Wireless mesh networks explained | PCWorld

Mesh networking for small networks appeared in 2015 with the claim that it would solve Wi-Fi problems by improving coverage, speeding networks, and eliminating hassle. It also promised to remove the need to place base stations meticulously around a home or small office to avoid dead and slow spots.

Five years after its initial widespread emergence, those promises appear to have been fulfilled. Mesh networks have become the best way to set up a new network that spans more than a single, standalone Wi-Fi gateway can manage—or to overhaul an existing inadequate or outdated one.

Cost remains an object: Because you need at least two “nodes,” or network devices, to make a mesh, and three is more typical, you can spend two to five times as much compared to old-school Wi-Fi base stations that can’t connect wirelessly or are inefficient in such connections.

house with traditional routerLuma Home, Inc.

A conventional wireless router delivers limited coverage if you can’t hardwire additional Wi-Fi access points to it.

But providing consistent access across a space and never needing to tweak a network can be worth the higher cost for many users. Prices continue to drop year over year as capabilities increase, too.

How does mesh networking pull off this trick? What are the ideal circumstances to pay more for mesh over standalone base stations? And which should you consider? Let’s look into those questions in turn.

What is a wireless mesh network?

The concept of mesh networks first appeared in the 1980s in military experiments, and it became available in high-end production hardware in the 1990s. But due to cost, complexity, a scarcity of radio spectrum, and other limitations in early implementations, mesh didn’t gain a foothold until around 2015.

That’s when a number of startups and a few established hardware companies began offering expensive, but highly capable “mesh nodes,” which are network devices with wireless radios that contain software allowing them to configure themselves into an overlapping network without central coordination.

orbi daisychainNetgear

Mesh network routers, such as Netgear’s Orbi product line, connect multiple wireless nodes to blanket your home with Wi-Fi

In mesh networking, the fundamental unit isn’t an access point or gateway, but a “node.” A node typically contains two or three separate radio systems, and firmware that lets it talk with nearby nodes. Nodes communicate among each other to build up a picture of the entire network, even if some are out of range of the others. (An older Wi-Fi protocol, called Wireless Distribution System, was intended to connect base stations wirelessly, but it was very inefficient and never quite standardized.)

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