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Mesh networking, also sometimes referred to as “whole home” networking, is the big trend in in-home Internet connectivity this year. Spreading out the connection you’re paying for can get a boost from a mesh Wi-Fi system that acts less as an extension and more like a true net.

On its own, mesh networking isn’t a radically new technology, but rather a step up from what has been done before. Until now, Wi-Fi extenders and bridges were the key options to extending the signal from the router to parts of the home that were either slow or flat out dead zones. Powerline adapters were another alternative to enable a wired connection in different rooms. One adapter would be plugged in near the router, while the other to the device in a different room, with Ethernet cables plugged in on both sides, thereby routing the Internet through the home’s power grid.

How mesh spreads its net

Mesh networks are essentially multi-device setups where the router communicates with satellite units, or nodes, in a full circle that goes every which way to establish a wider net. Wi-Fi extenders are distinct in a few different ways.

First, they extend the router’s signal, but are generally underpowered compared to the router, so signal fade may still be evident. Second, the extension is one-way, meaning it goes to the extender and funnels out, but doesn’t loop back to the router in any way. Third, while more recent extenders now make the “hand-off” easier, they largely require a different login and password to gain and maintain access.

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None of these things apply with mesh. Each node in a mesh system is the same hardware and software, so we are basically talking about two or three fully functioning routers spread out in your home, blanketing it with stronger Wi-Fi. Moreover, the nodes are supposed to communicate with each other, casting a net, and knowing which device should connect to which node at any given time.

This is why they are most ideal for houses, be they large footprints or modest homes that have thicker walls and other obstacles impacting range and speed. A size of about 2,000 sq. ft. and above is what mesh is designed for, but even if you are in a slightly smaller space, and find that a good solo router can’t cover it all, it may be a factor of the structure inside. As noted, thicker walls are one, but so are multiple floors, staircases, other wireless devices or appliances, plus where the router is located.

The weak spots that may come from all that are hard to eliminate when there isn’t enough power or range to hit those spaces. Bearing in mind that mesh affects range the most, speed becomes a residual effect. For example, if you’re paying for 100Mbps download speed from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), but find you’re getting something like 15-20Mbps in a room far from the router, you probably won’t be happy with that in the long run. By increasing the range to better cover that room, a mesh system could ramp up the speed in that room considerably, making the network feel like it’s faster.

Granted, other factors like network congestion, as in how many devices are connected and in use at home simultaneously, as well as time of day, which might affect the ISP’s network speeds coming in, could weigh on overall performance.

‘Meshing’ technology together

velop-portsThe nodes that make up a mesh network also offer some flexibility in connections. Since they are the same, they all have at least one LAN port that can be used for wired connections. If a node was close enough to, say, a game console or streaming set top box, it would practically be the same as a powerline connection. Hence, you have a stronger wireless signal and wired input in different points of your home.

A lot of the legwork to maintain all this is done behind the scenes, so you never know exactly which node you’re connected to when sitting in between two of them. Signal amplification isn’t something that has to be turned on manually—it’s already inherent in the system itself. Except the nodes are like routers, so they blast out the signal equally.

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Part of the reason for that is power and efficiency. Some of the technology first introduced in solo routers applies here. MU-MIMO (multi-user, multi-input, multi-output) funnels bandwidth to devices who need it at the same time, instead of in a queue. If that surprises you, it’s true, though you weren’t likely to notice unless you came across lag or buffering. The one catch is that the connected device has to support MU-MIMO too, of which many are expected to this year.

The nodes communicate with the router using a backhaul channel, leaving devices unfettered to take up the main bands, a feature both the Linksys Velop and Netgear Orbi utilize. Both use tri-band with band-steering, meaning the system allocates devices to the band that best suits their bandwidth requirements, so you don’t have to manually choose between the 2.4GHz or two 5GHz bands yourself.

App based control for your network

Then there’s the app-based setup and management. The Orbi uses a browser-based dashboard for that, whereas the Velop and others also utilize a smartphone app—though you would get more advanced features through a browser. Since much of the ‘talking’ between the router and the nodes happens in the background, the setup is designed to be easy enough for any tech skill level. If networking intimidates you, then you won’t feel lost going through these step-by-step guides.

Beyond that, there are parental controls, device restrictions, guest networks, port forwarding and speed testing to manage things. You can even check in on the network when you’re not at home, simply by logging in to your account through the app or browser and accessing features like you would as an administrator at home.

A mesh system is overkill if you’re living in a condo or smaller sub-1,000 sq. ft. space, so it’s not designed as an outright replacement for solo routers. But if you are in a larger home and frustrated with the way your signal spreads out, this may be the best way to augment it.

Check out the latest mesh Wi-Fi systems available now.

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Editor Cellular/Mobile Technology
I’m a fortunate man in being able to do the fun job of following and reporting on one of the most exciting industries in the world today. In my time covering consumer tech, I’ve written for a number of publications, including the Globe and Mail, Yahoo! Canada, CBC.ca, Canoe, Digital Trends, MobileSyrup, G4 Tech, PC World, Faze and AppStorm. I’ve also appeared on TV as a tech expert for Global, CTV and the Shopping Channel.

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