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A summary about mesh WiFi
In autumn 2016, the term “mesh WLAN” attracted more public attention for the first time, and by 2017 at the latest, mesh WLAN will be firmly established in the market for home network devices. But what exactly is mesh WiFi? What problems does mesh WiFi want to solve? And where are the limits or are there disadvantages when using mesh WiFi?
The following article answers these questions. In the last section you will find an overview of manufacturers of mesh WiFi devices and their brand names.
Tip: Here is a very important piece of information and therefore it is mentioned right at the beginning. If you value a very good network performance, you can still not avoid a wired Ethernet LAN. Mesh WLAN is based on WLAN and thus inherits the weaknesses inherent in the wireless transmission medium (WLAN). If you are interested in more information on the comparison between WLAN, PowerLAN (dLAN), and Ethernet (LAN), you can find it in the article on the selection of transmission media.
What is Mesh WiFi?
"Mesh-WLAN" is a concept in which several WLAN devices form a closed WLAN network when viewed from the outside. A WLAN client, e.g. a smartphone, only sees a WLAN network with a password and a name (SSID).
I consciously chose the term “concept”. Because there is no uniform standard, no uniform definition and also no uniform technology for "Mesh WLAN". The different manufacturers of WLAN devices seem to understand something very similar by this, but there are definitely differences.
Here is a practical example of a mesh WiFi. In the house, good WLAN coverage is achieved by five radio cells. Since only part of the Ethernet (LAN) was laid, the mesh WLAN consists of a combination of WLAN repeaters and access points. The connections between the WLAN repeaters and the WLAN access points are established automatically by the mesh WLAN. Outwardly, the WLAN user only sees a WLAN with a password and a name.
Properties that mesh WiFi networks usually have are listed below.
- A mesh WiFi network consists of at least 2 WiFi devices. These can be WLAN access points or WLAN repeaters. The use of several WLAN devices results in a large area coverage for a mesh WLAN.
Note: For the sake of simplicity, the term "WLAN device" will be used in the further course of this article when referring to these two device classes.
The name of the WLAN, the so-called SSID, and the password are the same for all WLAN devices.
The support of roaming of a WLAN client within the mesh WLAN. The roaming quality is increased through the use of WLAN standards, which were otherwise only found with company networks.
Note: Roaming means that you can move around your home while mobile and, for example, switch a tablet from one WLAN cell to another without having to break the connection yourself and re-establish it. If roaming works well, the WLAN client, in cooperation with the mesh WLAN, ensures that the connection is always as good as possible and that there is only an imperceptible interruption in the transition between radio cells.
Support of band and access point steering. This means that the mesh WiFi constantly analyzes the load and then redirects WiFi clients to the best WiFi device and the best frequency band. In contrast to roaming, locally static WLAN clients also benefit here.
Settings can be made centrally for all devices of a mesh WLAN. This can be done, for example, using a smartphone app or a centralized web user interface on one of the WLAN devices. For example, a WLAN guest access can be set up, which is then automatically offered on all devices of the Mesh WLAN. Updates can also be made centrally for the entire mesh WiFi.
When integrating new WLAN devices into a Mesh WLAN, the new device automatically searches for a suitable connection to another device in the Mesh WLAN.
Mesh WLAN devices have at least two radio modules and are capable of cross-band transmission. By using two radio modules and cross-band transmission, a WLAN device can exchange data with a WLAN client and then forward this data to the Internet router at the same time.
Benefits of mesh WiFi
Mesh WiFi mainly promises advantages in terms of simplicity, roaming and performance.
It should be easier to create and operate a WLAN consisting of several devices. So you should be able to easily add a new device to an existing mesh WiFi network. Settings and updates only need to be made once and are then automatically active in the entire mesh WiFi. The status of a mesh WiFi network can be viewed centrally for all devices. Faults or individual connections with poor performance can thus be identified and rectified more quickly. Some manufacturers offer an app-controlled integration and setup of WiFi devices in a mesh WiFi to simplify the process even further.
Up to now, roaming in WLAN has indeed been a weak point in WLAN networks. Whether, when and how a transition between two WLAN radio cells took place was the sole responsibility of the WLAN clients. This was often more poorly than properly fulfilled. A mesh WLAN system should now significantly improve this. WLAN access points and repeaters of a mesh WLAN actively intervene, encourage WLAN clients to roam and support them in the transition from one radio cell to another.
