Wifi disappointment: Ubiquiti’s AC-Lite access point

My broadband provider’s (free.fr) built-in wifi is pretty dismal – despite having a reasonably solid 26Mbit VDSL connection, my iPhone will often time out even when in the same room, and streaming video from another computer through 1 plasterboard wall often glitches, while an Ethernet connection works fine. Free’s admin software has a neat little channel scanner, and I can see that my network is the only one using these channels, so it’s not an interference problem, and my phone has no speed problems on other wifi networks I use. So I decided to spring for a new access point that would support 5GHz bands, to see if that would work better, and chose the AC-Lite model from the highly recommended Ubiquiti Networks.

I wasn’t sure if my router supported PoE, so I plugged in the AC-lite to see if would show any signs of life, but no lights came on – but none did. So I plugged in the PoE injector and plugged it in again – but still no signs of life! I replugged the PoE injector and checked the docs to ensure I had the ports connected the right way round, but still nothing. Leaving it plugged in, I started searching Ubiquiti’s support docs, but after a few minutes noticed that the lights had come on on the access point. A further test reveals that it takes quite a long time for anything to show up – it’s just slow.

While doing that, I needed to sign up for Ubiquiti’s support site at help.ubnt.com, so I did the whole email sign-up dance. I also gathered form the “Quick Start” guide that I needed to install a local copy of their management application, UniFi. So I grabbed the latest macOS version (5.6.22, at the time) and installed that. On running it, it complained it couldn’t run because “Port 8080 is used by other programs”. That is true – I run nginx on port 8080 with a port mapping from port 80 so I can run it unprivileged. After some rummaging through the help site, it tells me I need to edit the “system.properties” file and change the default port. I then need to find the system properties file. Eventually I find a reference that says it’s inside the UniFi app bundle, in UniFi.app/Contents/Resources/data, however, it’s not there. Later on I find a comment on someone else’s identical question revealing that this file is only created after you’ve run it successfully for the first time – so we have a stupid chicken & egg situation – you can only avoid a port clash by not having a port clash. So I stop nginx, relaunch UniFi, and sure enough, the system.properties file appears, so I can then quit, edit the settings and relaunch. This can’t be that unusual (given the numerous support questions asking it), and being able to set ports from the launcher would seem a basic thing to allow.

Now it lets me click the “Launch a browser to manage the network” button, which takes me to a browser page filled with warnings about invalid security settings – browsers are now much pickier about such things – and after clicking through all the warnings, it ultimately requires me to provide an admin override to allow the use of a self-signed certificate. Not pretty. It then tells me Safari isn’t supported. Sigh. So I switch to Chrome, and go through the whole set of security warnings again. None of this is mentioned in the quick start guide. I know what all this means – but I suspect many would not.

“At last”, I think, “I can get on with configuring this thing”. Fat chance. It takes me through a config wizard. As part of this it asks me to enter my login details for the Ubiquiti support site for its “cloud integration”. However, the login that I created earlier doesn’t work – after much retrying and checking, it turns out that I have to create a new account, because, obviously, help.ubnt.com and account.ubnt.com are completely different and unrelated sites 🙄. I noticed that the site supports 2FA, so I enabled that, though I also noticed that it does not provide any backup keys, so if you lose your authenticator (e.g. in the way that google authenticator does occasionally), you’re screwed.

Finally I get to log in, where I’m greeted with lots of greyed out areas and warnings saying “UniFi Security Gateway Required”, and “DPI data is missing”. Just what I wanted to see on my first login to this shiny new product. Requiring some other device is fine, but it doesn’t need to be so prominent that it looks like there’s something wrong.

After all that, I got everything connected. My iPhone connects over 5G, and so far it seems to be free of the network issues that led me in this direction to start with, so it worked out in the end – but it could so easily have been so much better.