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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 WiFi and you need to read this before you buy a router of any type.

Mesh WiFi 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 tutorial seeks to show both the strengths and weaknesses of Mesh WiFi and when to use it.

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).

Router

But more importantly, you can share resources like 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.

The majority of Wi-Fi devices like laptops, smartphones, games consoles and IoT are Wi-Fi N or later. These connect to the routers 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz channels. So if you have an N 2.4Ghz device the maximum it will connect at is 433Mbps.

  • A 6, 9, 12, 18, 24 ,36, 48, 54Mbps
  • B 1, 2, 5.5, 11Mbps
  • G 6, 9, 12, 18, 24, 36, 48, 54Mbps
  • N (2.4Ghz) up to 433 Mbps
  • N (5Ghz) 1024 QAM up to 966Mbps – now called Wi-Fi 4
  • AC (2.4GHz) up to 866Mbps
  • AC (5Ghz) up to 4,334Mbps – now called Wi-Fi 5
  • AX (2.4GHz) up to 1,200Mbps – Now called Wi-Fi 6
  • AX (5GHz) up to 4,800Mbps with the potential to go higher to 11Gbps

Remember Wi-Fi is half-duplex (can only transmit or receive – not at the same time as full-duplex can). In reality, a single 2.4GHz band may state 866Mbps but if you connect say four devices it gets 100Mbps 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).

Here is a list of current AC router speeds

Type2.4 GHz ban
Mbit/s
2.4 GHz band config
[all 40 MHz]
5 GHz band
Mbit/s
5 GHz band config
[all 80 MHz]
AC4504331 stream @ MCS 9
AC6001501 stream @ MCS 74331 stream @ MCS 9
AC7503002 streams @ MCS 74331 stream @ MCS 9
AC1000 300 2 streams @ MCS 7 650 2 streams @ MCS 7
AC12003002 streams @ MCS 78672 streams @ MCS 9
AC13004332 streams @ 256-QAM8672 streams @ MCS 9
AC13001,3003 streams @ MCS 9
AC 13504333 streams @ MCS 78672 streams @ MCS 9
AC14504333 streams @ MCS 79753 streams @ MCS 7
AC16003002 streams @ MCS 71,3003 streams @ MCS 9
AC17008664 streams @ 256-QAM8662 streams @ MCS 9
AC17504333 streams @ MCS 71,3003 streams @ MCS 9
AC19006003 streams @ 256-QAM1,3003 streams @ MCS 9
AC21008664 streams @ 256-QAM1,3003 streams @ MCS 9
AC22004333 streams @ MCS 71,7334 streams @ MCS 9
AC23005674 streams @ MCS 71,6255 streams @ MCS 7
AC23506004 streams @ MCS 71,7334 streams @ MCS 9
AC26008664 streams @ 256-QAM1,7334 streams @ MCS 9
AC30004333 streams @ MCS 71,300 + 1,3003 streams @ MCS 9 x 2
AC31509664 streams @ 1024-QAM2,1674 streams @ 1024-QAM
AC32006003 streams @ 256-QAM1,300 + 1,3003 streams @ MCS 9 x 2
AC50009664 streams @ MCS 72,167 + 2,1674 streams @ 1024-QAM x 2

The 2.4Ghz band can tansmit about 30-50 metres and the 5Ghz 10-15 metres – far less if through windows, walls or doors.

All you need to know is that one of the current most powerful AC 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).

Dlink AC5300

Or if you like to go for the V12 of routers NETGEAR has the AX8 AX6000 (8 streams) or AX12 AX6000 (12 streams) ‘beasts’.

NETGEAR AX6000

Now to the problem – location, location, location

A router is placed where it can connect to the internet point (ADSL or NBN). Mostly this is not well placed to cover the typical Australian home or apartment. The best placement for a router is equidistant from all the devices that connect to it. Mesh WiFi can be an answer but there is no substitute for correct router placement in the first place!

Mesh WiFi

A Mesh WiFi network comprises a smaller ‘master’ router and one or more ‘slave’ nodes that talk to each other. Let’s call this the Electric Vehicle approach where four smaller individual electric motors power the four wheels and talk to each other to get maximum speed (‘distributed routing’).

The Mesh theory is that the master transmits a signal. The slave re-transmits to client devices. What happens if the signal is weak to start with? Slaves cannot ‘amplify’ a signal.

Well it gets worse! If you have multiple levels the only way Mesh can 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. The diagram below – well it is marketing hype and does not work! And read on because not all Mesh is equal!

Mesh WiFi
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 WiFi

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 WiFi

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.

Each slave router can re-transmit transmit a 2.4Ghz/5Ghz signal at 433/866Mbps to the device but by the time it gets to the two-lane highway, it is congested and traffic slows to a crawl.

Google Wi-Fi is a dual-lane device with no dedicated backhaul. GadgetGuy’s advice – forget any dual band!

Tri-band Mesh WiFi

That master router divides signals into three bands – 2.4Ghz 433Mbps, 5Ghz 866Mbps and 5Gbps 866Mbps. It uses one 5GHz band as dedicated backhaul (to connect to its nodes). Here you have the same two lanes dedicated to traffic and a third going the other way. Wi-Fi is half-duplex so don’t expect miracles.

One of the better Tri-band mesh is NETGEAR’s Orbi AC3000. Its slaves retransmit 2.4GHz (433Mbps) and a 5GHz (866Mbps) to devices and has a dedicated 5GHz band (maximum 1733Mbps) to back-haul to nodes. IT also has a WAN port to connect the slave to the master.

Mesh WiFi

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.

So as long as the slaves can get a good signal to retransmit ( maximum 10 meters to the master router) this will work OK.

Other options to Mesh WiFi

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. These offer 1000Mbps full-duplex (both ways at the same time). BTW – some Mesh routers like the Synology and some Orbi’s can use wired Ethernet for the backhaul channel – that makes this type of Mesh more effective.

Most electricians can install wired CAT-6 Ethernet and depending on complexity prices start around $150 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.

I am also a big fan of Ethernet over Power  (Powerline) devices that simply plug into a powerpoint 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 1000Mbps port to retransmit the router signal.

GadgetGuy’s take – Mesh WiFi works – sometimes!

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, full-duplex, 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 or AX8/12 AX6000 ‘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.