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Mesh Wi-Fi Systems: What, How and Benefits

There probably are not many households left that don’t have WiFi network installed. Such a broad usage calls for an evolution, and a wireless mesh is a logical evolutionary step for wireless networks that were previously supported by only a single router and extenders. This is because even advanced range extenders doing a good job of filling in the dead zones will still cover only half the bandwidth that your router transmits. The access points do better than range extenders but need a wired connection to the main router. Both range extenders and access points will create a new network SSID that will require a login as you move from one part of the household to another.

A mesh network is a multi-node system with nodes connected directly, dynamically and non-hierarchically to as many other nodes as possible. These network nodes cooperate with one another to efficiently route data from/to clients. Reduced maintenance costs, fault tolerance, extended coverage all result from self-organization and self-configuration capabilities of such networks.

The concept of mesh networking has first appeared in the 1980s in military experiments (that's where everything starts, right?) and became more available by the 1990s. However, it only became consumer-scale practical in the last couple of years. And that's when so many different brands came into view.

In a mesh network, each base station is a node that continuously exchanges information about the network with other nodes. This way all nodes are aware of each other on the network even if they are not exchanging data.

Mesh systems dynamically adjust radio attributes and channels for the most efficient coverage and the least interference, which leads to a higher throughput level. In some cases, a node will send a packet of data to just one other node, whereas in other cases it will route the packet through other nodes to reach the destination even in case of a weak signal or interference.

Some mesh routers have one-band radios, but it is more common for mesh nodes to have two- or even three-band radios, like the latest version of Eero.

Ideally, the most throughput is reserved for the productive traffic, like streaming HD videos, in relation to that used for moving information across the network.

Eero pioneered mesh network manufacturing to hook us up on the conveniences of easy wireless setup that is also cute looking. And then so many others followed: Luma, Google WiFi, Asus, TP-Link included. And now even Apple jumped on the bandwagon, although not exactly the same way. They have started selling a mesh Wi-Fi system from Linksys on their website and in stores. They don't currently offer their own mesh wireless system. The router and nodes of these systems have internal antennas so you won't see them sticking out in all directions, and they won't flash LED indicators every other moment, which allows them to seamlessly blend in with your tastefully designed interior.

Mesh Wi-Fi systems are made easy even for users with little or no technical experience and offer simple installation process. Typically they come with a mobile app that'll lead users through installation with easy-to-grasp instructions. Such systems are also easy to expand if needed and one can manage them in the mobile app. The nodes interact with each other within a larger network choosing the quickest and safest path for information to come through, this is known as dynamic routing. The biggest advantage? Mesh wireless networks are actually wireless unlike the most traditional wireless access points that still need wired connection to the Internet. Traditional wireless networks will need Ethernet cables to be extended throughout the network site to get it covered.

These Wi-Fi systems operate on the 2.4GHZ and 5GHz radio bands and use 802.11ac technology. Some models support MU-MIMO technology that allows streaming data simultaneously to all wireless clients, instead of sequentially. Most of the systems will offer parental controls, guest networking, and will allow prioritizing the devices. Being easy to use means lacking certain advanced options though, like firewall settings, individual band control, and wireless transmission rate settings that come with traditional routers.

Which direction is mesh going? Is it more and more nodes added to cove the space better? We don't think so, it is rather advanced nodes with versatile features and various kinds of radios. Even though the nodes are rather good looking and will work in any space and even though they become more and more advanced with time, it is still crucial to place them properly throughout the household or office space. The more efficiently you place the nodes the better WiFi coverage you'll get at a lesser cost. NetSpot is a highly efficient WiFi heatmapper that creates WiFi heatmaps of your space and helps you define the most effective placement for each mesh network node.

So how can your Internet connection become stronger and faster? First off, if your computer is in the broadcast range of four mesh nodes, the bandwidth will be four times faster than of one typical wireless router. Second thing to look at is the distance - the smaller the distance between your computer and the closest node, the stronger the WiFi signal strength. Also nodes can provide connectivity to such wired devices as VoIP phones, videos cams, desktop workstations connected through Ethernet. Most nodes (e.g. Google WiFi) have two Ethernet ports and thanks to PoE technology can offer power to standalone devices without having to plug the device in an outlet.

The advantages of wireless mesh networks:
  1. Fewer materials means less cost of setting up a network. The larger the space the more savings.
  2. The more properly placed nodes, the faster and efficient connection.
  3. They use the common WiFi standards (802.11ac, a, b and g).
  4. Work great even in large spaces like stadiums, warehouses, etc.
  5. When you have to configure a Non-Line-of-Sight (NLoS) network, where a wireless signal can be occasionally blocked, mesh setup is rather useful.
  6. These networks are able to self-configure incorporating a new node to an existing setup without any specialized adjustments from a network administrator.
  7. Mesh networks can "fix" themselves. Whenever any node is blocked or loses a signal, the network will automatically find the fastest and most reliable paths to send data.
  8. Thanks to the fact that local packets don't have to be transmitted back to a central server mesh configurations are faster than regular wireless networks.
  9. Mesh networks are expandable and easy to adapt to your current needs.
Mesh networks can be successfully implemented in cities and municipalities. Cities will be able to connect people and public services over a widespread fast wireless connection. Mesh networks can let cities link all installed public hotspots together to completely cover a municipality.

The advantages of such coverage include the ability of commuters to check their emails on the train or at a coffee shop. Also public works officials don't have to dig trenches to run cables, because wireless nodes can connect over the air to help diagnose city power and water supply. Public safety and emergency services can access secure virtual networks even in case of cellular service being off.

The disadvantage of a mesh system is that no two mesh systems available on the market are compatible with each other. While Wi-Fi is standardized, and the hardware is reliably compatible no matter the maker, mesh system makers didn't follow suit. An early mesh protocol, 802.11h wasn't sufficient and also was left ignored by the companies, because they worked for better results and competitive advantages. Also there seems to be no such standard in the works at this moment, so nothing is likely to change in the nearest future in terms of cross-compatibility.

There are several obvious reasons why you wan compatibility amongst various mesh systems. First of all, you can save money by buying additional nodes from another manufacturer that are cheaper than what you are already using. Secondly, if a company or a product goes under, you don't want to replace the whole system just because you need additional nodes. Also you want to be able to upgrade the network gradually to implement new standards.

Being forced to use the equipment by one manufacturer is risky, because some popular mesh manufacturers are startups, and startups don't always succeed. Then with the bigger brands, they may be more established, but if they don't see a profit in this direction, they may stop the production.

Inability to switch among different mesh brands may affect you in such ways as:
  1. No technical support for issues with your network;
  2. No warranty for non-functional hardware;
  3. No ability to expand your network with new nodes;
  4. Security flaws don't get patches and updates;
  5. Phone apps that help you control the system are not updated and consequently stop working;
  6. Cloud-based configuration elements get disabled or reset making operating the nodes impossible.
Mesh network systems are the future despite possible flaws, providing thorough coverage of selected areas. Setting them up properly in your office or household ensures a thorough coverage and consistent wireless signal. We mentioned it earlier, but just to note: using NetSpot software to find the perfect placement for mesh nodes helps tremendously, as it saves time and money on buying unnecessary nodes and trying to guess where they should reside.