Traditionally, setting up Wi-Fi over a large area required a fair amount of sophistication. Doing it inexpensively often required repurposing low-end routers to avoid the high cost of dedicated access points (APs). That situation has changed dramatically, with literally dozens of companies now offering some type of mesh networking system that provides plug and play wireless access suitable for larger homes and small offices.
Why mesh networking?
When it works, having a mesh of Wi-Fi access points provides an easy-to-administer system with seamless coverage and quick transitions from one AP to another as devices move around. Some mesh network systems also only require one wired node, with the remainder talking to each other wirelessly. Without a mesh network, or at least a common administration platform, you would have to set parameters on each AP individually, and typically either connect each of them to a wired network, or set some up as repeaters.
Mesh versus a traditional extender solution
If you’re starting from scratch the only reason not to deploy a mesh solution is if you’re on a very tight budget. Vendors are still charging a premium for mesh solutions, but the explosion in competition is changing that situation very quickly. They are easier to deploy and maintain than an ad hoc system of a router and extenders, and being custom-built for this application, also typically offer better performance. Because all the devices communicate, they can also automatically allocate channels based on usage, noise, and to minimize interference with each other.
Planning your mesh network
Once you have a good idea of the area you want to cover, some analysis is in order. Evaluate where it might be possible to place wired APs, and think about which locations would be suitable for small, stylish models and which could tolerate industrial-looking versions. Remember you’ll need power everywhere you put an AP. This advance planning will help you narrow down your options. If you need outdoor coverage for an extensive area, you may also want to tap into a system that includes a weatherproof model.
If you have wired Ethernet running to the locations where you want to place APs, then you may want to choose a system like Google Wifi (Buy now on Amazon), that provides the option of wired “backhaul” (the connection between access points and your router). Some offerings like Ubiquiti require wired connections, while the same company’s consumer brand, Amplifi, can be configured for either wired or wireless depending on the specific units you choose. One feature I really like about Google’s solution is that even if you connect your APs wirelessly, you can still plug wired devices into one or both of each unit’s Ethernet ports.
If you don’t have wiring you can leverage, then you’ll need to have one of the wireless satellite systems. Examples include the powerful Netgear Orbi (Buy now on Amazon) or Linksys Velop (Buy now on Amazon), or the smaller “pucks” from companies like Plume, Luma, or Eero. All of these systems perform well, although you’ll need more of the smaller pucks than of the larger APs from Google or Netgear (but they are often less expensive).
Mesh network or Smart Home hub?
Not content to stick with simple networking hubs, companies have begun to add Smart Home features to their mesh networking solutions. Samsung’s Connect Home router supports both mesh networking and its SmartThings IoT technology. Certainly if you want to deploy Smart Home technology, combining the two is a cost effective way to get started, but it does mean you’re stuck with that vendor for both systems.
To Cloud or not to Cloud
Many of the newest solutions rely heavily on the cloud. That can be great for auto updating. But it means you can be susceptible to outages caused by server issues, and that information about your home is being sent off to who knows where. Google, for example, has made no secret of the fact that it data mines information from its consumer devices. Other solutions like Ubiquiti’s main product line are on-premises managed, and will purr happily along without access to the internet.
Traditional systems like Ubiquiti offer a typical network management console that you access through a browser interface. Ubiquiti even couples that with a USB dongle that can run network management software without needing to leave a machine running. However, those interfaces can be a little daunting for those not familiar with networking terminology. So most of the newest consumer offerings feature management from a mobile application with a simplified user interface.
Example setup: Netgear Orbi
As part of our earlier article on extending Wi-Fi throughout your home, I set up a pair of Netgear Orbi units. Perhaps the trickiest part of the installation was working around the fact that default mesh network instructions assume that the first unit you install is also going to be your primary router, and you need access to the cloud to get started. In our case, we have a failover router and firewall that sits between us and everything else, so the Orbi units needed to be set up as only access points. It wasn’t difficult, but if that’s also your situation, be prepared to look a little harder for a custom or advanced mode setup options, rather than assuming you’ll just run through a wizard.
Orbi provides a simple colored light to indicate how successful the satellite is at pairing and getting signal from the main unit. Because these units are so powerful, you have a great deal of flexibility in how they are placed. I found that I could have the satellite on a different floor and across several rooms and still have the system work well.
If you are using one of the devices as a router, of course you’ll need whatever information you’ve been given to use by your ISP, the same as you would for any router. Other than that, simply pick an SSID (network ID) that you would like people to connect with, and your off and running. Many systems also provide you with the option of a Guest Network, but the ones I’ve tried either seem to be too limited or not very secure, so I’ve tended not to use them.
After the first device is set up, you typically only need to plug in the additional devices and they will locate the main unit — if they are close enough. In some cases that requires a little button pushing, and in others it is completely automatic. Speaking of wiring closets, remember that your main router will typically get located where your internet service enters the house — since you want to have its firewall capability on the outside of any switches you’re using — which may not be idea for coverage, and lead to needing an additional device.
For true DIY, you can actually build your own mesh
Popular open source router software DD-WRT contains an implementation of WDS (Wireless Distribution System) that can be used to create your own mesh of AP-capable devices. However, it comes with a major caveat that it may not work if all the devices aren’t running the same chipset. So it isn’t as simple as dragging all your old routers and APs out of the closet and deploying them around your house.
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