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What is a mesh network?

Understanding how a mesh network works, plus if and when it’s your best option for connectivity in your home.

August 10, 2021

With the number of smart products and devices most of us use on the daily (not to mention the wish list of future smart systems we'd like to add), it almost feels like a degree in home networking should be a requirement of modern life. Otherwise, you might find yourself at a loss and wondering questions like: What are these different network types -- Wi-Fi, Mesh, etc? And, How do I know if this device will work in my home? And, Can all my stuff connect together? 

Well, if you don't have a Bachelor's in Information Technology, we're here to help.
Think of this blog as your Home Networks 101 crash course to help you better understand your home's existing network and select the right connected solutions going forward.

A Tale of Two Network Types: Star v. Mesh
Once upon a time, a long time ago, our internet connectivity -- checking AOL emails and printing out driving directions -- relied on tying up our phone lines and tortoise-like dial-up services. It was practically the Dark Ages.  

But while the noise, delay and busy-signal inconveniences of that era are thankfully well behind us, the "wireless" alternatives we use today aren't entirely wireless. There's always still a source -- what we usually call a router -- that plugs in and gets our network started. But that network can take a few different shapes, so to speak. 

In most homes across the US today, a Wi-Fi router is used to create a star network.
In this type of network, think of the router as the center of a star or asterisk. If you could see the connections it created with all the smartphones, laptops, tablets, Apple TVs and Rokus, voice assistants and gaming consoles, each would be one of the points extending out from the center. As with a star or asterisk, there's no direct connection between the end points. All connecting and communicating for those separate devices runs from and through that center point. 

In addition to this network type's shape, comparison to a star can also be a way to understand this network type's range. The source of all the connection comes from that central router. The farther a device gets physically from the router, the weaker its connection, just as light emitted from a star seems to dim as you move farther away. This is why some star Wi-Fi networks also include repeaters or wireless access points, strategically giving the connection a boost in areas where the connection from the router begins to weaken.

So, what is a mesh network and how is it different?
In a mesh network, the source of connectivity is decentralized. Instead of a single router that then communicates to everything one-on-one, a web of connection is created through multiple devices that all connect one another, weaving multiple paths for communication and extending range. 

Think of how a mesh material usually offers both stretch and strength. A mesh network delivers similar benefits, expanding coverage and reinforcing connections. 

Finding Your Perfect Type (for Home Connectivity) 
When it comes to selecting the best option for wireless networking in your home, there are plenty of pros to both options. A star Wi-Fi network is simple, straight-forward and often quickly set up for us by our internet service provider. For creating a network simply to check in on work messages, stream Spotify, FaceTime your sister or watch the latest Netflix Original series, this option gets the job done.

More deliberation might be in order, though, if you are wanting to integrate more smart home products and systems, as well as if you have a large home or have areas where you experience Wi-Fi dead spots.

If you are wanting to add on whole home solutions for smart lighting, security, audio, etc., choosing Wi-Fi systems and solutions will connect quickly but might cause or encounter bandwidth issues once in use. With a star Wi-Fi network, all the connected devices are pulling from the set bandwidth of that single, central router. Adding smart solutions that are designed for use throughout the entire home is likely to strain a basic Wi-Fi network in both terms of range and excessive traffic. Suddenly, the motion activated security camera over the back door, or the multiple rooms of streaming audio, are competing for signal strength against your family's regular Zoom calls with the grandparents or your kid's latest game download. 

One way to bypass any potential technical drama is to look for solutions that operate on their own independent mesh networks. With these smart home additions, the Wi-Fi connection is used for communicating between the system and an app on your phone, but the components of the smart home system itself create and use a dedicated mesh network amongst themselves. That way the smart speakers, cameras, thermostats or light switches can ensure high performance and increased reliability without jeopardizing the Wi-Fi connectivity you and your family use for work, school and play on your personal devices. 
Additionally, while mesh systems are available to fully replace a home's star Wi-Fi network, they can be significantly more expensive to set up throughout the home. It's worth carefully evaluating your home's technology needs based off Wi-Fi traffic and layout to properly assess whether additional or alternative networking products can best serve you.

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