Wireless networking in the home can be a confusing topic. Troubleshooting WiFi issues can be a headache, but many households simply aren’t satisfied with the signal strength or speed of their home internet. A relatively new type of wireless networking technology may provide a solution to WiFi woes: wireless mesh WiFi. But what is wireless mesh technology, and how can it help improve your signal strength at home?
The answer to this question is becoming increasingly important, as more parents are working from home, and more children are practicing remote learning. Mesh WiFi can help spread strong WiFi signals throughout the entire home, allowing all family members to share a stronger connection. This article will explore the idea of using a mesh Wi-Fi system, and how it can be helpful for remote learning in 2020 and beyond.
What is Wireless Mesh WiFi?
A mesh WiFi network is a system that you can set up to get whole-home WiFi, without sacrificing speeds. It consists of a primary modem and router, and a series of small satellite modules, or nodes.
The primary modem and router (sometimes these are a single combined device) is generally placed in a central location, often in a home office. The satellite modules are placed strategically throughout the home. Each module shares the same WiFi network, and the same SSID and password.
Essentially, having a mesh WiFi network is like having 2-5 routers in your home, spread evenly throughout your space. The only difference is that mesh devices all share the same network, so you don’t need to bother with switching networks as you move throughout the house.
Keep in mind that your existing router and modem may or may not work with newer mesh WiFi technology. Newer modems (generally those made after 2018) may be compatible, but you’ll need to double-check. Traditional routers made before 2018 will likely not be compatible with the newer mesh technologies.
Even if your current WiFi devices are compatible with mesh technology, you will likely need to update their firmware in order to get them to sync with mesh routers. If you plan to use existing equipment, it’s easiest to stick with the same brand. So, if you have a TP-Link router or modem, consider adding a TP-Link Deco mesh system on top.
Often, mesh WiFi systems are sold as a kit, including everything you need to get started. Typically, a mesh WiFi system will include:
- A primary wireless router, which often doubles as a modem
- 1 to 3 satellite nodes, which serve as additional access points
- Wires needed to connect nodes to power, and the router to your modem
- Instruction manual and documents
You can generally choose the number of nodes you want. Most systems come with 2 access points, with the option to add more for larger homes.
How Does WiFi Work?
In a traditional setup, here’s a breakdown of how home WiFi works.
- A central modem connects directly to the wall via cable, fiber, or phone line
- A central router (sometimes built-in to the modem) connects to the modem and broadcasts a WiFi signal
- Devices (computers, smartphones, tablets, smart TVs) connect to the WiFi network wirelessly
- The router facilitates communication between the devices and the modem, while the modem communicates with the internet itself
The main issue with a traditional WiFi setup is that the signal coming from the router is limited. The router functions as the primary – and only – source of this signal. Basically, this means that the WiFi signal will be very strong in areas nearby the router, and progressively weaker the further you get from the primary router.
WiFi signal will be weakened by each physical obstacle in its way. Walls, insulation, copper piping, concrete layers, and even furniture can all block or disrupt WiFi signal. Pricey routers can power through some of this, creating a moderately strong signal even on a separate floor, but no router is powerful enough to spread solid signal all throughout a large home.
Other, often invisible elements can also interfere with your WiFi. Your neighbor’s WiFi network, your child’s baby monitor, or even your microwave oven can all interfere with WiFi signal strength. Data-hogging activities, like watching Netflix, can slow speeds down for other users in the household. And of course, the number of connected devices will also contribute to the strength and speed of your wireless internet.
A mesh network seeks to minimize these disruptions by creating multiple signal sources to evenly spread the signal throughout the home. Instead of having a single access point (the router), a home mesh WiFi network will have 2-5+ access points.
How Does Mesh WiFi Work?
The goal of a mesh WiFi system is to eliminate WiFi “dead zones” in your home. You’ve likely experienced strong signal in some areas of your house and weak or non-existent signal elsewhere. A whole-home mesh WiFi system, if set up correctly, can ensure a powerful WiFi connection throughout your entire house.
