In the beginning, there was a router, and the strongest routers ruled. But the little routers revolted and, in a Lilliputian-like effort have toppled, or at least made a dent in the big guy’s supremacy. Enter Mesh Wi-Fi and you need to read this before you buy a router of any type.

Mesh Wi-Fi simply means a number of smaller Wi-Fi connected routers to cover a home with single sign-on (SSID), seamless roaming and help to extend coverage in difficult areas. 

This article seeks to show both the strengths and weaknesses of Mesh Wi-Fi.

What a router?

A router sets up a private home network. It distributes via wire (Ethernet) or Wirelessly (Wi-Fi) an internet signal two ways – down and up (anywhere from a few megabits per second on ADSL to 100/40Mbps for NBN top-tier).

But more importantly, you can share resources like a network attached storage (NAS) or streaming audio or video from a media server. Here you want the maximum internal network access speed regardless of the internet speed.

Now I need to get techy for a bit.

Currently, the fastest speed that a Wi-Fi device (e.g. laptop equipped with an AC MU-MIMO chip) can communicate with a compatible router is 867 Megabits per second (Mbps) or 108 Megabytes per second (MB/s). Remember Wi-Fi is half-duplex so in reality, you may get say 50-100Mb/s per device. And you are sharing bandwidth between all connected devices.

Traditional Router

A traditional router comes in single band (2.4Ghz offering about 300Mbps), Dual band (2.4GHz, 300Mbps and 5Ghz, 867Mbps) and Tri-band (adds an extra 5GHz band). Most these days are from AC1200 (300+867Mbps) to AC5300 (1000+2167+2167Mbps).

All you need to know is that one of the current most powerful tri-band routers is an AC5300, MU-MIMO D-Link DIR-895L or its modem/router version the Cobra. Let’s call them the V8 supercar approach, and they are great in straight lines and up hills (raw grunt).

Mesh Wi-Fi

An AC5300 router, especially one with eight antennas (think of it as an eight-lane highway), has the legs to cover most larger houses. But at about 30m (5GHz) and 100M (2.4GHz) from the router, it simply cannot broadcast a strong enough signal and black spots occur. These can also happen when building materials soak up or obstruct signals. At that time you need to use preferably a wired ethernet range extender can work.

Mesh Wi-Fi
Imagine there is an ethernet cable (or Powerline Ethernet over Powerlines) connecting the extenders to the main router.

Mesh Wi-Fi

A mesh Wi-Fi network comprises a smaller master router and one or more nodes that talk to each. Let’s call this the Tesla approach where smaller individual electric motors power the four wheels and talk to each other to get maximum speed (distributed routing).

If you have an apartment or smaller home on one level Mesh Wi-Fi can work.

Mesh Wi-Fi
In mesh the extenders can be wireless (if you can get a good signal) or wired (Ethernet or Powerline)

Companies including D-Link, NETGEAR, Linksys, Google and many more have whole-of-home mesh options.

Mesh Wi-Fi

But all mesh is not the same. What you need is a combination of three factors. Area coverage, number of devices, and speed. There are two main types

Dual-band mesh Wi-Fi?

Think of it as a two-lane highway. It transmits the signal down one lane and receives back via the other. That is fine for light traffic but gets bogged down with lots of traffic or when a large semi-trailer (video streaming for example) hogs lanes.

Each slave router may be able to transmit a signal at 867Mbps but by the time it gets to the two-lane highway, it is congested an traffic slows to a crawl.

The D-Link Covr AC-C1203 and Google Wi-Fi are dual lane devices – no dedicated back-haul.

Tri-band mesh Wi-Fi?

That router divides the three bands into two for front-haul (to Wi-Fi devices) and one for a dedicated backhaul (to connect to its nodes). Here you have the same two lanes dedicated to traffic and a third going the other way.  

For example, NETGEAR’s Orbi AC3000 uses a 2.4GHz (maximum 400Mbps) and a 5GHz (maximum 866Mbps) front haul to connect to devices and uses the third 5GHz band (maximum 1733Mbps) to back-haul to nodes.

Mesh Wi-Fi

Nodes are placed around the home. In perfect conditions an AC2000 node covers 100m2 (10 x 10 metres) and an AC3000 node covers about 150m2 (12 x 12 metres). But remember that these share a total of 1733Mbps back-haul channel – already a theoretical speed at best.

A Catch 22 with Mesh Wi-Fi nodes need to be relatively close to the master router to get up to a 1733Mbps backhaul.

But the 5GHz back-haul tops out at about 10-15 metres in a house and 20-30 metres line-of-sight. Speed can be severely reduced by the Wi-Fi signal passing through by corrugated iron, cement/clay brick or steel framed walls etc. Node placement is critical especially if the main router is in an awkward out-of-the-way location.

Other options to Wi-Fi Mesh

Many router makers have adopted single sign-on for their access point/extenders, so Mesh is not the only way to get that.

If you can’t use Mesh then you can do two things:

The best way to extend the home network is to use hardwired Ethernet cables that run from the router to an access point.

Most electricians can install wired CAT-6 Ethernet and depending on complexity prices start around $100 per point. Wired Ethernet provides a guaranteed, no latency, always on, speed of at least 1,000Mb/s from the device to the router. Over time that 1Gb/s may reach 10, 40 or 100 Gb/s  using the same cable.

Mesh Wi-Fi

I am also a big fan of Ethernet over Power  (Powerline) devices that simply plug into a power point near the router and can transmit up to 2000Mb/s using AV2 MIMO to up to 16 other Powerline adaptors (that share the 2000Mb/s) elsewhere in the house. A pair of 2000Mbps costs $249.95. Then an access point plugs into the 1000Mb/s port to retransmit the router signal.

GadgetGuy’s take

Ethernet-over-wire is the best option as it is a guaranteed 1000Mb/s, no-latency, connection from the device (laptop or access point) to the router.

Ethernet-over-power is the next best option that can give up to 1000Mb/s, minor latency, connection and it is extremely easy to plug-and-play.

Mesh can work if you can achieve the right node placement, e.g. if you can physically see the router from where you place the first node (e.g. down a hallway or stairwell) etc., then it is an option. If not, it can be a disaster.

My preference as a techy type, is to have an AC5300 ‘grunt router’ running as many devices as possible off Ethernet-over-wire and Ethernet-over-wire/power supplying a back-haul to an access point or two.

Bottom line: For every Mesh network that works too many don’t.