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 (Mbps) 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 Wi-Fi AC router is 867Mbps or 108 Megabytes per second (MB/s). Remember Wi-Fi is half-duplex (can only transmit or receive – not at the same time as full-duplex can). In reality, a single 5GHz band may state 866Mbps but if you connect say four devices it gets 200Mbps half-duplex and the router can only talk to one device at a time. Wi-Fi is so innefficent.

Traditional Router

A traditional router has either one band (Wi-Fi N or earlier) – 2.4Ghz offering up to 433Mbps. Wi-Fi AC usually has dual-band (2.4GHz, 433Mbps and 5Ghz, 866Mbps) and Tri-band (adds an extra 5GHz band). Most these days are from AC1300 (433+866Mbps) 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 92M (2.4GHz) from the router, it simply cannot broadcast a strong enough signal and black spots occur. These distances can halve 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 ‘slave’ 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).

The theory is that the master can transmit a signal. The slave picks that signal up and re-transmits to client devices. What happens if the signal is weak to start with? Well it gets worse!

If you have an apartment or smaller home on one level Mesh Wi-Fi can work. If you have multiple levels the only way it will work is if the master has line-of-sight visibility to all slaves and transmission distances are kept to no more than 10 metres if you want a 5GHz signal. Slaves cannot ‘amplify’ a signal.

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 between master and slave down one 2.4GHz and one 5GHz lane. Being half-duplex the slave can only talk to the master or a client device if nothing else is happening. 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.