This goal is achieved by utilizing multiple devices, called satellite modules or “nodes”. These devices function similarly to routers. A central router connects to the system’s modem, while 2-3+ satellite modules are spread throughout the home.
Each module functions similarly to a mini router. They pick up signal coming from the central router and amplify it to the surrounding area. Modules also communicate with each other, allowing them to piggyback off the more centrally located modules. Because of this ability, signal strength is preserved. Modules that are furthest away from the central router are able to interact with nearby modules, instead of having to share a diluted signal from the primary router.
Each wireless router shares the same network, and simply provides multiple access points to the network to improve WiFi signal. Having a single network makes things much more seamless, allowing you to move throughout your home without your devices needing to switch networks.
Another mesh networking term you may see is “backhaul”. Backhaul refers to the process of transmitting internet data from the satellite nodes back to the primary router, and to the internet as a whole. The majority of mesh systems use wireless backhaul by default. Some offer the option to use a wired backhaul process, via ethernet. However, this is only practical if your home is wired for an ethernet connection, with accessible ethernet ports close to where you plan to place each satellite node.
A mesh system is ideal for delivering reliable Wi-Fi to large homes over 2,500 square feet. It’s also useful in homes with more than two stories. For smaller dwellings, a wireless network extender may be a cheaper option.
Mesh WiFi vs WiFi Extender
|Mesh WiFi||WiFi Extender|
Another common device that can be used to fix WiFi dead spots is a WiFi extender, otherwise known as a wireless repeater or range extender. These are small devices that communicate with your existing router, repeating the signal and extending WiFi range.
WiFi extenders are great for fixing single dead-zones in your home. If you are experiencing a strong signal in most areas of your home, but low signal in the basement, for instance, a WiFi extender may help deliver faster speeds and broader coverage.
On the other hand, if you have a large home, or you are experiencing weak signal in several areas of your house, then a mesh networking solution will likely be a better choice to spread Wi-Fi coverage throughout the entire home.
Keep in mind that WiFi extenders create a unique wireless network, which operates separately from your primary network. This means your home will now have two unique SSIDs and passwords. This can be a hassle for some, particularly if you’re moving around the house often and constantly need to switch networks.
Best Mesh Wifi Technology – Buyer’s Guide
If you’ve decided that a network of mesh routers is a good fit for your home, it’s time to select a system. As mentioned, most of the best mesh WiFi systems are sold as kits, generally including 2-4+ nodes. Others are sold as a base kit, with 2 nodes, and the option to add more. Here are some top products in the industry:
Google Nest – Best Overall
- Priced at $269 for a 2-piece set
- Compact and stylish design
- Very easy to set up
- Google Assistant smart speakers built-in
- Integrates with Google Smart Home technology
- Fast speeds and solid connection
The Google Nest WiFi system offers some of the best mesh WiFi technology available today. It’s also one of the most popular systems, largely due to its low cost and surprisingly easy set-up. It’s our top pick because of its attractive balance of features, ease of use, and affordability.
The dual-band, two-piece system costs $269 and should provide sufficient coverage for even very large houses. If needed, add-on access points can be purchased for $149 each.
Netgear Orbi 6 – Best High Performance
- Priced at $700 for a 2-piece set
- Supports the latest WiFi technology, including WiFi 6, Triband and a second 5GHz band
- The fastest speeds possible from a mesh setup
- Easy setup with more customization options
- Best for very large homes, or households that need extremely fast speeds
The Netgear Orbi 6 is a high-end mesh system capable of delivering insanely fast speeds throughout large homes. It features all the latest technology, yet it’s still easy to set up. The problem? It costs $700.
At close to triple the price of most entry-level setups, the Orbi 6 is only worthwhile for households that want the absolute best – and are willing to pay for it. Also, this system will make the biggest difference for households that already have very fast internet connections, and are looking to spread that fast signal throughout the house.
