Mesh Wi-Fi

By Douglas Weinstein
Published on: October 9, 2020

As more and more families experience close quarters, they begin to realize the importance of their home’s local area network (LAN). And with more families at home during the day, problems of internet speed and lag time is compounded by the multitude of signals in the neighborhood or MDU complex. Think of it as a thousand voices all competing to be heard at once. Throw into the mix competing wireless signals like baby monitors and cordless phones, and for good measure, various building materials – concrete, brick, metal, etc. and you have the perfect recipe for a non-reliable networking experience.

Networking 101

I’m not going to go into any depth about networking and setting up secure access points, but here are just a few quick thoughts. If your house is wired with ethernet connections, always choose to use a hard-wired solution. For example, in my house, I have ethernet ports in multiple rooms and spaces throughout three floors. From a switch in the basement that receives the 1 Gig fiber optic signal from my service provider, I route that incredibly speedy connection up through the walls over ethernet directly into our offices and PCs, as well as the 4K HD TVs and music streaming receivers in the three main entertainment centers. In other words, I try to get direct 1 Gig content hard-wired into my most important devices that coincidentally eat up the most bandwidth.

So hard-wired is always best.

Mesh Wi-Fi

That leaves me with how to provide the best wireless experience for the rest of the property. And by property, I mean the garages, outdoor spaces, and all three floors of the home. Because we all have a ton of wireless devices and some of us roam around our homes with said wireless devices in our hands.

Most of my neighbors who have complained to me about how crappy their wi-fi has been since the kids and both parents have all been cooped up together competing for bandwidth, tell me a similar story about their wireless set-up. They typically have a single wireless router in the basement that services the entire home. Now, can you do that? Of course you can. Most modern wireless routers broadcast over a wide space. But are they effective? Not really when you over-tax the system or have a ton of competitive devices competing against each other. Throw into the mix, as I mentioned earlier, the construction of the house – walls, floors, brick and concrete, metal – and distance, and you inevitably are going to encounter multiple dead spots.

Here’s my simple analogy I heard from a network engineer years ago – imagine you want music throughout your house. You could certainly put a large speaker in your basement and turn it up full blast so you could hear it throughout the house. But wouldn’t it be simpler, and better, if you just put speakers in every room? That simple analogy is how I think about mesh wi-fi networks, which are growing in popularity – a) they work b) they aren’t that expensive c) they are simple to set up. The one caveat I’d mention is that I would recommend anyone who isn’t comfortable or knowledgeable about really properly setting up a wireless network, including security and testing for dead spots, to seek out a professional. The little you’ll pay in labor will reap dividends down the road.

So, on to mesh wi-fi.

A mesh network consists of multiple nodes. Think of them as small boxes you put around your house. Often elegant in appearance, they easily blend into any space’s décor. Instead of those hideous routers most people have, with the antennas jutting out at various angles, today’s mesh nodes are pretty slick. And most homes will only need two or three nodes in total, perhaps one per floor or one on either end of the house depending on your architecture.

The first node that is actuated is typically assigned the roll of the router. It’s the main wireless node, and would typically be hard-wired via ethernet directly out of the modem (the little box that your service provider installs in your basement or main floor where your service enters the house). Then, additional nodes are placed around the house. For me, I have a node on each of the three floors of the house, each one on different side of the house that forms a sort of triangle if you looked at it three-dimensionally – evenly space out around the entire floorplan.

Now we get to maximizing the distribution of these wireless nodes. For myself, I have a direct connection from the basement – that switch that hooks up to the fiber 1 Gig input – up to each of the mesh nodes. So each node is getting a direct feed. With a simple phone app, I configure the security protocols and then each node shakes hands with their buddies. And in doing so, they form the mesh wi-fi network.

But, what if you don’t have ethernet wired around your house? No problem. You can install the first node that becomes designated as the router, then connect additional mesh nodes that will communicate back to home base wirelessly. And what’s really cool about the best mesh systems is that the phone app plays an active role in the set-up. You can actually see that each node is getting a proper wireless signal from it’s companions. If the signal isn’t strong enough, you simply move the node around until you get a proper signal.

And here’s another cool feature of mesh networks. They self-heal. Let’s say you have a really big property and you have five or six nodes. And one of the power outlets goes out or someone accidentally unplugs a node – no problem. The other nodes instantly react and reform a new mesh network. So your coverage remains intact.

Finally, the best part of a wireless mesh network is having the ability to roam around the house with your wireless devices. With only one network password, you don’t have to switch between nodes as the system automatically provides seamless roaming. And, if you deep dive into the set-up functionality of most mesh networks, you can set up secure guest access, VPNs and even designate which devices you want receiving either 2.4 or 5 GHz signals (and that’s as geeky as I’m going to get!).

Mesh networks are becoming very popular because they are easy to set up, don’t clash with anyone’s décor, and are very affordable especially considering how great the wi-fi experience is when properly arrayed. Whole-home wi-fi is pretty cool and easily integrated into any residence. As always, you get what you pay for, so you might want to shy away from the entry level, mass-marketed components from companies who aren’t actually networking manufacturers.

 

Douglas Weinstein

Douglas Weinstein

Doug is the Editor and co-founder of the Technology Insider Group and Technology Designer Magazine. Previously, he was the Executive Director and co-founder of the Elf Foundation, a non-profit organization that created Room of Magic entertainment theaters in children's hospitals across North America.

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