How Mesh Networking Works, and How To Find the Right System for You

What to know if you are investing in a wifi upgrade.

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Eero
Eero is one of many mesh options now available.
Photo: Amazon

Mesh networking has been around for several years now, but can it solve your home wifi woes, and is it the right networking upgrade for you? And if it is, how can you possibly pick the right system? Here, we’ll take you through everything you need to know about mesh networking, from the key hardware specs to how everything works in practice.

You don’t necessarily need to set up a mesh network: If you’ve got a powerful enough router and a small enough home, just one wifi-spreading device will do the job. However, adding multiple boxes can remove dead zones and areas where connectivity is patchy, as well as improve transfer speeds in every corner of every room.

How mesh networks work

Essentially, a mesh network system adds some extra devices aside from your main router and modem. These additional devices, usually called satellites, act almost like routers themselves, broadcasting wireless connectivity into every corner of wherever you call home. Each point in the system is connected wirelessly to the rest, presenting a single wifi network to your devices.

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The main advantage to a mesh network is that it lets you cover a bigger space with faster wifi—problems with distance and walls and furniture can be minimized. It also means you can hook up many more of your gadgets without any issue or interference, which is an important consideration in the era of the smart home and families with three personal computing devices each.

A phone running a speed test
A mesh system should mean stronger wifi in more spots.
Photo: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash
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You’ll find that mesh networks are smart enough to route traffic in the most efficient way, and they can usually deal with one of the satellite units failing as well. The majority of systems also include wired Ethernet ports on each unit, so if there is a games console or a laptop that you want to hook up directly for a faster, more stable connection, then you can do that too.

If you need a broader spread of wifi, then you can also look into powerline networking (which transmits internet through your home’s power lines) and wifi extenders, which give the signal coming from your router an extra boost. For most people, mesh networking is the more powerful and flexible option, albeit the more expensive one—but depending on your situation, the alternatives might be worth considering.

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Specs appeal

The first spec you’re likely to see on a mesh networking system is whether it supports the latest Wi-Fi 6E spec (or the slightly slower Wi-Fi 6)—you might also see an overall speed rating for the system, typically measured in megabits or gigabits per second (how much traffic the units can support, essentially). The faster the speeds, the better the network, and the more you’re likely to have to pay for the hardware.

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It’s important to remember that these are ideal, top-end speeds, and you probably won’t see them on your network, what with all those walls and floors to deal with. What’s more, they obviously don’t affect the speed of your incoming broadband—that’s between you and your internet service provider. A mesh network won’t increase the speed of the internet coming into your home, but it should ensure that speed is maximized across every corner of your home.

Orbi
The Orbi 760 series supports Wi-Fi 6.
Photo: Netgear
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Then there’s pertinent information, such as the area that the mesh system covers: This should be quoted in most listings, although it’s an ideal figure (a bit like the battery life estimates that phone makers put on their handsets). It’s best to check actual reviews to make sure you know what you’re actually getting. If you need to cover a wider area, you can often add on extra satellite units, though the cost will of course go up, too.

Most mesh networking packs will tell you how many devices can be hooked up without losing speed, too: It’s usually in the hundreds if you’re working with one or two satellite units. If you have a lot of devices in your home online at the same time, then this is one of the most important specs to look out for, and it might well be one of the areas where you see the biggest improvement over using a single router/modem device.

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Battle of the bands

Today’s mesh networking kits come with dual-band functionality, like any standard router: 2.4GHz (slower, but able to travel further) and 5GHz (faster, but can’t travel as far). While the majority of systems now make a smart decision for you about which devices are hooked up to which band, there are still some that broadcast two wifi networks (one for 2.4GHz and one for 5GHz), so you can decide for yourself.

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Some more expensive kits offer tri-band or even quad-band functionality, with additional 5GHz or 6GHz bands commonly used for the mesh nodes to talk to each other. This means the communication between the units and your actual gadgets isn’t interrupted or interfered with, as the mesh network communicates with itself and works out how to optimize traffic—it should lead to a faster and more stable experience, especially on networks where there are a lot of different devices hooked up.

Google Nest
Nest Wifi Pro is the latest mesh system from Google.
Photo: Google
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We’re also now starting to see mesh networking systems with integrated SIM card slots—that means your network can fall back on a 4G or a 5G cellular signal if and when your broadband internet goes down. If you’re working from home and you absolutely can’t afford to go offline, it might be worth investing in a package that comes with a SIM slot and signing up for another data plan from your mobile provider.