The use of cross-band transmission is intended to achieve higher net data rates. There are mesh WiFi systems that even have a third high-bit rate radio module integrated and use this exclusively for transmission within the mesh WiFi. Two further radio modules are only available for communication with the WLAN clients. The potential for conflicts with the transmission towards the Internet router is thus significantly reduced. Furthermore, the band steering should ensure that the WLAN clients automatically log on to the best and most powerful frequency band.
Furthermore, mesh WLAN systems claim good surface coverage. This is understandable because a mesh WLAN system consists of several WLAN radio cells and thus naturally more area can be covered than with a single device.
note: If one compares these advantages with a "traditional" WLAN network for private customers, then only points 1 and 2 are actually genuine advantages of mesh WLAN. The third point was already achievable in the past through a careful selection of WLAN repeaters and WLAN access points.
The limits of mesh WiFi
After reading the first two sections, mesh WiFi probably sounds very promising to you. But one should also be aware of the limits and disadvantages. These are discussed in more detail in this section. So much should be said right away that if you value certain functions or requirements, then you should inquire which manufacturer can deliver the best mesh WiFi for you. As mentioned at the beginning, the reason is that the manufacturers' mesh WLAN systems still have many limitations and differences.
According to the current state of knowledge, a mesh WLAN can only be formed from devices from a single manufacturer. If you want to expand or modernize it without replacing all devices, then you are bound to the manufacturer, even if there are other better options in the meantime. You would also have to set up another WLAN device at the location of your Internet router if the manufacturer of the Internet router and the manufacturer of the mesh WLAN are different.
WLAN standards such as IEEE802.11r, IEEE802.11k and IEEE802.11v ensure that roaming and steering work as well as possible within a mesh WLAN. However, not every mesh WLAN manufacturer seems to support all these standards, and on the other hand not every WLAN client either. As a result, roaming / steering can work well, but it can also get stuck in individual cases.
"Mesh" is the English term for meshing. In networks, this term means that network devices are not connected to just one other device, but each to many others. This creates a topology that resembles a fishing net. If a connection is lost, the transmission is automatically rerouted via another connection. In practice, however, some mesh WLAN systems only master the star topology. A star topology means that there is a central device to which all other devices must connect directly. Automatic rerouting is also a function that cannot be taken for granted.
Mesh WLANs promise an easy extension of your WLAN coverage. In principle, this is correct, but the number of WLAN devices that can be part of a mesh WLAN is limited. So it is worth asking for the exact number if you want to cover a larger area with a mesh WiFi.
Some manufacturers support the connection between the WLAN devices of a Mesh WLAN not only via WLAN itself but also via LAN (Ethernet) or PowerLAN (dLAN). However, some manufacturers also have restrictions, so that unexpectedly, for example, the connection via WLAN is not supported.
The transmission of television via your network (IP-TV) is carried out via multicast without any additional functions. This would distribute the corresponding data stream throughout the mesh WiFi and also block WiFi clients for which IP TV is irrelevant. If IP-TV is important to you, the mesh WiFi system should have a function that only directs the IP-TV data stream to the device that wants to receive the data stream.
It is worthwhile to compare prices of mesh WLAN systems from different manufacturers. Some of the differences are considerable. If you want to expand your WLAN for simple purposes, you usually get the cheapest price with individual WLAN devices without mesh WLAN.
A fundamental problem with WLAN is that all WLAN devices share the radio resource. In principle, the more WLAN devices in the neighborhood, the slower the individual WLAN radio cells become. Due to the increased number of WiFi devices through mesh WiFi, this problem is still being fueled. The individual may receive a more powerful WLAN through a modern mesh WLAN, but the performance of the neighboring WLAN networks is likely to suffer somewhat. If the neighbors also upgrade, this in turn has a negative effect on your own WLAN network. The effect just described occurs particularly in urban areas, where the density of apartments and thus WLANs is particularly high.
