What Is a Mesh Network?

Boost Wi-Fi throughout your entire home with a mesh network

Illustration of a mesh network

Designed by Starline

A mesh network is a network of interlocked routers called nodes, or points. These nodes work with one another to supply internet coverage over a broad area, something a traditional home network can’t provide.

In a regular home network setup, there’s a single router provides network/internet coverage as far as it can reach, through walls, out the door, up the stairs, etc. A mesh network consists of multiple routers that each provide coverage but is still a single network since each is also communicating with the other nearby nodes.

The result is a single network that has far better coverage than a single router can provide. A mesh network can deliver internet access anywhere the nodes can reach, like through a three-story house or even across several city blocks.

Types of Mesh Networks

A home mesh network isn't the only type of network that can be set up in a mesh topology. Some wireless mesh networks connect more than just the devices in your home, and others are completely wired.

Wireless mesh networking is most applicable to the average consumer. There are a few types:

Ad-hoc Mesh Networks

On-the-fly, ad-hoc mesh networks are often created as a way for devices to communicate with each other when there isn't an existing infrastructure in place.

FireChat is one example of a mobile app that utilizes Bluetooth to let users message each other without internet access, by relaying the data through nearby devices to reach the other users.

Some smart home products, like Samsung's SmartThings, can communicate with other components in the whole system (like sensors and alarms) to run certain tasks without having to contact the primary hub.

Home Mesh Networks

A mesh network meant for home users provides Wi-Fi throughout a home or small office through the use of multiple routers. There are several home mesh network systems available, like Google Wifi and Orbi from NETGEAR.

Municipal Mesh Networks

Community, or municipal mesh networks are much like the ones created in homes except that instead of containing the network inside of one building, it spans an entire neighborhood or city to connect larger areas.

FabFi is one example of a city-wide mesh network system.

How a Wi-Fi Mesh Network Works

You can think of a home mesh network as a chain of links. Each link (node of the mesh network) is connected to the others so that the whole chain (the network) can reach a far distance — much further than any one link (node) could reach — yet they’re still attached to each other regardless of how many there are.

So, to turn your standard Wi-Fi into a mesh network, you need a setup that includes more than one node. The way it works is by connecting the primary node to your modem like you would a regular router, and then connecting another node to the primary one.

From there, you can have a third or fourth node, or even more, connected to each other so that each node can communicate with other nearby nodes to provide Wi-Fi further and further away from the primary one where your modem resides.

Mesh network systems are built specifically for this purpose of creating a chain of routers. The devices work in tandem by default, so you don't need any special knowledge about how to configure the routers to make them work this way.

As an example, consider a home network where the connection from the ISP comes in through a basement room. The line coming from the ISP connects to a modem, and one node from the mesh system is attached to the modem. Another node can be plugged in a couple rooms away to stretch the Wi-Fi signal across the those two rooms.

Yet another node can be installed upstairs, within reach of either of the other two, so that once it’s plugged in and working properly, a full signal can be achieved upstairs even though the router is in the basement.

Home Mesh Network Pros and Cons

There are both advantages and disadvantages of a mesh network. In short, if you’re okay with the price and need Wi-Fi to cover your whole house, a mesh network is a good idea.

Pros:

  • Targets any room with strong Wi-Fi to solve Wi-Fi connection drops
  • Provides internet in areas that don’t have Ethernet connections or that are too far from the primary router
  • If a node quits working or is blocked by interference, the network will remain active so long as another nearby node is functioning
  • Everything operating within the local network can run smoother because the nodes can communicate with each other instead of having to communicate with the central router
  • Installation and management of most mesh networks is very easy because they are controlled with a companion mobile app
  • Extending the mesh network with more nodes is as easy as plugging the nodes into a power outlet and updating the app
  • Setup might cost less than a traditional network if you consider the ease of adding nodes and the fact that very little installation needs to take place (you don’t have to run any networking cables)
  • Most mesh network nodes are small and sleek, and don't have external antennas

Cons:

  • A mesh network system typically costs more than a traditional router
  • Multiple nodes have to be positioned throughout your house
  • A mesh network setup is probably more than you need if your house is less than 1,500 square feet

What a Wi-Fi Mesh Network Is Not

It might seem obvious that if you were to install multiple nodes in your home, each one could operate at full speed. In other words, if you pay for 30 Mbps from your ISP and you have three nodes, then one could be used at maximum speeds, sucking down 30 megabits every second, and that the other two could do the same.

Unfortunately, that isn’t how mesh networking works. All three nodes in this example, if they’re being used at maximum capacity, have to split the 30 Mbps allotted to your house, essentially resulting in each downloading at just 10 Mbps.

Bandwidth coming into your home is set at a particular rate regardless of how your local network works. You could have one router, a mesh network of four nodes, or 15 nodes spread all about your property — when working together through your modem, they can use only as much bandwidth as you pay for.

If you plan on using a mesh network, you can expect that even more of your network devices will have full coverage and, ultimately, utilize more of your bandwidth. See how much bandwidth you get now to predict if you should get more to support your mesh network.

So, Should You Use a Mesh Network?

There are several questions you can ask yourself to decide if you should adopt mesh networking:

Have you tried improving your existing Wi-Fi signal?

It can be tempting to jump right into mesh networking given its amazing benefits and ease of use, but you might not even need something this advanced if your existing network can be improved at minimal cost.

For example, if you can move your router to a location in the middle of your house, it will probably provide better Wi-Fi to all the rooms. If your router is old, you can buy a new one. You can even upgrade its antennas if you think that could help.

If you haven’t considered a Wi-Fi extender, you might look into it because they’re often way cheaper than a mesh system. See Mesh Network vs Range Extender: Which Is Best? for a look at these two technologies and how you should decide what’s right for you.

Is your house big enough to need a mesh network?

Houses with several rooms, and especially houses that have multiple floors, benefit from a mesh network the most. Strategically placed nodes can fill every necessary space with Wi-Fi coverage so that you’re never out of range from a router.

However, anyone living in a one-room apartment or two-bedroom house can probably stick with a regular router.

Do things block your Wi-Fi connection?

Wi-Fi interference is a big deal. If you have concrete walls, a few big electronics, or other large objects that block wireless signals, a mesh network is one solution since you can put the nodes anywhere you like to circumvent these obstructions.

Do you know much about setting up a network?

Another way to tell if mesh networking is what you’re after is if you’re not very tech savvy. Setting up a Wi-Fi mesh network is really easy. For example, with Google Wifi, all you have to do is scan the QR code on the bottom of each node to connect them together and get your network started.

It shouldn’t take but a few minutes to set up a mesh network. In fact, most of the setup time involves deciding where to place the nodes.

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