Simple questions: What is a mesh wireless network or whole-home WiFi system?

Mesh wireless networks, or whole-home wifi systems, are among the latest buzzwords when it comes to networking for consumers. They sound impressive but what do they mean? Do you need to care about mesh WiFi networks? Are whole-home WiFi systems the future of home networking? If you need down-to-earth explanations, that anyone can understand, read this article, and we'll explain everything you need to know:

What is a mesh wireless network or a whole-home WiFi system?

A mesh wireless network is a system of stations/hubs that work together to provide a WiFi network in a given area. All the hubs communicate with each other to establish the best path to send the data between the different clients that are connected to the network. You can think of it as a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) network of WiFi stations/hubs that are connected with each other and the internet. In shops, many providers of home networking devices name their mesh wireless network devices as whole-home WiFi systems.

To better understand how they work, let's take a look at a traditional wireless network that you find in a home. You have a wireless router that is connected to the internet. It is the job of the router to emit the wireless signal and manage all the wireless clients that are connected to it. To get access to the internet, a device like a laptop needs to connect to the WiFi that is broadcast by the router and always communicate with the router. The router acts like an intermediary between the laptop and the internet and it also handles the transmission of data to each client.

Wireless routers can provide a good WiFi signal in spaces which vary in size, depending on how powerful the router is for emitting a wireless signal. However, the further away you get from the router, the weaker the signal is and, at some point, you won't be able to connect to the wireless network. This problem is exacerbated in large homes with many walls separating the router from its wireless clients.

In a mesh wireless network, only one of the stations/hubs has direct access to the internet. This hub communicates with all others in the network, and together they provide internet and WiFi access to all the clients that are connected. This way, you can get good WiFi signal in large spaces and buildings, where traditional routers are limited by their transmitting power. Mesh stations/hubs piggyback on one another to create a continuous wireless link, minimizing the possibility of dead zones, including in spaces with many walls that might absorb the signal.

All the mesh stations/hubs emit the same WiFi network with the same name and characteristics, no matter how many you add.

When where mesh networks invented?

The first real-life mesh network implementations were made by the US military in 1997 and then by a team at Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, in 1999. As of 2004, the concept had seen an increase in adoption in the commercial sector. Mesh networks are used to offer broadband internet in rural areas, for large scale business applications, and in the military.

The first mesh WiFi system to be made available on a larger scale for home users is Google WiFi, which was launched in December 2016.

Essential characteristics of whole-home WiFi systems

Today you can find several mesh WiFi systems on the consumer market, and their number is growing. They are different from traditional wireless networks in the following ways:

  • Most consumer-based mesh WiFi systems embrace mobile in a big way. They are administered with the help of a smartphone app. The app communicates with the mesh through WiFi or Bluetooth or both, depending on who manufactured the mesh that you are using.
  • They broadcast the wireless frequency using both the 2.4 GHz and the 5 GHz frequency but using only one network name. Wireless clients that support only the 802.11n standard are automatically connected to the network on the 2.4 GHz frequency, while dual-band clients that support the 802.11ac standard are connected to the 5 GHz frequency.
  • Consumer mesh systems have two or three stations/hubs, depending on their manufacturer.
  • Some mesh systems are integrated with virtual assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant, making them more friendly to use than traditional wireless routers and repeaters.

The advantages of mesh wireless networks

Mesh wireless networks have some significant advantages over traditional wireless networks that are managed by a wireless router:

  • You can add as many stations/hubs as you need to improve the coverage of your network. You can purchase hubs separately and add them as needed, without any additional setup.
  • Mesh networks use a single name for the wireless network, that works both in the 2.4 GHz and 5GHz frequencies. Older devices that support the 802.11n standard will connect through the slower 2.4 GHz frequency, while newer devices that support the 802.11ac standard will connect through the faster 5GHz frequency.
  • Mesh networks offer dynamic rerouting, meaning that they automatically choose the best path for packets to communicate between devices to avoid congestion.
  • They are self-discovering and configuring. Each new station/hub automatically finds and replicates the settings used by the mesh network. Also, you can remove stations/hubs, and the remaining ones will automatically adjust to continue their functioning.
  • They perform better than wireless routers in areas where the wireless signal is intermittently blocked by walls and sources of interference.

