You would be forgiven for thinking that wireless mesh networking is just another marketing bullet point for new Wi-Fi routers, a phrase coined to drive up prices without delivering benefits. But we can avoid being cynical for once: mesh technology does deliver a significant benefit over the regular old Wi-Fi routers we’ve bought in years past and that remain on the market.

Mesh networks are resilient, self-configuring, and efficient. You don’t need to mess with them after often minimal work required to set them up, and they provide arguably the best and highest throughput you can achieve in your home. These advantages have led to several startups and existing companies introducing mesh systems contending for the home and small business Wi-Fi networking dollar.

Mesh networks solve a particular problem: covering a relatively large area, more than about 1,000 square feet on a single floor, or a multi-floor dwelling or office, especially where there’s no ethernet already present to allow easier wired connections of non-mesh Wi-Fi routers and wireless access points. All the current mesh ecosystems also offer simplicity. You might pull out great tufts of hair working with the web-based administration control panels on even the most popular conventional Wi-Fi routers.

Luma Home, Inc.

A conventional wireless router delivers limited coverage if you can’t hardwire additional Wi-Fi access points to it.

What mesh means

The concept of mesh networks first appeared in the 1980s in military experiments, and it became commercially available in the 1990s. But hardware, radio, and spectrum requirements; cost; and availability made it truly practical for consumer-scale gear only in the last couple of years. That’s why we’re seeing so many systems hit the market all at once.

Mesh networking treats each base station as a node that exchanges information continuously about network conditions with all adjacent nodes across the entire set. This allows nodes that aren’t sending and receiving data to each other to still know all about each other. This knowledge might reside in a cloud-based backend or in firmware on each router.

Mesh networks don’t retransmit all the data passing through among a set of base stations. The systems on the market dynamically adjust radio attributes and channels to create the least possible interference and the greatest possible coverage area, which results in a high level of throughput—far higher than anything that’s possible with WDS (Wireless Distribution System) and similar broadcast-style systems.

luma mesh networkLuma Home, Inc.

Mesh network routers, such as Luma, connect multiple wireless nodes to blanket your home with Wi-Fi.

The principle behind all wireless networking is “how do I transmit this number of bits in the smallest number of microseconds and get off and let someone else use it?” explains Matthew Gast, former chair of the IEEE 802.11 committee that sets specs used by Wi-Fi. Mesh networks manage this better than WDS.

In some cases, Gast notes, a mesh node might send a packet of data to just one other node; in others, a weak signal and other factors might route the packet through other nodes to reach the destination base station to which the destination wireless device is connected.

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