Eero – Best for Larger Households
- Priced at $249 for a 3-piece set
- 3 access points make it ideal for larger homes
- Advertised coverage for up to 5,000 square feet
- Additional devices priced at $100 each
- Easy-to-use app and simple setup process
If you have a large home, the Eero mesh system is a great choice. Unlike our other recommendations, this setup comes with three access points, allowing you to spread signal more evenly through large spaces. And despite the extra access point, the Eero is priced very competitively, at just $249. For budget-minded households, this may be the best mesh router on the market.
This setup is not designed to maximize speeds, but it does do a great job of delivering a reliable connection throughout large spaces. It’s a great choice for 3-story homes, and any space over 3,500 square feet or so.
Mesh WiFi Buying Tips
There are many other mesh WiFi routers to choose from, so this list is far from comprehensive. Other good brands and models include the TP-Link Deco M5, the Linksys Velop line, Netgear Nighthawk, and several models from Samsung and Asus. As with any product, we recommend checking customer reviews before buying a mesh Wi-Fi router.
Also, keep an eye out for any specific features you’d like to have. Many systems have parental controls, allowing you to restrict access to certain websites – or limit internet access at certain times of the day. Other mesh routers double as smart speakers, utilizing either Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, or other smart assistant technologies. Some systems allow you to create a guest network that does not require a password.
If you have a smart home system, you may wish to consider adding a mesh network from the same company. For instance, the Google Nest mesh WiFi system is compatible with other smart home devices from Google, which makes for a more seamless integration with other gadgets.
If you’re buying a mesh WiFi system, we recommend purchasing directly from the manufacturer, wherever possible. If you buy on a third-party retailer like Amazon, you may not get the same levels of customer support, warranty protection, etc.
Tech & WiFi for Remote Learning – Resources for Parents
Whether your children are in college or grade school, remote learning over the internet is becoming increasingly important. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in school closures affecting more than 60% of the world’s schoolchildren. And even after the pandemic subsides, many experts are predicting a longer-term shift towards remote learning as a permanent element in modern education.
As a parent, what can you do to help your children succeed in the modern educational landscape? It starts with ensuring your children have access to the right technology. Here are a few things that are vital to quality online learning:
First and foremost, having a reliable home network and wireless internet connection is very important. Particularly for children who are participating in video call classes, having the signal drop will be very disruptive to learning. The most reliable internet will always be a wired connection via ethernet cable, but this is often not practical (many newer laptops don’t even have ethernet ports). Installing a mesh WiFi network will help ensure a reliable connection throughout your space.
Children are used to learning in a classroom. Having a quiet space to go each day – a space dedicated specifically to learning – will help drastically. Ideally, set aside a spare bedroom or office that can be used for your child’s learning experience. Ensure that there is a stable connection in the room (and utilize a wireless mesh system, if necessary).
Ideally, children should have access to a computer that is only used for learning. It’s best to keep the family computer (which may be used for email, web surfing, gaming, etc.) separate. And particularly if you’re working at home while your child is learning, you don’t want to have to share technology. Fortunately, budget laptops and Chromebooks are much more affordable than they once were – you can find an entry-level machine for as little as $200 or $300.
Before you buy a device for your child’s learning, check what type of software might be needed. Your child’s school may provide information on specific programs that will need to be downloaded or purchased. Mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, can only use apps, and not formal PC programs. Likewise, Chromebooks also utilize an app-based system, and cannot necessarily run many software programs. Apple (Mac) operating systems have their own set of compatibility concerns. Before purchasing a device, double-check the compatibility of any software you may need to use.
Lastly, in order to make your child’s learning experience as productive as possible, it’s important to utilize all the resources available. This means tapping into everything that your child’s school is providing and potentially looking elsewhere for supplemental information.
Here is a huge list of educational resources for parents, as well as a tech-focused educational resource list put together by the World Bank.