The disadvantages of mesh wireless networks

It's not all milk and honey. There are also some important downsides to consider:

  • Mesh networks suffer from vendor lock-in. Unlike wireless routers and repeaters which work well together even if they are made by different manufacturers, mesh systems are made so that they work only with devices from the same family. If you choose ASUS, TP-LINK, Google, NetGear, Linksys or some other manufacturer, you are stuck with it when you need to extend or improve your WiFi coverage. Therefore it is important to choose wisely before purchasing a whole-home WiFi system or another.
  • The price is higher if you need to cover areas that are not very large. Mesh networks work in all kinds of spaces. However, if you don't have a large apartment or a home with multiple levels, mesh networks are more expensive than traditional wireless networks that use routers and repeaters. For large spaces, mesh networks can be more cost effective than traditional approaches.
  • Adding more nodes to the mesh network increases latency and decreases bandwidth. Therefore, you cannot endlessly add stations/hubs to the mesh network. At some point, it will stop working, and the WiFi speed you get will be too poor to be usable.
  • Some vendors offer stations/hubs without USB ports. Power users won't be able to connect printers or external hard disks to their mesh network through traditional means.
  • Some mesh systems can only be configured from smartphone apps. Some vendors, like Google, focus on offering only smartphone apps for administering your mesh network. Power users will find this very limiting, as they will be able to customize very little about how the mesh works. Other vendors, like ASUS, continue to offer web-based administration interfaces which allow power users to configure more about how their mesh works.
  • Some mesh systems don't have a backbone connection that's reserved to communicate between mesh stations/hubs. This means that you don't get a faster network than in the case of a traditional network, only WiFi coverage, and signal in a larger area.

Can't I get the same results with a wireless router and several repeaters/range extenders?

If your purpose is to increase the coverage of the wireless network in your home, you can continue to use a wireless router and several repeaters/range extenders in the areas that are problematic. However, there are some important downsides to consider:

  • You need to separately administer each device that emits the wireless signal. This is especially difficult when your WiFi emitting devices are from different manufacturers. You need to learn different user interfaces, search in different places for firmware upgrades and manually update the firmware on each device if you want a network that's both secure and stable. With a mesh WiFi network, you administer all the devices that emit the wireless signal in one place, as if they are one device, not many. Your settings and firmware upgrades are automatically propagated through the entire mesh, without your manual intervention on each mesh station/hub.
  • Some wireless routers and repeaters force you to use different names for the wireless networks that they emit. This means that users need to know which wireless network name to use depending on where they are. Older networking devices don't know how to offer automatic switching between wireless access points, based on the user's position and the WiFi signal strength. Mesh networks offer this automatically, and all mesh stations/hubs emit their wireless signal using the same network name.
  • If you need coverage in large areas and buildings, traditional networks with routers and repeaters are more expensive. If you need to cover a large home or office building, conventional wireless networks can be more expensive both regarding hardware and administration.

Which mesh WiFi systems are available to consumers?

When we published this article, the following whole-home WiFi systems are available to consumers: Eero, Google WiFi, Linksys Velop, Luma Whole Home WiFi, NeatGear Orbi, and TP-LINK Deco.

Other mesh WiFi systems that were announced to be available soon are ASUS Lyra, ASUS Lyra Mini, and D-Link Covr.

What do you think about mesh wireless networks?

Now that you know what a mesh wireless network is, or a whole-home WiFi system, let us know your opinion. Is this technology something that you will benefit from? Do you consider it too expensive? Do you plan on buying a whole-home WiFi system?