Hearing the squeaking and squawking of a dial-up modem isn’t the only indication your network solution is out of date. Walk into any store that sells networking equipment and you’ll be confronted with two main solutions: a single router – what you see in most homes – or a mesh Wi-Fi network product.
Although mesh Wi-Fi products may seem complex, there are both advantages and disadvantages to deployment. Mesh Wi-Fi may be powerful and extend range, for instance, but it isn’t necessary for all businesses or remote workers – it depends on a variety of factors including business needs and the size of a property.
What is mesh Wi-Fi?
Mesh Wi-Fi systems are networks that operate a bit like a pyramid. Instead of your internet being supported by a single router – the Atlas of IT technology, destined to shoulder the weight of your data transfer – mesh networks rely on a series of nodes. These nodes, which are physical devices often shaped like pucks or small speakers, share that load and allow for simpler connections, easier expansion, and quicker speeds.
While some customers may choose a cheaper Wi-Fi extender to achieve the goal of expanding the coverage in a given space, most of those products can only speak to the router itself. With that constant back and forth comes a large swathe of problems, including reduced signal quality and a more difficult user experience.
Whether you need a mesh wireless networking solution is, at its core, a question of scale. However, if you can swing it, a mesh network will – generally speaking – increase your internet speed and provide a better overall user experience.
How does mesh Wi-Fi work?
From a technical point of view, these networks use what is called a mesh topology to communicate with one another. Then, algorithms are used to determine what traffic should go over which node of the network.
Two or more nodes are connected to establish the mesh Wi-Fi network, with one node connected to an internet modem and the others placed throughout the space. These nodes are all part of the same network and share the same separate service set identifier (SSID) and password, which makes scaling up or down really simple.
These nodes also handle backhaul, the task of moving data back to the initial access point to the internet (in this case, a mesh router). Large-scale installations, like at universities or for open Wi-Fi projects in cities, are usually reliant on mesh networking. The volume of traffic would not be manageable at that scale otherwise.
Why do businesses and remote workers need mesh Wi-Fi?
With more and more people working from home over the last two years, the number of properties accessing the internet has surged, with more and more people getting online too. The pandemic saw more than 700 million people come alone, according to the UN, raising the total number of internet users to 4.9 billion. In 2020, meanwhile, 92% used the internet daily, reported the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The need for internet speed may differ depending on your business, however. If you’re content with your current ethernet solution, and you don’t have a reason to upgrade, then mesh Wi-Fi networks might not make a difference. For example, if your only use of wireless networking is for customers in a small waiting room, corporate wireless mesh network might be too costly or confusing. However, if you’re a tech startup and you have hundreds of users on their phones or laptops at any one time, then a mesh Wi-Fi network might make sense.
For the remote worker, especially if you have a lot of people that you are sharing a space with, a mesh network might fit the bill. Operating a mesh network is also straightforward, with the distributed structure mitigating against outages. That’s because if one node fails, it doesn’t mean the entire network goes offline. Lastly, by default, extenders often rely on having a SSID, the name it gives itself. In practice, this means that you don’t have to switch between extenders as you move to different parts of the house. With a mesh solution, in the eyes of your device, the network is a cohesive whole.
What are the drawbacks of using mesh Wi-Fi?
While there are a number of clear advantages to mesh Wi-Fi networks, such as the capacity to increase range and the ease of scaling up networks, there are also some drawbacks.
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For one, these networks are much pricier than many commonly used alternatives; you can purchase as a traditional no-mesh extender for up to £30, for example, while a mesh Wi-Fi system from a reputable brand can easily cost hundreds of pounds. Secondly, more nodes mean more devices to plug in. This means that if you have minimal power outlets, or you’re worried about your power draw, a mesh network might not be the best solution.
Lastly, it’s widely reported that mesh networks are initially more difficult to get running than your usual setup. With something like an extender, you’re often clicking a few buttons and then you’re off to the races. However, a mesh network – much like a surround speaker system – requires you to choose the optimal places around your property to put the nodes to achieve maximum coverage.
Also, with a mesh network, you’re often tied into one ecosystem, so mixing and matching brands can be difficult or near impossible. Similarly, if you choose a mesh system from a lesser-known manufacturer that could go out of business, you may be left without customer service or additional products if and when you run into issues or want to expand.
How do you secure mesh Wi-Fi networks?
While mesh networks are marketed as being more secure than their counterparts, there are some concerns you want to keep in mind when attempting to boost your network.
Each node of a mesh Wi-FI network is more akin to a computer than a regular Wi-Fi extender or repeater. With that additional capability comes the possibility of additional risk. On the plus side, many mesh offerings come from massive brands like Google and Amazon, which have protections built into the hardware and software, including elements like encryption and real-time antivirus.
Finally, If you’re the type of consumer who already trusts these techno giants with your data then you can rest a little bit easier knowing that tasks like the automatic updates you’ve set on your smartphone or tablet will be implemented within your Wi-Fi connection.
With more nodes come more physical access points, too, but in a home office setting, mesh networks are often tied into smart home solutions. If your Google Home ecosystem is also powering, say, a security camera, then your network is, in effect, working to protect itself.
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John Loeppky is a British-Canadian disabled freelance writer based in Regina, Saskatchewan. His work has appeared for the CBC, FiveThirtyEight, Defector, and a multitude of others. John most often writes about disability, sport, media, technology, and art. His goal in life is to have an entertaining obituary to read.