How Home Mesh Networks Beef Up Your Wi-Fi

By Daniel Falconer

In situations where a router isn't cutting it, usually when a house is large laterally or vertically, mesh networks are a new alternative.

The devices we use today are reliant on wireless communications. Smartphones, computers, and even video game consoles all access the internet through signals known as Wi-Fi. However, due to the complexities of radio signals, a single access point for Wi-Fi doesn't cut it in some situations. Mesh networks provide more coverage while also maintaining speeds. They have been utilized in the enterprise space for years now, and this technology has finally made its way to the home.

Wi-Fi

In order to understand mesh networks and its importance we need to know what Wi-Fi itself is and how it works.

The majority of wireless communications and data transfers are done via radio waves; a type of electromagnetic radiation that propagates in as many as three dimensions through the environment at the speed of light. Artificial radio waves can be tuned to a wide range of wavelengths and frequencies which are sectioned off for different purposes and regulated by government agencies and international groups of experts. Radio communications in their simplest form involves a source transmitting data and something tuned to the same radio wave specifications to receive the transmission.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE, typically pronounced "eye triple-e") is the body responsible for the 802.11 standards our Wi-Fi capable devices use. Most devices made today support the 802.11n revision at either 2.4GHz or 5GHz, or the more recent 802.11ac revision which only operates at 5GHz. Each new version of the standard makes some sort of improvement, generally coming in the form of better throughput. The 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies are the radio bands that Wi-Fi is allowed to operate within, and is broken down further into channels that operate within tens of megahertz of the band.

There are pros and cons to using Wi-Fi at either 2.4GHz or 5GHz. Most channels for 2.4GHz overlap with one another, which can cause interference. And while 5GHz 802.11ac may be the new hotness, most devices still use 2.4GHz which causes more congestion. Then there's the fact that other technology, such as bluetooth and microwaves, operate at 2.4GHz as well, which causes interference. The 5GHz band tends to have much faster data speeds. However, due to the faster propagation of the wave it also breaks down faster, especially through solid objects, and so the 2.4GHz band has a longer range.

For years there have been ways to mitigate the shortcomings of Wi-Fi signals.

You could use an old router as another access point. If you had no way to reasonably get an ethernet line from your main router to the secondary one you could turn to powerline adapters; devices that move the internet over your house's power lines, which could run into issues depending on the quality of the wiring. And then there are Wi-Fi range extenders; devices that pick up your router's signal and rebroadcasts it, sometimes with a significant loss in throughput depending on the implementation.

Range extenders have gotten better over the years. Some models won't completely destroy your speeds, which used to happen. The better ones are even capable of connecting to your router on one band, and broadcasting on the other which provides a better overall signal. These devices can cost almost as much as a router, however.

Mesh Wi-Fi Networking

In situations where a router isn't cutting it, usually when a house is large laterally or vertically, mesh networks are a new alternative.

The basic premise is this; with one device plugged into a physical internet connection and acting as the base unit, all additional units, known as nodes or satellites, simply need power and connect to the base and one another through a wireless signal. One node can talk to other nodes simultaneously, and don't need to directly communicate with the base. And so, nodes can be placed in a configuration with overlapping coverage, not unlike a net, or a mesh. This has the advantage that if any one node goes down, you may not necessarily lose connection to the signal completely. A mesh network can also be configured linearly, so to provide a Wi-Fi signal to spaces far away that may not otherwise have it.

Mesh network products for the home have only been available for about two years now. In that relatively short amount of time both established and previously unknown companies in the consumer networking market have released first generation products. Unlike commercial grade mesh networks, a home implementation is less about a redundant signal and more simply covering a larger area. Some offerings only come with two devices, while others allow you to add on as many nodes as you want. The former would make more sense for your average house, and the later may be enticing to small business owners operating out of an office space or warehouse.

The Eero, which was the first on the market, has only one piece of hardware. With one serving as the base unit, theoretically an unlimited number of additional Eero's can be connected as nodes. Unfortunately, the Eero doesn't have a dedicated signal to serve as the backhaul/backbone of the connection between individual Eero's.

The hardware of a mesh network obviously needs to transfer data between one another. If the network is operating on the same frequency that your devices use as well, that means the speeds you see could be limited a noticeable amount compared to if the network didn't have bandwidth set aside for itself. This is a primary reason why many Wi-Fi repeaters are bad.

Some mesh network devices will allow you to choose between the 2.4GHz band or the 5GHz band to serve as the backbone. If most/all of your devices can utilize 5GHz, you may want to choose the 2.4GHz to serve as the backbone to prioritize range. Conversely, if you're primarily looking for more speed, having the 5GHz serve as the backbone may be the way to go. There are even other mesh network offerings, like the Neatgear Orbi, that utilize a frequency just outside of the ones used for Wi-Fi devices as the backbone of the network. With this kind of implementation the communication between the mesh network hardware in no way hinders devices using the network on either band.

One prevailing commonality between these first generation mesh network products is an attempt to make setup process devoid of complications. This is important because a slightly undesirable placement of nodes can mean the difference between a good signal and a bad one. Some products even go as far as handling the setup and configuration through a smartphone app. However, you should be aware that this ease of use has come at the cost of features and configurable options. Some mesh networks won't even allow you to access them through the IP address like you would a traditional router.

My personal experience with mesh systems lies with the Ubiquiti AmpliFi. The lower end offering at $200 that I opted for is the cheapest mesh system available right now. But even so, that's still about double the price of a great router these days. While the AmpliFi certainly improved the coverage of Wi-Fi in my ~3000 square foot home (I can even get a signal in my driveway now), the quality of the signal is hit and miss. The 5GHz signal is now incredible throughout the house, but the 2.4GHz band is so bad it seems like something is wrong. After going through the RMA process and testing the replacement further, I got the same results. With my previous router being a few years old, part of me feels getting a new router with better signal strength would have solved my issues without breaking the bank.

Ultimately, that's where mesh network systems stand right now. The technology works, and works well for the most part. But similar to other new technologies entering the market in the past, mesh systems are expensive at this moment. The ones worth getting start at about $400, a significant amount more than even a new router plus a good range extender. If you feel you'd benefit from a mesh system, and are willing to spend the money, buy one now knowing you'll be happy. That being said, I believe this technology is a worthy replacement for the standard wireless router, and hopefully it won't be long before the prices come down on mesh systems.