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Cover image for Whisk Away Wi-Fi Woes: Mesh Network

Whisk Away Wi-Fi Woes: Mesh Network

iq9 profile image Russell Brooks ・3 min read

Problems

I live in a 3-story townhouse. I have had a single Apple AirPort Extreme on the first floor for 6 years. The device has been fantastic, but there are naturally some issues due to the physics of electromagnetic waves traveling through solid objects, and having a 3-story home:

  • Very weak signal on 3rd floor. Unable to stream HD content without “wait” cursors appearing constantly. Because of this, I haven’t been able to put Apple TV’s in the bedrooms, and I have had Ethernet running to my main desktop machines for 15 years. (My house is Ethernet wired.)
  • Weak spots on 2nd floor.
    • Couch with a MacBook Air: Transfer Rate 150 to 200 Mb/s most of the time, compared to 800 Mb/s sitting closer to the router.
    • Deck: Also spotty coverage: dropouts, buffering, etc.
  • Gaming consoles (PS4 Pro and Xbox) sometimes having trouble connecting to the Cloud. They throw occasional “can’t connect” errors.

To solve this, some might install “repeaters” or extra routers. There are a few problems with that. You now have 3 separate wireless networks that your devices must manage. Very few devices seamlessly hop from Access Point (AP) to Access Point. Sometimes you have to manually switch your device to the other network, every time you walk to the underserved location in your home. You are also now burning undue bandwidth between your router and those endpoints - bandwidth that should be going to your personal devices. In most cases, those Access Points can only communicate directly with the Router, not with each other. (That’s an inefficient routing path.) You spent $900 to make all this happen, and you needed to hire your “I.T. buddy” to install and configure it, and you bribed him with old Comic Books (I mean “Graphic Novels”).

Solutions

Wi-Fi Mesh Network

If you enlisted Geek Squad 3 years ago to “make my WiFi better”, odds are they put in some repeaters or more traditional Access Points. With a network like that, each AP is a small, independent, unintelligent “bubble” with a highly local signal - no awareness of the other bubbles. With a Mesh Network, it’s a single, giant Wi-Fi bubble that wraps your entire home.

With a Mesh Network, each device is interconnected. Nodes can pass thru data to other Nodes. Signal strength is not lost, because it makes small jumps from device to device, rather than one large jump to the Router. Because of their decentralized nature, Mesh Networks scale endlessly, by adding more cheap $99 nodes, and maintain signal strength and reliability.

LinkSys Velop

I got this one:

https://www.linksys.com/us/velop/

It’s one of two that they sell in Apple Stores, and I’ve had plenty of LinkSys gear, over the years, and trust the brand. I got the Mesh Router and 2 nodes (3-band), one for each floor.

LinkSys Wi-Fi Node

The install could not have been easier:

  • Put router in the spot where my AirPort Extreme was, and connected it to the same FiOS ONT, via the same Ethernet cable.
  • LinkSys’s mobile app guided me through the install.
  • Plugged in 2 more nodes, and the app detected them and added them to the Mesh.

I connected various devices to the network and dog-fooded it for a few days.

Results

  • Wired reliability in a wireless network. No drop-outs, buffering, flakiness, etc.
  • Dead spots: gone.
  • Weak areas: gone.
  • Transmission rates consistently high.

The MacBook Air in this screenshot used to get 250 to 300 Mb/s while sitting on the 2nd-floor couch. Machines upstairs would get 100 to 200 Mb/s, and have buffering problems with video. Now, all 3 of these areas connects at 850 Mb/s, and suffer zero connectivity issues.

mesh-tx-rate

Discussion (2)

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andreidascalu profile image
Andrei Dascalu

Very few devices hop from AP to AP? Lol, a repeater broadcasts the same SSID. While it's true that different devices switch based on signal strength on various thresholds, unless you actually extend your network with different SSIDs on purpose, devices will transition seamlessly or with very minor hiccups.

The main downside of classic repeaters vs mesh is that with repeaters devices tend to hang on even with decreasing signal strength until their threshold is reached which may be an issue if you make high-speed downloads while moving around, but otherwise for your regular smart vacuum that moves around it won't make a difference.

Of course, there are other cases as well:

  • some Asus routers can be setup as repeaters but will in fact form a mesh. The main different in behind-the-scenes operations between mesh and repeater is that a repeater will just broadcast and that's it. A mesh will in fact pass clients around to optimize connectivity. Some Asus routers can form mesh networks themselves, even if you set them up as repeaters. I guess this is not restricted to Asus, but that's what I have at the moment.
  • off-the-shelf mesh setups are unreasonably expensive. Better check if your routers/standalone repeaters can't be upgraded to form a mesh. Ironically some older ones can be, as makes seems to have decided not to offer such upgrades to push mesh sales.
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iq9 profile image
Russell Brooks Author

Thanks for the thoughtful clarification!

Admittedly, I never had a multi-AP network in my home. So I'm really not totally familiar with how to set one up, or the various implementations and their tradeoffs.

That's good to know that some older gear can be "mesh'ized" even when it doesn't say so on the box. I'll keep that in mind when I recommend this to friends.

Forem Open with the Forem app