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A Move to Mesh WiFi

I’d been wanting to upgrade to mesh WiFi at home since installing a few wireless mesh access points a couple of years ago at work. In one of our locations, before the wireless was mesh, it was a mess. I cobbled together a solution using two ISP-supplied wireless routers —one on the second floor, one on the first— with an off-the-shelf router also on the second. This one, I located along a wing of offices, which, probably because of the building’s construction, wasn’t able to get a wireless signal from anywhere else in the building.

The router on the first floor was older and prone to dropping signals, and needed frequent reboots. The SSIDs (network names) were all different. Staff didn’t configure their devices to use all of them at once. They weren’t happy and I wasn’t happy getting calls about the wireless not working in some way.

Eventually, we got through to someone above, who had some money in their budget and we got a mesh system. All the issues went away. I knew the mesh was a hit, judging by the traffic volume.

When it came time to switch providers at home, mesh was what I wanted. We had to give back our ISP-provided router anyway, so this was my chance.

Planning

I’d done a ton of research as consumer technology companies made more options available and prices went down. The move to mesh became part of the cost-savings strategy behind the decision to cut the cord.

As is usually the case when ditching cable, the fee to rent a set-top-box was going away. One of our TVs was a smart TV and we use a Roku and an older Chromecast on the older, regular TV. So, our TVs would be fine in the new environment. Even better, no set-top-box meant we could live without an ISP-owned router and get rid of that fee, too. I’d learned in my research that the mesh systems I was most interested in, worked well in place of ISP’s routers, when used for Internet only.

In the days leading up to the big change, I went back and looked at all the different choices, weighing features, ratings, and price. I decided I needed just two nodes. There was coaxial going into every room, so I went and got a MoCA adapter to pair with one I already had, to get the signal upstairs and blanket the whole house.

The Big Day

On the big day, when the installer for our new ISP came, he ended up not having to do much. Since we were getting only Internet, he just had to make sure the signal reached inside the house from the outside. Once he did that, I explained my upstairs plan in detail. He offered to run an Ethernet cable up to where I’d planned to install the MoCA adapter to the coax. Gratefully, I accepted and he ran the cable upstairs.

Since we had not accepted their router, everything else was my responsibility.

I’d settled on the TP-Link Deco system with two nodes, one up, one down. The biggest factor for the purchase was price. I’d looked at a bunch of other systems and while they offered features that I liked (OpenVPN client), but in the end, went with the least expensive option.

Still, I was pretty blown away by how easy the Deco was to set up. One of the messages I saw about these home mesh systems was how easy they were to set up because they’re aimed at consumers, not people with technical backgrounds. All I had to do was plug the Ethernet cable carrying the outside connection into one of the device’s two ports, then download and open their app. It found the Deco then asked me what I wanted to call my network and what password I wanted to use. Once it finished the first node, it asked if I had any more units to set up. The second node only needed to be turned on. The app and the first node found the second node and configured it and there, I had a wireless mesh network.

One thing I made sure to do, to make the process go the most smoothly, I used the same wireless credentials from the previous router. As soon as the main node went online, my devices were all able to jump straight on as well, as the username and password was already stored. No fuss, no muss.

Ironically, wired

When I first connected the nodes, they communicated and worked together wirelessly. When I moved the second node upstairs, I plugged the Ethernet cable the installer had run, into one of the device’s two Ethernet ports. At that point, they stopped communicating over wireless and instead, used the faster Ethernet connection between the two, as Deco supports Ethernet backhaul. The Deco app verified this.

In addition to connecting the two nodes via cable, I also used switches, one at each device to connect other devices. I connected my smart TV to the network via a wired connection, alongside my PS4. Upstairs, I have my PC and Synology NAS connected via cable.

So far, so good

Wireless has been working as I expected. I can move around the house with a usually strong, fast signal. Exactly what you’re looking for, out of the box. I haven’t gone into any of the more advanced settings like QOS or VLAN. Unfortunately, these devices do not support VPNs, either as client or server, unlike some of the others I looked at.

Setting up a guest network was as simple as turning it on inside of the app and providing a password.

I did run into one hiccup when I was fooling around with the settings and ended up knocking the units offline. I was unable to use the app to get the devices back online. During the app setup, I had to set up an account with TP-Link before proceeding. It seems the configuration work is done remotely and changes are sent back to the units from TP-Link. When the units could not communicate across the Internet, there was no way to log in and make any configuration changes.

The browser-accessible configuration didn’t allow me to make any changes; I was only able to view settings. Non-technical users may not even know or want to log into the devices; technical users may be disappointed by the inability to make changes this way.

I was able to quickly reset the units (using the little tool that came with my cell phone to add or remove SD and SIM cards) and get them back online, using the same process as the initial setup, which was again, quick and painless.

Takeaways

If you’re planning on making the switch from a single router to a mesh wifi system, do your research first. There are a bunch of products to choose from. Find out which equipment you need aside from the nodes themselves. You may need a standalone modem, for example.

Once you’ve decided to switch

  • Change your current WiFi credentials and reconfigure your devices beforehand, then use your same credentials for your new network.
  • Identify places where you might want to place your mesh nodes and whether you have coaxial located nearby.
  • Decide which devices you may want to attach wired like smart TVs and game consoles and prepare to buy switches, if necessary.
  • If you’re planning to keep your current router and run the mesh system behind it, learn how to turn your current router’s wireless off. You may be able to use an app for this —check your device’s manual or search online.

When you’re making your switch

  • Talk to the ISP installer about MoCA or running one or more cables for you, if your chosen solution supports Ethernet backhaul and you want to use it.
  • Configure your mesh system with your current wireless name and password.
  • If you run your mesh behind your previously owned router, turn your older router’s radio off, if you have no reason to run both wireless networks simultaneously.

Writer, et. al.

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