Mesh networks are all the rage in wireless connections. Whether it’s from your well-known brands or Internet providers, everyone seems to be hyping how they are the solution to most Wi-Fi problems.
But are they nonetheless? There are a few things to consider before jumping on the mesh bandwagon. We’ve gathered information below to help you understand if this is the technology needed to improve your Wi-Fi setup or if other options are better.
What is a mesh Wi-Fi network?
Simply put, mesh is a technology over Wi-Fi that simplifies the process of adding new routers to an existing network. The main goal is to provide a simple way to extend the coverage area of a wireless network, home or not.
Mesh (802.11s) is not a replacement for current Wi-Fi standards (the popular 2.4GHz 802.11b/g, the newer 5GHz 802.11n/ac, or 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 and 6E). That means current devices don’t need upgrades to join mesh networks, since the significant differences are all within the routers.
Mesh systems work similar to the Wi-Fi extenders or repeaters many people have at home: a router (the “master”) is connected to a modem, providing a connection to the Internet. The others send and receive data to you wirelessly and must be strategically placed to minimize dead zones.
However, there are differences, and they are important specifically for people who want to know if mesh routers are the solution to their Wi-Fi problems. The definitive answer varies for each case.
1. Inspect the covered area
Since the mesh is intended to expand Wi-Fi coverage, the build area is the first thing to consider. If your current router doesn’t provide a strong signal throughout your home or office, switching to a mesh kit might be an option.
But it’s not that simple. Most routers send and receive data omnidirectionally. That basically means that the Wi-Fi coverage is a sphere with the router in the center, and the further away from it, the weaker the signal. So in many cases solving this can be simply changing the location of the current router.
If your router is located in the living room, by the front door, and the bedrooms have poor coverage, moving it closer to a hallway can dramatically improve signal strength, which translates to better speeds and no more connection losses.
2. Be aware of physical barriers
However, simply moving the router may not be enough. Other barriers could be affecting signal strength, and the multiple factors involved in poor coverage need to be addressed, even when the router is in a central location.
To test this, turn off Wi-Fi on any devices you have, then use a wired connection to test the router (so you can tell if the router itself can handle the speed). If your network is strictly 2.4GHz, it also means it’s time to get a new router: few go above 150Mbps; even fewer handle over 300 Mbps.
Older buildings, on the other hand, often have thicker walls, which could affect how Wi-Fi signals travel through rooms. If you want to connect to a router on a lower or higher floor, that’s even worse. The ceilings are thicker than the walls and have pipes and cables running through them.
In such cases, even placing the router in the dead center of the building will not solve coverage problems. You need to specifically map how the connection works in each room, and sometimes in different places in the same room, to understand the course of action.
3. Be aware of connection speeds
The connection speed is also something to consider. If your ISP promises, say, 600Mbps, but in a specific room you only get 200 or 300, signal strength is most likely to blame. But not necessarily: there are a few ways to improve router speeds.
First of all: Is your ISP cheating on you? Connect a computer directly to the modem, via a cable, and turn Wi-Fi off if it’s a modem/router combo (many modern ones are). Then check your speed to see if you’re getting what you’re paying for.
Then comes another question: can your current router handle all that speed? This isn’t the kind of device people buy as often as a smartphone (or even a computer), so you could be dealing with an outdated router that simply isn’t capable of delivering the bitrate you pay for.
Finally, there’s the obvious question: does that specific room really need all that speed? Even for 4K video streaming, anything around 100 Mbps should suffice with some free space. There’s no need to worry about a device not getting full speed if that device isn’t even using all those megabits per second.
4. Try other network solutions
Mesh networking isn’t exactly new: the standard was published in 2012, and products that include the technology are still becoming widely available. However, there are not as many compatible products as there are for other network solutions that can meet your needs.
Keep the point above in mind: If you live in a small apartment and pay for 400 Mbps, but your router only supports 300 Mbps, it’s likely that a newer one will cover your entire unit and provide your subscribed connection speed. A mesh kit won’t hurt, but it won’t be necessary in this case.
In another situation, if a single point in your home or office needs better coverage, a repeater or extender would be a much better solution than a mesh kit. Costs are lower, setup is easier, and it will work just as well.
If several points suffer from weak signal, mesh networks can help, but they are not the only solution. Many newer (or renovated) buildings have RJ45 outlets, so a network cable can be plugged directly into a computer or wired access point to provide a cheaper coverage extension. Plastic wall conduits and extra cables, while not a pretty solution, can also work similarly between rooms.
So in many cases simply buying a kit may not be the best solution. Mesh routers aren’t as easy to find at your local supply store as the hardware mentioned above, and are often even more difficult to set up. It will depend on how much time you are willing to spend, for example running new cables through rooms or finding the best socket to plug in a repeater for optimal coverage.
Also, older routers and repeaters may not work well with mesh kits as they were designed before the standard was widely adopted. Problems such as channel interference and speed bottlenecks can arise. If you plan to keep one or more of your current network devices, compatibility might be poor.
5. Consider the price of a mesh setup
Speaking of compatibility, although it’s an industry standard, things aren’t always easy when setting up a mesh network. Many routers get limited functionality when “meshed” with other brand products, or they may not work at all. Huawei, for example, has been known to limit the mesh on its routers strictly to other Huawei access points.
That means things can get more expensive quickly, depending on the size of the network you’re trying to build. And, until the cross-vendor compatibility issue is overcome, future-proofing will be difficult: who’s to say that a router five years from now will still be compatible with one sold today, even if they’re from the same manufacturer?
connect mesh points
There are many ways to improve wireless connections. Mesh is just one of them, and it may or may not be the one for you.
If you’re starting from scratch, investing in a mesh kit can be a great and simple way to make sure you don’t have Wi-Fi dead zones. Moving into a new home, renovating office space, building a new roof? Sure, it will make things easier!
If you’ve tried other solutions for your current situation, mesh may also be the way to go. If moving your router, adding repeaters, and trying wired access points haven’t solved your connectivity problems, a well-placed mesh network is probably just what you need.
However, for small spaces where only a few specific corners need better coverage, or if you can solve signal problems with a couple of extenders or wired solutions, there’s no need to go the mesh route.
Plus, even if you choose to get a Wi-Fi mesh kit, it doesn’t mean your old connectivity solutions need to be retired. It’s always handy to have a few spare routers around if you need last-minute help to, say, set up a guest network for holiday parties or fill a single dead spot in that remote corner of your garage.