There are a bunch of other, less important features to look out for too, including the option to set up a separate guest network, voice control support for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, built-in parental controls for limiting web access, and so on. One final point to note is that, to get the very best Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E performance, your connecting phones, laptops, tablets and other gadgets also need to support Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E.

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Using a mesh network

These days, most mesh networks are setup via an app that you run on your phone. It’ll guide you through the process of creating your new mesh network and assigning a name and a password to it, and it may even give you some advice about where to place your satellites. Even if you’ve never attempted to do any kind of network upgrade or maintenance before, you should find the whole process very straightforward.

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The router unit from your mesh kit typically plugs into your existing router/modem rather than replacing it, so you can in fact keep your old wifi network running alongside your new one, if you want to. Your existing box still handles communication with the outside world, but the mesh devices take over the job of spreading wireless connectivity around your home and making sure that everything stays online.

Orbi
The Orbi app gives you a rundown of the current system status.
Screenshot: Netgear
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As you work through the setup process, you’ll be able to test that everything is working properly, including the links between the router and however many satellites you’ve got. If there are any optional extras, including the ability to create a separate guest network, then you’ll see prompts for these as well.

Most mesh network kits come with an app where you’ll mange your new setup, though it shouldn’t really need much in the way of management. You’ll typically be able to monitor download and upload speeds, check that your satellite units are connected, and see the devices that are currently connected via wireless and wired links. Depending on the mesh network system you’ve gone for, you might also be able to set up restrictions for the kids and access advanced security features.

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Linksys Atlas 6
Photo: Linksys

Backhaul vs front haul

We’ve already touched on the tri-band systems that have an additional 5GHz or 6GHz band specifically dedicated to communication between the nodes of the kit: Technically, this is known as a backhaul link. Less expensive dual-band systems have what’s known as a shared backhaul, where the components of the mesh network chat to each other on the same channels as they’re chatting to your individual devices.

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Meanwhile, the regular info your devices send over your mesh network is treated as fronthaul data. This info then gets transferred to the backhaul so that everything gets back to the main router, with a fair bit of smart optimization and organization along the way. Mesh networks that put both fronthaul and backhaul data on the same bands will still work fine for the most part, but having separate spaces means more room for each of them, and less chance of congestion and interference.

A dedicated backhaul can also be created over Ethernet, if you’re in a position to get all of your mesh networking nodes wired up to each other. This is the ideal option, because it means all of your wireless bands and channels are freed up for the data that matters most: the data that’s traveling to and from your phones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers and gaming consoles. Some mesh systems offer this functionality and some don’t, so it’s worth checking.

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Some systems—the Amazon Eero Pro 6 for example—use tri-band but don’t dedicate one specific band to backhaul traffic. Instead, algorithms are used to optimize data use and keep fronthaul and backhaul information as separate as possible and moving as smoothly as possible. This is something else to look out for on spec sheets.

Eero 6
Photo: Amazon
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The best kits you can buy right now

We don’t have the space here for a full buying guide, but there are a few mesh networking kits that you can check out as a starting point. Beginning with the tech brands you’re likely to have already heard of, there are the Amazon Eero kits, starting from $200. That cheapest option is a dual-band Wi-Fi 6 setup, with coverage up to 4,500 square feet and speeds up to 900 Mbps.

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There are three Google Nest Wifi systems available at the moment, which isn’t at all confusing: Google Wifi, Nest Wifi, and Nest Wifi Pro. The Pro model is the most advanced and the most expensive at $200 and up: It offers tri-band Wi-Fi 6E connectivity, speeds of up to 5.4 Gbps, and coverage up to 6,600 square feet.

When it comes to more advanced and substantial mesh networking kits—which are also more expensive, too—then the Netgear Orbi series is a good example of the form. There are plenty of kits to choose from, but if you’ve got a spare $1,500, then the Orbi 960 series will give you quad-band Wi-Fi 6E, maximum speeds of 10.8 Gbps, and coverage of up to 9,000 square feet. It’s a serious collection of devices.

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Linksys is another manufacturer making mesh networking kits that are powerful and available at a range of prices. For $300, you can get hold of a 3-pack Atlas 6 system, which gives you dual-band Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, speeds of up to 3 Gbps, and coverage up to 6,000 square feet. There’s a wealth of models available, so you should be able to find something that fits your needs and your budget.