connected all AirPort Base Stations using CAT6 Ethernet cables. As a result, I can enjoy a strong wireless signal anywhere in the house, while Comcast takes care of the rest.
The Need for Multiple Base Stations
Wireless routers and access points offer higher throughput and better coverage with every new generation. Unfortunately, they still have to work within the laws of physics, and thus the area a single access point can cover is limited.
Electromagnetic waves have different shapes and behaviors at different frequencies. In general, lower-frequency waves like AM radio can travel much farther than higher-frequency waves like light. That’s why the 5 GHz waves used by the newest WiFi standard (802.11ac), though capable of transmitting more data at higher speeds, aren’t as effective over longer distances as the older 2.4 GHz standard.
We have a ranch-style house, and there is no way that a single AirPort Base Station could provide enough coverage. Using so-called repeaters or range extenders is not a good solution either. Similar to range extenders, multiple AirPort base stations suffer from performance degradation as well when connected wirelessly (instead of wired). Apple states the following in its knowledge base article about extending the range of your wireless network by adding extra Wi-Fi base stations:
In the case of a wirelessly extended network, throughput may be reduced to less than 60 percent of that of a single device. The general rule is to keep the Wi-Fi network as simple as possible. You can accomplish this by using the minimum number of Wi-Fi base stations required to service the physical network area and by using Ethernet wherever possible.
That’s why I decided to deploy 4 AirPort Extreme Base Stations and connect them directly via Ethernet to prevent performance degradation.
How Handoff Between AirPort Base Stations Works
Having multiple base stations is fine but can devices transparently handoff from one base station to another?
For example, my main base station is in my office (AirPort Extreme Office), connected to the Comcast modem. If my iPhone is connected to this base station and I leave the office and go to the family room, where another base station is located, would the iPhone automatically handoff to the base station with the stronger signal?
The short answer is yes!
Most modern Macs and iOS devices support roaming protocols, including 802.1r, 802.1k and 892.1v and thus can handoff to base stations with stronger signals. I have made the following experience, using devices we use at home:
- iPhone 6S Plus: hands off immediately
- iPhone 6: hands off after a few minutes
- iPad Air 2: hands off immediately
- 12” MacBook: hands off immediately
Bottom line, handoff works very reliably when roaming in the house.
I have discovered at least one case, where handoff doesn’t work reliably or not at all. When the base station a device is connected to (base station A) reboots, the device connects to the next base station (base station B) available. After the reboot, I would expect the device to re-connect to the base station A, but it doesn’t. So it seems like, if a base station becomes unavailable, it is no longer available for handoff.
That explains why my Apple TV sometimes stays connected to a far-away base station after I power cycle the base station it is supposed to be connected to.
Eero vs. AirPort Express
I recently discovered an innovative device called Eero*. They claim to have “An entirely new approach to home WiFi.”
eero is the world’s first home WiFi system. A set of three eeros covers the typical home. They work in perfect unison to deliver hyper-fast, super-stable WiFi to every square foot of your house. It’s simple to set up. Easy to manage. And gets better over time with new features and improved performance. Stream video, get work done, or swipe right in any room — not just next to your router. Finally. WiFi that actually works.
I was considering replacing my AirPort Extreme base stations with Eero devices but ultimately decided not to. Eero devices are more powerful than AirPort Extreme base stations and have potentially better reach, but under the hood, their roaming technology is also based on 802.1r. I had a chat with their technical support, and they confirmed that my roaming experience wouldn’t improve with Eero. They did, however, claim to be working on new roaming technology that should come as a software update. However, they couldn’t give me an ETA on that. I have no issues with the coverage my existing AirPort Extreme network provides, and I decided to stick with what I have. But if I hadn’t invested in 4 AirPort Extreme base stations already, I would give Eero a try.
AirPort Extreme vs. AmpliFi HD
What’s your experience with handoff between AirPort Extreme base stations or other technologies? Let me know by leaving a comment below!