WiFi remains WiFi and Mesh WiFi is not reinventing WiFi. It still has all of the disadvantages of that technology. Mesh WiFi is still prone to interference, poor connections due to signal attenuation or resource conflicts with neighboring networks.
tip: In order for a mesh WLAN system to deliver the highest possible data rates, the signal reception should be good, especially on the 5GHz frequency band. The background to this is that the mesh WiFi systems partially or completely rely on this frequency band in order to establish the WiFi connections between the mesh WiFi devices. The attenuation of the WLAN signal is higher on the 5 GHz frequency band than on the 2.4 GHz frequency band. For the best possible signal reception, it helps to follow the rules for finding good locations. The article on installing a WLAN can provide you with valuable support.
As written, the lack of interoperability between manufacturers is a problem area with mesh WLAN. Would you like to replace an existing WLAN device or add to your WLAN? If you buy a device from another manufacturer, you forego the advantages of Mesh WiFi or you only buy components from your previous Mesh WiFi manufacturer or you replace the Mesh WiFi in its entirety.
The Wi-Fi Alliance wants to tackle this problem and published a specification for the interoperability of WiFi mesh access points in mid-2018 (source: EasyMesh). Manufacturers whose devices pass defined interoperability tests and are certified accordingly may call their devices "Wi-Fi EasyMesh" compliant. The aim is that a WiFi mesh network can consist of components from different manufacturers.
To date (March 2019) I am not aware of any products on the market that are Wi-Fi EasyMesh compliant.
Note: Do you think about why manufacturers, even one year after the publication of Wi-Fi EasyMesh, show little or no interest in interoperability, but e.g. bring Wi-Fi 6 devices onto the market before the relevant standard is adopted? What does that say about us who buy these products?
Source EasyMesh: https://www.wi-fi.org/discover-wi-fi/wi-fi-easymesh
Manufacturer list of mesh WLAN systems
The following is a list of manufacturers of mesh WLAN systems. As far as I know, special features are listed, as well as the brand name under which the products are marketed. This is important insofar as it does not automatically support all WLAN devices from a manufacturer Mesh WLAN, but only a certain product family.
AVM takes a slightly different approach than the majority of manufacturers. In contrast to these, AVM does not market Mesh-WLAN as a product family of its own, but as a feature. This feature will be integrated into existing and future devices. This means that even older devices can become part of a mesh WLAN by updating the firmware (Fritz! OS 6.90). If an existing Fritz! Box from AVM already supports Mesh WLAN, then you can use this device as the basis for your Mesh WLAN and only need to buy the devices for expanding the WLAN. This will probably get you away cheaper than buying a completely new mesh WiFi system.
Here is the link to an AVM website on which you will find a list of devices that support Mesh WLAN.
The Asus mesh WLAN system operates under the name "Lyra". With an exclusive radio module for data traffic between the Lyra devices, the system should be particularly efficient in terms of the achievable data rates.
The product family for mesh WLAN from D-Link is called "COVR". With these devices you can set up a WiFi mesh via PowerLAN (dLAN) and Ethernet (LAN). Interestingly, according to the information received at IFA 2017, a connection between the mesh WLAN devices via WLAN itself is not supported. The stated reason for “halving” the data rate was incomprehensible to me, as there are already established solutions with cross-band repeating or a separate third radio module.
At Edimax, the mesh WLAN system and the corresponding product family are called "Gemini". Anyone looking for an inexpensive system could find it here.
Little known, but Google also makes devices for the home network. The Mesh WiFi devices were called "Google WiFi" by Google. In my opinion, the "Google WiFi" devices are in the higher price segment.
At Netgear, “Orbi” is the name of the mesh WLAN system and the associated products. The relatively large cases are noticeable from a purely physical point of view. These seem to be due to the antenna design and a separate third radio module for the connection between the mesh WLAN devices. This third radio module is also intended to achieve particularly high data rates in the WLAN. A prerequisite, however, is that the signal quality of the connections between the individual devices is good, otherwise an exclusive radio module is of little use. Like the devices from Google, the "Orbi" devices appear to be more expensive compared to other mesh WLAN systems.
TP-Link offers its devices for mesh WLAN under the name "Deco". An advertised specialty should be the possibility to be able to prioritize certain devices or applications directly in the mesh WLAN system. Prioritization enables better quality for time-critical data such as online games or telephony.
tip: If you would like to know more about WLAN itself, you will find a compact description in the article about the transmission medium WLAN.
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