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WiFi Mesh Networking: The Next Big Thing Or Just More Devices?

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By now, you've surely heard about WiFi mesh networking solutions from companies such as Luma, eero, and Netgear. Even Google has gotten into the fray with its Google WiFi solution. These products are designed to eliminate WiFi dead spots in larger and older homes by wirelessly tying together multiple access points that can be distributed throughout a home. Sold in packs of two or three, these mesh solutions are hyped as the only sure-fire way to enable the IoT future in your home.

But do these systems really improve WiFi coverage in your home or do they fall short? The early reviews are in and the results are less than convincing:

Eero Wi-Fi System review - CNET

Google Wifi review: The best way to blanket your entire home with Wi-Fi - CNET

As with any technology, there are compromises. Rarely do you find a device or set of devices that solve your problems without any sacrifice. Such is the case with this new generation of mesh networking devices. If the problem you are looking to solve is coverage, then these are the devices for you. The standard WiFi configuration in most homes consists of a single WiFi router located in a bedroom, living room, or home office. For most homes, this architecture works just fine. With 802.11ac technology, the rate and reach of the wireless signal should be more than enough to cover an apartment or small-medium-sized home.

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But in larger or older homes, where brick or cinder block walls can quickly dampen a WiFi signal, there are likely to be dead spots. Historically, these dead spots have been addressed through the use of WiFi extenders, which simply repeat the signal generated by the central access point. But the problem with WiFi extenders is two-fold: (1) the extender can only do its job when it can detect the original WiFi signal; and (2) each time the signal is repeated or extended, signal loss occurs to the tune of a 30-60% reduction in throughput. For example, if the WiFi signal coming from your access point is 100Mbps, the bandwidth available from a WiFi extender could drop to anywhere from 40Mbps-70Mbps.

The same is true of these new mesh networking solutions because they have one thing working against them: physics. Any time a signal is amplified or repeated, latency and throughput reduction are introduced. Though the mesh networking solutions do a far better job of maintaining a clean wireless signal, they do still rely on some signal repetition. But by having multiple units spaced throughout your home, you are effectively creating multi-hop communications for your devices.

Essentially, your mobile device, when it receives or transmits data, is either the first leg or anchor in a WiFi relay race, with the data transfer hopping from one access point to another until it reaches the primary access point, which is connected to your DSL, cable, or fiber modem. So, using multiple access points to create a mesh reduces the distance the wireless signal has to hop from one point to the next. That's all there really is to residential mesh networking in its current incarnation. The shorter distances reduce latency and signal attenuation.

Mesh networking is currently a retail-only market, as WiFI access points and routers have been for some time. But what gets me interested in the technology is the potential for its use by telco and cable providers. I see the potential for these technologies to be quickly integrated into the DSL, fiber, and cable gateways offered by service providers, along with self-install kits and apps directing where to ideally place your mesh access points. If service providers can reduce truck rolls or service calls from customers having issues with their WiFi network, they will absolutely do it--and they will likely charge you for the service! As broadband competition increases and margins erode, look for your cable or telco provider to become your in-home WiFi network manager as a way to recoup lost margins.

Keep an eye on companies like ARRIS, Technicolor, Netgear, and D-LINK as they integrate mesh networking technologies into their DSL and cable gateways. Also, keep an eye on Amazon as it will likely enter this market by integrating WiFi mesh into next generation Echo products.

Already a client? Explore more of these trends in our article, DOCSIS 3.1 units to lead overall cable CPE market by 2019.

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