What are mesh networks? The answer to your UK Wi-Fi woes...

Mesh networks can make your Wi-Fi work brilliantly. Here's everything you need to know

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It's a sign of how easy we have it in the 21st century when patchy Wi-Fi is one of the most annoying things to deal with, but mesh networking may be the answer to our Wi-Fi headaches.

As you'll read below, mesh networks give your home Wi-Fi setup a boost using extra (often pricey) boxes that give the signal a kick as it passes through. Recently, ASUS unveiled a free firmware update that adds such mesh capabilities to your existing network, without the hefty price tag. 

Called AiMesh, the update adds support for the mesh protocol to your router and currently works with the ASUS RT-AC68U, RT-AC86U, RT-AC88U and the RT-AC3100. Others are in beta testing and will get the update in the coming weeks, while more routers will become compatible later in the year. You can download the beta here.

Read on to find out more about mesh networks – and our pick of the best options for getting your mesh network off the ground.

What are mesh networks?

In your average Wi-Fi setup as imagined by your ISP, you have a router and a modem – or maybe two combined into one, like the Virgin Superhub. You plug this into the wall where the signal comes in (either ADSL or cable, most likely) and the router spreads the signal as far as it can within your house. Every wall, carpet, door and other obstacle will weaken the signal, which means that some rooms will provide better coverage than others.

This is where mesh networks come in: extra boxes sit in your house and treat the internet in your house like a relay race: picking up the internet signal and taking it deeper into your abode, including places that were impossible to reach before.

If you have the cash, opting for mesh Wi-Fi is the way to go. By taking the signal from your modem or existing router and distributing it around a series of “nodes” or satellite devices, mesh systems eradicate black spots while also maintaining a much higher level of throughput than a single router can maintain.

Another advantage of mesh systems is that, in theory at least, they’re modular. You can start simple (and cheap) then extend later when funds allow, or when you move house and find that you need to spread your Wi-Fi signal over a larger area.

How mesh Wi-Fi works

So how do mesh systems pull off this trick? This isn’t a simple question to answer and that’s because, although most mesh Wi-Fi systems appear to do the same thing, they don’t necessarily do it in the same way. In particular, few work to standards dictating the way the systems’ nodes communicate with each other.

This has a key consequence: once you’ve bought into a system, you’ll only be able to extend it using nodes bought from the same manufacturer. This is despite the fact that a standard has existed since 2012 within 802.11 called 802.11s.

Many do share a common approach to mesh Wi-Fi, however, and work in a similar way to the BT Whole Home Wi-Fi system and Linksys Velop. In these, each node is a tri-band wireless router, serving up one 2.4GHz network and two 5GHz networks.

Two of these networks are used for the connection of laptops, tablets and phones (the 2.4GHz and one of the 5GHz networks), while the third 5GHz network is used as a “backhaul” link, reserved exclusively for transmitting and receiving network traffic between the nodes. This link is hidden from view and inaccessible to any device other than the nodes of that particular wireless system; this is where the proprietary element comes in.

Netgear’s Orbi system also works this way, but it has a faster link on the backhaul (4x4 stream, 1,733Mbits/sec) than at the client end to keep bottlenecking to a minimum. The catch is that it isn’t, technically speaking, true mesh Wi-Fi. Any node you add to the system beyond the basic two-box kit connects directly to the system’s hub; you can’t daisy-chain devices as you can with a proper mesh system.

Then there are Google Wifi and Sky Q. These systems aren’t tri-band, so don’t have a dedicated backhaul wireless connection. Instead, they manage the distribution of packets between client devices and nodes – and from node to node – dynamically, with their 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks sharing network traffic of both types between them.

Performance vs Ease-of-use

In our tests, tri-band mesh systems were faster than the dual-band ones, but with mesh wireless systems, the question of throughput is less important than with regular, single routers.

With single-point Wi-Fi, the faster the router at close range, the stronger its signal is likely to be at long range. There are exceptions to this, of course, but that’s the general trend, meaning you need to look out for the latest developments in Wi-Fi tech to deliver better range and reliability with a single router.

Mesh Wi-Fi is designed to circumvent this, so you don’t need the biggest, baddest, fastest technology in town to stream 4K Netflix all over the house. Instead, ease of use and management come to the fore and the technology sinks into the background – because it just works.

This is why we like Google Wifi so much. Not because it’s the fastest system, but because the Google Wifi is clever and also delivers just the right blend of ease of use, range and usable throughput.

More importantly, though, it’s because it’s based on standards that have a chance of delivering future interoperability with third-party products, unlike the rest of the current group of systems.

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