WiFi Woes…Mesh Networking to the Rescue!

by admin on Mar 10th in Uncategorized

As a company that frequently installs networks in homes, small businesses, churches, and schools, we often run into the issue of weak wifi signals, or ‘dead spots’.  In the past we have dealt with it in multiple ways.  We have used PowerLine (using a building’s electrical system to distribute data) adapters to get the network to another location, then setup an access point.  While this is a great way to get data to the far reaches of a building, there are two caveats…first, if the building has multiple electrical panels, the PowerLine adapters may not work (they have to be on the same panel, but not necessarily on the same circuit).  Second, using an access point requires setting up another SSID and passphrase.  Yes, you can use the same as other locations, but the ‘average’ access point will not ‘hand off’ from one signal to the next.  This feature is usually only found in higher end APs that cost way more than most are willing to spend in a home or small business.

Another way to deal with the dead spots is to use a ‘wifi extender’.  These are basically small access points that you plug into an outlet within range of your working wifi, it picks up the signal and sends it on its way…basically allowing the signal to ‘hop’ from router to extender to your device.  However, these devices also require an SSID, and don’t hand off the signal, either.

The supposed answer to this problem is something called a ‘mesh network’, which creates a net of wifi over a large area that utilizes a single SSID, and hands off as needed.  The market is currently blossoming with systems that provide a ‘mesh network’ for homes and small networks at a much more affordable cost.  However, affordable is still WAY more than the other options, but way less than the previously required enterprise level hardware.

My first dealings with the mesh network came when we needed to address an issue a client was having in their house where we had installed multiple access points, router, etc.  It was down more often than being up, we tried multiple brands of APs, re-wiring, using PowerLine adapters, etc…but still had issues.  As a last resort, we purchased a full set of Netgear’s new ‘Orbi’ units.  After a few minor glitches in the setup, it started working flawlessly.  In fact, it has now been in place for about three years, and it hasn’t produced a single service call or service outage.  The only problem is that the system with 3 units cost about $500 (probably coming down as there is more competition).

An issue we see with the mesh concept is if you have a specific router you want to use (due to features it contains) rather than the mesh network router.  For our company, this is a major problem, since we recommend having a router that has strong and flexible controls (see post on filtering routers).  As we look at various mesh networking units, we want to make sure that they can do the following: Work with another router and/or act as a router itself.

After our initial mesh networking foray with Netgear and Plume, many more players have come into the game…to the point where it is nearly impossible to keep up with all the changes!

Here are some basics overviews of the current players…and whether we have played with them yet…

  • NetGear Orbi
    • these units were the first affordable mesh networking units available for the home/small office.  They work well and have come down in price quite a bit.  I still struggle with their setup and configuration and they lack the built in parental controls we recommend for families.  UPDATE: I have found out that the Orbis and some NetGear routers use the Disney Circle App for parental controls…this is a very robust app for parental controls.
  • Plume
    • I loved the Plume when it first came out.  It was recommended to our company by the CEO of the company that makes the Roqos router.  Back then, Plume offered only the mesh networking which included dynamic ‘adaptive networking’, which means they use AI to evaluate your wifi and re-direct data in the most efficient way.  The great thing about these small devices is just that…they were small little devices…they actually looked like a Glade Air Freshener that you plug into an outlet.  Very unobtrusive and no cords…
    • Over time, the company added a ‘Super Plume’ that was only a little bigger than the original, but it was robust enough to act as a router as well.  Now you can have a pure Plume network.
    • Unfortunately/Fortunately, they added a rather extensive parental control app to their units, which came at the price of a yearly subscription.  The controls are good, but not great.  I still find Roqos controls to be better…
    • I currently use Plume in both my house and my parent’s house.  It is nearly bullet proof, and if it does go out, I get a notification…very handy.
  • TP-Link
    • TP-Link is one of my favorite network hardware vendors.  I have used their PowerLine devices, the switches, and their routers.  They have recently joined the mesh networking crowd with their ‘Deco’ line.
    • The newer models come with a Home app that includes antivirus, intrusion protection, and parental controls.  These come with NO additional subscription fees! (or so they say)
    • I have ordered several of them to test in the next couple of weeks…I’ll update this when I have had a chance to test them out.
  • Gryphon
    • This is a new player to the game from the UK.  I have tried contacting them for information beyond what is on their website, but no response…that worries me a bit.  However, some of the reviews on Amazon speak very highly of these units.  I haven’t played with them so I don’t know of the extent of their parental controls, but they claim to have them.
    • A few cons in my book:
      • Units are quite large and bulky…very art deco-ish, but require a power cord and a place to set it.
      • This is a pro/con…they are very powerful so you don’t need as many to cover a large area (pro), but they are very expensive per unit (con)
      • Tech support?  Since they are a UK company, not sure if there is any hope for live tech support here in the US.
    • We’ll see if I plan to splurge and buy a couple to test…

As you look at the plethora of mesh network devices out there, keep the following in mind BEFORE spending your money:

  • Tri-band vs. Dual-band 
    • Spend the extra and get Tri-band…this helps substantially in getting you the speed you are paying your ISP for!
  • Configurability
    • Not sure if that is a word, but make sure you can configure the units to match your existing network (DHCP, IP range, etc).  If not, you may have to re-configure all the devices on your network…not a fun thing to do.
  • Name Brand
    • Normally, I’m all about the cheap/inexpensive stuff.  Yet when it comes to networking equipment, make sure you are dealing with a reputable company that actually provides tech support!  That’s one of the things I love about Plume…they are available 24/7 on the phone…
  • Wifi5 or Wifi6
    • We are all too well aware of how quickly technology moves forward, leaving us in the dust holding what we thought was the newest and best only to find out we are already obsolete.  That being said, the newest ‘version’ of wifi is wifi6…so if you get it you should be good for a long time…just make sure it is backwards compatible (which is what it is supposed to be).



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