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Making a Mesh

David Powell  |  May 24, 2019

THERE ARE AREAS in my life where I’ve spent too much money and time trying to be cheap. My reward: steady aggravation—until I spent a bit more to get the right solution.

Which brings me to home networking technology. Most of us spend some $500 a year or more for internet broadband service. The problem: Many families are still living with old networking gear that’s slower than it should be, sometimes unreliable or provides poor wi-fi coverage in parts of their house.

Networking technology can get complicated pretty fast, so internet service providers try to simplify their customers’ lives by integrating four separate networking functions into a single internet gateway device (IGD) that they give you upon installation—and for which you pay each month:

  1. Broadband modem. Usually cable or DSL, this is your main pipe to the internet.
  2. Firewall/router. This keeps unwanted internet traffic from your local network and routes traffic from your home to the internet.
  3. Ethernet switch. This connects less-common devices that use Ethernet cabling.
  4. Wi-fi access point. This provides wi-fi connectivity on your local network using either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz channels.

The integrated approach worked pretty well in the old days, when customers had just a few devices that needed internet access—and those devices weren’t constantly moving around the house, but instead could be placed near the IGD, where wi-fi signals are strong.

For readers who live in a condo or a tiny house, the single IGD approach may still meet your needs, especially if your IGD is five years old or less. But if you’re living in a typical 2,400-square-foot house or bigger, one wi-fi access point may not give you usable wi-fi throughout your home. Wi-fi signal strength grows weaker with distance, and dramatically drops off when signals pass through each wall, door, ceiling or floor. Building construction is a factor, too. Concrete and brick weaken signals much more than drywall and wood.

Today, internet-connected devices have sprung up all over our homes. The purpose of these devices often dictates their location, unless you want to spend even more money moving something like your thermostat. Moreover, some devices, such as a video doorbell, really can’t move.

What do you do if that location is a wi-fi dead spot, because your IGD is on the other side of the house? What if you’re moving about the house, while using wi-fi calling on your cell phone—an attractive feature for customers who don’t have a strong cell signal in their home—and you wander into a wi-fi dead spot?

The first step is to figure out if you have an issue with wi-fi signal strength. Some situations are easy to spot, such as when you can’t even see your wi-fi network name in the list of available networks in a particular spot in your house. Or you see the network, but consistently get errors when trying to connect a device to your wi-fi network. Another clue: The wi-fi signal strength icon on your smartphone is a tiny nub.

Weak but marginally usable wi-fi coverage can manifest itself as poor performance or frequent errors when loading content in an app or web browser, though signal strength is not the only cause of that. The easiest way to test is using a site like Ookla’s Speedtest with a PC or Mac web browser or, alternatively, with Ookla’s Speedtest app. When you run a test, Ookla will report your download and upload speed. You may need to access your account on your internet service provider’s website to remind yourself of the broadband speeds you’re supposed to be getting. Ookla’s testing process isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to test whether a given device in a given spot in your house gets far poorer performance than it should.

What if you have a wi-fi coverage problem? Consider taking advantage of wi-fi mesh networking technology. Yes, you’ll likely spend $250 to $400 for equipment. Eero, AmpliFi HD and Google WiFi are good options. They support the latest wi-fi standards and operate at the fastest speeds over both 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. If you hate doing anything tech-related, you can order your networking gear from Amazon, with setup assistance for an extra $100 or so.

A typical wi-fi mesh network relies on one base access point/router box, which has to be connected to your internet service provider’s IGD, and two satellite access points you simply plug into power outlets elsewhere in your house, thereby creating a triangle within your home’s floorplan. The satellites wirelessly connect to the base access point, routing wi-fi traffic to the base in ways that are far more reliable and efficient than the crummy old wi-fi range extenders of the past.

David Powell has written software or led engineering teams for 35 years. He enjoys work, vegan fine dining, cycling and travel with his spouse. His previous articles were Elon and MeBeefing Up Security and Playing Defense.

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