A beginner’s guide to mesh networks

Consider this familiar situation: You’re browsing Facebook on your cellphone. You walk from the living room upstairs to the bedroom. Suddenly, the Wi-Fi signal wavers. Pages are taking forever to load. You begin to consider throwing the phone at the wall in frustration.

This situation can happen all too often for those of us who live in bigger houses. Luckily, a cool new technology that combats these weak Wi-Fi zones has captured the tech world’s attention within the last year. It’s called a mesh network, and it just might become your Wi-Fi’s new best friend.

First, an analogy: Imagine your Wi-Fi router as a firehose. It sends out a strong blast of wireless signal into your home from wherever it’s placed. The firehose method was effective in the earlier days of Wi-Fi, when the signal frequency was 2.4 GHz. This lower frequency could more easily pass through walls and other barriers you might find in a home.

But as Wi-Fi signals got faster at the higher 5 GHz frequency, which has a harder time penetrating walls, people found that certain areas of their homes had a weak or nonexistent Wi-Fi signal. The firehose signal of the Wi-Fi router meant that a few rooms might have strong Wi-Fi, but a far bedroom or second floor bathroom had barely any signal at all.

That’s where the mesh network comes in. A mesh network acts like a sprinkler system. Instead of just one direct signal blast, the network uses nodes placed around the house to create smaller but still powerful signals in every corner of your home. Since the nodes are all connected to your Wi-Fi router, wireless devices switch seamlessly from node to node depending on which node is drawing the strongest connection at the time. A standard network uses three nodes, but you can also set up a network using just one or two.

A mesh network essentially blankets your home in a strong Wi-Fi signal, no matter how far you are from the router.

So why would you want such a thing? Even a robust Wi-Fi signal can have a hard time reaching multiple floors or extending across a lot of square footage. There are just too many walls in the way! A mesh network extender is ideal for houses over 1,500 square feet or homes with multiple floors. If you have Wi-Fi dead spots in certain areas of your home (like back corner bedrooms or a back porch), then a mesh network is an ideal solution.

However, this technology does come at a price. Most of these networks cost anywhere from $200 to $400. If you do have that kind of money to invest in your Wi-Fi network, though, your home Wi-Fi can go from tolerable to excellent with minimal effort.

Read PC magazine’s ratings on 2017 mesh network systems.

 

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