Mesh Wifi is a cool technology that was used for years in enterprise environments and can now be easily implemented in a home environment for a reasonable price.
Mesh Wifi is a wireless networking solution that uses x number of nodes in an environment to provide full wifi coverage for various devices. In the image above you can see that the environment is a house, and you can see that there are three nodes that provide wifi coverage for the home. The three nodes working together to provide the wifi form what is called a mesh.
Mesh Wifi networks provide all devices with the same SSID as the devices move through the environment hosting the mesh. It doesn’t matter which node is closest to the wireless device. The wireless signal is not dropped or buffered. The device’s connection is simply handed off from node to node so that it never loses connectivity.
Access points are networking devices that provide wireless devices in an environment with a wifi signal. Mesh Wifi uses access points, but they are called nodes in that system.
The photo above is a Ubiquiti access point. They are smarter than your average access point, but they still only function in a level 1 / level 2 way.
We consider access points to be semi-dumb devices in terms of networking hardware. They provide a level 2 (data layer) connection back to a switch via an ethernet cable. However, when communicating with wireless devices in an environment, access points are level 1 (physical layer) devices because they broadcast information to all connected clients.
You can see why your SSID password needs to be strong: every client in the area can receive the broadcasted data. If someone cracks your SSID password (wifi password), they can sit on your network sniffing all the data being broadcast. Chances are that they will sniff something that is not encrypted, and thus vacuum up some important data. Make sure your wifi password is secure!
Types of Mesh Wifi Systems
There are two ways to make a mesh wifi network: (1) a packaged kit of usually three devices that create three nodes in your house with one of the nodes acting as the home node or controlling node, and (2) discrete access points connected to a router or switches with a mesh wifi mode option. The mesh wifi option allows them to talk to other access points in the environment and act as nodes and create a mesh.
Packaged Mesh Setups
Many manufacturers sell packaged kits for creating a mesh wifi network. The devices usually come in three packs. The packs consist of a home base or controller and two other nodes.
Google Home is one of the most popular kits available. The kit comes with a base or controller node and two other nodes. The home base is installed close to your cable modem. Then the other two nodes are placed somewhere in the environment.
When you setup the system, the home base comes up first and then looks for the other two nodes. Once all three nodes are synced together, you can start using the mesh wifi network.
You can walk around the environment and maintain your wifi connectivity because each node communicates with the other nodes and passes of the device connection as needed. The system is pretty fast and effective as long as the devices can “see” each other on the network.
Nodes can work fairly well in a two story home as long as the signal can penetrate the floor or ceiling to reach another node. The last system (Google Home) we tested reached speeds between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps for download.
NOTE: if you have a solid wall house – like a cement wall with rebar for instance and the home is more than one level, you will probably need to go with an access point and switch setup. The nodes won’t be able to see each other because the rebar creates a sort of faraday cage that keeps wireless signals from escaping each room of the house.
Here is a decent but brief comparison of some of the top mesh network setups available: LINK.
I can’t say that I agree with their concerns about the google system. They claim that it can be difficult to setup. I didn’t find that to be the case at all. I have setup several google home systems without any issues. Those systems were in retired people’s homes where the level of tech savvy was not high. They have both been running for more than three years without any issues.
I have heard of eero but I did not know that amazon purchased the company recently. They cite privacy concerns with that system. That is a valid concern. Amazon harvests data with always on listening with Alexa, so you do need to consider privacy with the eero.
TP-Link and Google are well known names and each has a mesh system / kit available. Gryphon is a newer system and has a lot of features. Unbelievably, Gryphon has connectivity issues though! That is exactly what the system is supposed to solve.
TP-Link just released an updated mesh wifi system that uses wifi 6. Wifi 6 is a significant upgrade in terms of bandwidth and throughput and thus speed for wifi signals.
An Aside on WiFi 6
Wifi 6 can produce a theoretical maximum throughput of 9.6 Gbps versus 3.5 Gbps on wifi5. Wow! Awesome! I have never even sniffed speeds of 3.5Gbps on wifi5 in the world. However, you can see that with the potential for even faster theoretical wifi6 speeds, real world numbers will still be better on wifi6 than on wifi5.
We are getting off track a bit here, but wifi6’s secret to faster speeds is something called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access or OFDMA. It really rolls of your tongue doesn’t it? There is a lot of theory that goes into OFDMA, but the main point is that it allows wifi6 routers to handle more data simultaneously instead of forcing wifi clients to wait their turn to have their requests processed. This reduces latency in data transmission and results in faster data transmission speeds.
Another really cool and helpful feature in wifi6 networks is the ability to use beam forming. This allows routers to focus the wifi signal beam on the device requesting the data instead of broadcasting it in a wide pattern and hoping to hit the requesting device with the signal. This makes wifi6 networks much more efficient which again reduces errors and latency and improves speed.
Discrete Component Mesh Systems
If you don’t go with a packaged mesh wifi kit like the Google and TP-Link systems, you can go with a system consisting of access points and a router or switches and a router.
As noted above, access points are not smart devices. They are smarter one way (receive) and really dumb the other way (broadcast). However, if you get a good access point, they can be configured to enable mesh mode. Once mesh mode is enabled on an access point, the device acts as a node on the network and can join with other access points to create a wireless mesh wifi system.
I am most familiar with Ubiquiti networking equipment. You can purchase a Ubiquiti router like the dream machine or dream machine pro, add two unifi access points and create a mesh wifi network.
The ubiquiti products work very well in mesh wifi mode. One feature of the ubiquiti access points is that they are power over ethernet (PoE) capable. This makes it easy to distribute them in your home or business. All you have to do is run an ethernet cable and plug in the access point. You don’t need to provide any other power to the device.
How is the speed of the a discrete component mesh wifi network? For a ubiquiti device like the wifi6 pro, you can reach speeds of 4.8Gbps with a 5GHz signal band device. The 2.4GHz speed (for a lot of ioT devices for example) is 573.5 Mbps. Note the wifi6 uses the 802.11ax wifi standard.
I prefer the discrete component mesh wifi system setup. Our home has several floors with lots of angles and stairs. I think installing discrete access points with mesh wifi mode enabled is a better way for me personally to have a mesh wifi system. I use ubiquiti devices because they are cheaper than cisco hardware, but they are still solid and fast and powerful with lots of options for custom configurations.
If you don’t have that large a home and particularly if your home is all one level and you don’t need advanced features, I would recommend that you pick one of the leading mesh wifi packaged systems. You will have a reliable wireless network setup with few issues and plenty of speed.