In recent years, wireless mesh networking has emerged as a rapidly growing (13.8% CAGR) and promising means to eliminate most connectivity issues, while providing added controls and functionality to network management. Mesh networking uses multiple access points (AP) that blanket an area in a signal, handing devices off to another AP when it can provide a better connection. In essence, a mesh network is a group of devices communicating and passing information from one device to another, in sequence, until the intended recipient is reached.
No device lock in with EasyMesh standards
Earlier this year, the Wi-Fi Alliance introduced EasyMesh a common standard for mesh routers to interact with each other, regardless of manufacturer. Until this point, consumers were essentially locked into buying routers from a single brand to achieve a reliable mesh network experience.
Mesh routers — devices which allow you to integrate more than one router into a single, larger network for your home or office — previously only worked within a closed ecosystem. With the new standard, users can mix and match mesh routers to extend the WiFi in their homes or offices — provided they support EasyMesh. While new standards now exist, there are only a handful of manufacturers who have released EasyMesh routers and wide scale adoption will take some time.
Mesh wireless is all the rage
Mesh wireless systems are all the rage these days, and for good reason. Mesh networking technology now enables us to enjoy high-speed WiFi coverage with no dead spots and, equally as important, simple setup and management. With the explosion in popularity of smart home devices and countless streaming media services like Hulu, Netflix, and Spotify, whole-house WiFi coverage has become a must. Apart from the most obvious consumer use cases, enterprises are increasingly moving to wireless networking and demanding the high performance provided by local area networks which is driven by the need for a consistent enterprise mobility experience.
Many of the latest wireless routers can provide strong coverage to most rooms of a typical medium-sized house, for example. However, larger buildings with dense walls, multiple floors, metal and concrete substructures, and other structural impediments may require additional components to bring WiFi to areas that the router signal can't reach. WiFi extenders do a good job of filling in dead zones, but typically provide only half the bandwidth available from the primary router. Access points offer more bandwidth than range extenders, but require a wired connection to the main router. And both solutions typically create a new network SSID that you have to log in to as you move from one area to another.
There are a lot of products calling themselves “mesh”, and not all of them share the same features or capabilities. For our purposes, we define mesh as a system that uses multiple wireless access points positioned throughout a home or office location that broadcast the same wireless network name (SSID) and are all managed from one interface. This last bit is important because, in most cases, being managed from one interface means that all the devices are aware of each other and can work together to manage the WiFi throughout the location, without user intervention.
Mesh networks may have limitations, but offer plenty of advantages
The mesh network control architecture can either be centralised or distributed. With a centralised control architecture, an AP controller is required to calculate and coordinate the mesh parameters for each AP. This architecture, however, limits the scalability of the mesh network to the capacity of the AP controller. Unfortunately, mesh networks have limitations, most notably in the loss of throughput and user capacity, which scales geometrically and increases latency linearly as the number of wireless hops increase. Accordingly, mesh networks are not suitable for high bandwidth or latency-sensitive applications.
A mesh network does, however, provide compelling advantages over a regular wireless network:
- Eliminates dark spots in the network and offers uniform signal throughout a building.
- It’s cheaper than regular networks with far less wiring and infrastructure costs involved in setting it up. A mesh network can be used to provide strong Internet access to an entire city for far less than what a regular wireless network would cost.
- Mesh networks are great for when you’re faced with obstructions and immovable objects that are likely to interfere with and weaken a signal.
- Setting up extra access points, or nodes, is much easier. The nodes can communicate with all other nodes and you don’t have to configure them to connect with a router.
- If a node goes down either due to damage, loss of power, or another technical glitch, other nodes continue to work. The failure of a node doesn’t create a hole in the network and instead the other nodes can normally compensate for the loss of one or two other nodes.
- You can grow a network pretty easily, and shrink it down when needed. This means that if you suddenly decide to expand your office from one floor to two floors, meeting your network needs for a larger office is easier. Likewise, if you have to downsize and move to smaller premises, you can scale it down to size just as easily.
Mesh WiFi grows in popularity and intelligence
When it comes to intelligence, mesh WiFi network technology and devices will continue to advance. We’ve seen the introduction of a number of technologies recently. For example, Samsung launched a new mesh WiFi system with a built-in SmartThings Hub that automatically allocates bandwidth, mitigates interference, and delivers maximum WiFi capacity across a home. ASUS also launched their Lyra Trio mesh WiFi system comprising three powerful wireless routers with dual-band WiFi and 3×3 multiple-input multiple-output. The multiple-stream antenna design allows more simultaneous network traffic, enabling lag-free video streaming and gaming from every corner of a home.
It’s clear that mesh networks offer many advantages over older topologies, including rapid deployment and robust infrastructure, or the ability to serve bandwidth to thousands of people in a coverage area. Given the flexibility and intelligence of mesh networks, deployment is an easy choice and there is a high probability that wireless network users are already connecting to a mesh network at home, work or play.
By Emmanuelle Salon, Executive Head of WiFi at Internet Solutions