Mesh Wi-Fi networks, or whole-home Wi-Fi systems, are increasingly promoted by manufacturers of wireless equipment like Netgear, TP-Link, ASUS, Google, and others. The concept of mesh Wi-Fi sounds impressive but what does it mean? Do people need a mesh Wi-Fi system in their home or business office? Are whole-home Wi-Fi systems the future of home networking? If you need down-to-earth explanations, that anyone can understand, read this article:
What is a mesh Wi-Fi network?
A mesh Wi-Fi network is made of router-like devices (nodes) that work together to provide a wireless network in a given area. All the nodes 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 Wi-Fi nodes that are connected with each other and the internet.
What is a mesh Wi-Fi system?
A mesh Wi-Fi system is a system of router-like devices (nodes) that is used to create and operate a mesh Wi-Fi network. Some manufacturers of home networking devices name their mesh Wi-Fi systems as whole-home Wi-Fi systems, so that people understand that such systems offer improved Wi-Fi coverage for their homes, when compared to traditional wireless routers.
How does a mesh Wi-Fi system work?
To better understand how mesh Wi-Fi systems 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 Wi-Fi broadcast by the router and always communicate with the router. The router is an intermediary between the laptop and the internet. Wireless routers can provide a good Wi-Fi signal in spaces which vary in size, depending on how powerful the router is. 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 network. This problem is exacerbated in large homes with many walls separating the router from its wireless clients.
In a mesh Wi-Fi system, only one of the nodes in the system has direct access to the internet. That node communicates with all the others making up the mesh Wi-Fi system, and together they provide internet and Wi-Fi access to all the clients connected to the network.
This way, you can get good Wi-Fi signal in large spaces and buildings, where traditional routers are limited by their transmitting power. Mesh nodes 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 nodes emit the same Wi-Fi network with the same name, password, and characteristics, no matter how many you add to the mesh Wi-Fi system.
Essential characteristics of whole-home Wi-Fi systems
Today you can find many mesh Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi systems use a mobile-first strategy. They are administered with the help of a smartphone app. The app communicates with the mesh through Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or both, depending on who manufactured the mesh that you are using.
- They broadcast the Wi-Fi using both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies but using only one network name. Wireless clients that support only the Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) standard are automatically connected on the 2.4 GHz frequency, while dual-band clients that support the Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 standards are connected to the 5 GHz frequency.
- Consumer mesh Wi-Fi systems typically have two or three nodes, depending on their model and manufacturer.
- Most mesh Wi-Fi systems are integrated with virtual assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant, making them more friendly to use than traditional wireless routers and repeaters.
- When taken individually, the nodes that make up a mesh Wi-Fi system are less powerful than a standard wireless router. However, their power is in the number of nodes that you use for your mesh Wi-Fi system, and together can provide better Wi-Fi coverage than a traditional wireless router.
The advantages of mesh Wi-Fi networks
Mesh Wi-Fi networks have some significant advantages over traditional wireless networks that are managed by a router:
- You can add as many nodes as you need to improve the coverage of your Wi-Fi network. You can purchase nodes separately and add them as needed, without any additional setup.
- Mesh Wi-Fi networks use a single name for the wireless network, that works both in the 2.4 GHz and 5GHz bands. Older devices that support the Wi-Fi 4 standard connect through the slower 2.4 GHz band, while newer devices that support the Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 standards connect through the faster 5GHz band.
- Mesh Wi-Fi networks offer dynamic rerouting, meaning they automatically choose the best path for packets to communicate between devices to avoid congestion.
- They are self-discovering and configuring. Each new node automatically finds and replicates the settings used by the mesh Wi-Fi network. Also, you can remove nodes, and the remaining ones automatically adjust to continue their operation.
- 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 Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi systems are made to 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 Wi-Fi coverage. Therefore it is important to choose wisely before purchasing one whole-home Wi-Fi system or another.
- The price is higher if you need to cover small or medium areas. Mesh Wi-Fi networks work in all kinds of spaces. However, if you do not have a large apartment or a home with at least one floor, mesh networks are more expensive than traditional wireless networks that use routers and repeaters. For large spaces, mesh Wi-Fi networks can be more cost effective than traditional approaches.
- Adding more nodes to the mesh Wi-Fi network increases latency and decreases bandwidth. Therefore, you cannot endlessly add nodes to the mesh Wi-Fi network. At some point, it is going to stop working, and the Wi-Fi speed you get is going to be too poor to be usable.
- Some mesh Wi-Fi systems do not have USB ports. Power users won't be able to connect printers or external hard disks to their mesh Wi-Fi network through traditional means.
- Some mesh Wi-Fi systems can only be configured from smartphone apps. Some vendors, like Google, focus on offering only smartphone apps for administering the mesh Wi-Fi system. Power users are going to find this limiting, because they can customize very little about how the mesh Wi-Fi system works. Other vendors, like ASUS, continue to offer web-based administration interfaces which allow power users to configure everything about their mesh Wi-Fi network.
- Some mesh Wi-Fi systems don't have a backbone connection reserved to communicate between mesh stations. This means that you don't get a faster network than in the case of a traditional network, only Wi-Fi 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 downsides to consider:
- You need to separately manage each device that emits the wireless signal. This is especially difficult when your Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi network, you administer all the devices that emit the wireless signal in one place, as if they were one device, not many. Your settings and firmware upgrades are automatically propagated through the entire mesh Wi-Fi system, without your manual intervention on each node.
- 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.
- You don't get a dedicated band for the communication between the devices that emit the wireless signal. Premium mesh Wi-Fi systems have a band that is dedicated exclusively to the communication between the stations that power up the system. When you use a wireless router and a repeater, there is no dedicated band between them, meaning that a mesh Wi-Fi system is going to be faster.
TIP: If you are not convinced about the benefits of mesh Wi-Fi systems, and you want to buy a traditional wireless router, we recommend: 8 things to consider when buying a wireless router (for beginners).
When were mesh Wi-Fi networks invented?
The first real-life mesh network implementations were made by the US military in 1997 and then by a team at the 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 Wi-Fi system to be made available on a larger scale for home users is Google Wi-Fi, which was launched in December 2016.
Are you going to buy a mesh Wi-Fi system?
Now that you know what a mesh Wi-Fi network is, or a whole-home Wi-Fi system, let us know your opinion. Is this technology of interest to you? Are you considering buying a mesh Wi-Fi system in your home or office? Comment below, and let's discuss.