FF Recommends: Mesh Networks

November 6, 2021 | FF Daily #516: For seamless access to high-speed, uninterrupted Wi-Fi

Charles Assisi

[Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay]

Good morning,

Now that most of us have made peace with hybrid work cultures, extended stretches of learning from home, and even socializing virtually, seamless access to high-speed, uninterrupted Wi-Fi remains a pain point. This isn’t because most people haven’t upgraded to high-speed internet. It has to do with the fact that most people must deal with corners in their homes that their Wi-Fi signals don’t reach. These are called Dark Spots.

My search for a solution led me to some learnings

  • Most people use range extenders to cover Dark Spots. Outdated idea!
  • The smartest way to deal with Dark Spots is to blanket the home with a mesh network. This provides high-speed, seamless connectivity for everyone.
  • Another upside is that it helps manage privacy better as well.
  • There is no one-size fits all solution. What mesh to implement depends not just on the size of your place, but on the layout as well.
  • Then there are budgets to be considered as well. Solutions exist from as low as Rs 5,000 to Rs 80,000 plus.

Here’s how I went about choosing the right mesh for me. 

What are mesh networks?

The basics first. To access the internet, the telecom company installs a router. In turn, this router uses either the 2.4 GHz band or the 5 GHz band to broadcast radio signals. These bands are used as access points to the router by devices that are Wi-Fi capable. But there is a limit to how far a router can broadcast these signals. The farther away a device is from a router, the weaker the signal gets, until it drops completely.

One way to amplify how far signals travel from the router is to use range extenders. Many people continue to use them. But there are a few issues with that.

  • To latch on to the signal broadcasted using a range extender, a user must switch the network manually. Else, connectivity is lost.
  • Range extenders slow down speeds dramatically. 

When a mesh network is implemented, a user does not have to switch networks manually or make do with slow networks. I am happy to report that much exasperation and tearing of hair later, all Dark Spots at my place have been killed and a seamless, high-speed Wi-Fi network has been installed. 

By way of background, I work off Airtel Broadband and the fiber optic cable that delivers high-speed broadband has a router that resides in my living room. But there are two other rooms where I need connectivity real bad. These include the one that my kids study in and the one I use to work. It is also where the network begins to drop. 

Like I said earlier, a range extender is a cop-out because the best speed that most can offer is 100 mbps. During peak hours, that forces all of us to use the phone as a hotspot. While it works well, this has its limits too. Because the network can get patchy at times; or it gets interrupted when calls come in. Over all else, what’s the point of having high-speed fiber optic internet around and not be able to use it at all times?

Creating a mesh network appeared to be the most elegant solution for a few reasons.

  • Now, there’s a single network that envelopes the entire space I live and work in. When I’m on my phone now and as I move around the place, I don’t have to worry about an incoming call that may slow speeds down or check every once a while about losing access to the network. The switching happens automatically and there is no lag.
  • The promise of a mesh is that I will not have to compromise on speed. Now that I have tinkered with one, except some drops once a while, it has lived up to promise. But these are blips I can live with.
  • A very big plus point I hadn’t thought of earlier is privacy. Take for example guests who routinely ask for Wi-Fi access and it’s tough to decline access. On my part, I hate sharing network access for obvious reasons because personal networks are where most of us share personal data. But if access isn’t shared, people get uppity. With a mesh in place, users can create a Guest network. I love that.

How to buy

What mesh to purchase is an agonizing decision because it isn’t just the hardware, but the software support and the support forums that matter as well. Then there’s the price that needs to be considered too because there are systems available for just above Rs 5,000 and the price goes all the way to north of Rs 80,000. 

While I don’t know of too many people who have tried implementing a mesh network, those who have, recommended the Netgear Orbi series and the Asus ZenWifi AX series. The reasons they offered were that they liked how intuitive these were to set up and that they were future-proof to the extent that they are compatible with Wi-Fi 6. Google Nest has been on my radar as well. But because it is imported, it’s doubly expensive in India and I’m unwilling to pay close to Rs 40,000 for what is available elsewhere for a little over Rs 20,000. 

On looking at the demo videos online of both the networks, I could hear the merit in their advice and seriously considered the Asus ZenWifi. But I eventually settled on the slightly dated Deco E4 that is part of the TP Link Deco Series.

The specs claimed that a pack of two can cover up to 3,800 square feet—good enough for me. But I was circumspect. This is because of the layout of my home. 

This is something that must be factored into the purchase decision. My place is such that the rooms are spread far apart and there are many doors and walls. These can cause the network to drop and I figured I would need at least two satellites over and above the base unit that plugs into the main router supplied by the telecom company. Simply put, I needed a 3-pack mesh. This has implications on the price as well. 

The Deco E4 that I got is now priced at Rs 8,599. I got it at a little over Rs 7,300 on a sale at Amazon India. I went with the dated model because I am comfortable with tech and know how to navigate my way around without a manual. If you’re not, I won’t recommend this. I’d suggest you look at updated hardware that looks less clunky. 

User experience

As for the set-up, I thought it straight forward. After loading the installation software on my phone, the LAN cable that shipped with the box had to be plugged into the router that Airtel had pre-installed at my place. I thought the instructions were fairly idiot-proof. This included creating a name for the network, setting a new password, and choosing which of the satellites ought to be set as the base unit. After that was set up, the others had to be connected.

Just before I tried to set it up, I asked my older kid and wife to attempt setting it up. It wasn’t too long before they looked stumped and asked me if we needed to call the engineer from our telecom company to help. I don’t blame them. This was my way of testing the user interface. It isn’t exactly friendly. This is where other manufacturers such as Asus and Netgear score. 

Since the time it’s been up and running, the experience has been mostly good. The speeds have stayed consistent. There was teething trouble. Once in a while the satellite in my room kept going off grid for no apparent reason. It took some tinkering to set this right because the user forums are sparse. Once again, this is where Netgear and Asus score. 

Final call

  • If you travel abroad or have somebody visiting you from another part of the world, I’d suggest asking them to buy a Google Nest on your behalf.
  • If budget wasn’t a constraint, then the Asus Zen is where I’d put my money.
  • If I could revisit my decision, I’d choose between TP Link’s Deco M5 and M9 series more seriously and think about bypassing the E4 altogether.

Dig deeper

The routers mentioned above are reviewed in the videos below. You can get a better feel of what it feels like through these links.  

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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