How Wi-Fi mesh networks work
The new Google Home and Google Wifi (and updates to the existing Google OnHub routers will be able to work together and create a mesh network in your house or place of business. Google was really happy about this when they announced it, and it's clear that they think the idea is really cool and should work great for the people who will be using it with their networking things. What they didn't do was explain what a Wi-Fi mesh network is. That's understandable — they also have never explained how a cell tower works or what a DNS gateway is either.
That's where we come in. We also thought that Google using relatively inexpensive appliances to build a mesh network was pretty cool and should work well, and we're going to explain what they are and how they work. Don't worry, it's much more simple than you think!
A mesh network is a network built from devices that all work together to distribute all the data. They can be wired and use an algorithm like shortest-path bridging to efficiently route data through the whole network using cables and routers on certain nodes (a node is an address on a network), but they really shine when they are wireless. Wireless mesh networks are secure, relatively inexpensive and reliable — important things required for military use, which is why wireless mesh networks were designed in the first place.
Google's new Home family of products (Google Home, Google Wifi, and Google OnHub) will create a wireless mesh network that use Wi-Fi. You can build a mesh network that uses other frequencies, like WiMax (many cities use these for traffic lights and parking meters) or LTE, but Wi-Fi is a perfect choice to use in homes and businesses because the things we want to connect can already use it.
A Wi-Fi mesh network consists of three different types of equipment — routers, gateways, and clients. We're all familiar with the clients — those are our phones and Chromebooks and PlayStations and everything else that can connect to a Wi-Fi network as an end point. Google Home will be a Wi-Fi client. We use these clients to access the internet, or control a Chromecast or turn on connected lights so they communicate two-ways.
Google Wi-Fi and Google OnHub can be both a router and a gateway. One of them connects to the wired connection the people you get the internet from provides you with. It acts as the gateway between the mesh network in your house and the internet itself. All traffic destined for places outside of your local network will go through this gateway. That's mostly the same as a normal Wi-Fi network that uses access points and routers, and nobody has figured out a better way to work here yet. Give them time.
Your local network — what's in your house that connects all your devices together and to the internet through that gateway — is where having a mesh network makes a difference. Every node (that's the Google Wifi units) can communicate with every other node. If you have a Google Wifi station in your bedroom, your phone will connect through it to the mesh — not to an individual piece of gear that is set up to follow a specific route back to the internet gateway. As you move through your house, you can connect to the mesh through another Google Wifi station. There is no network switching or getting on a new Wi-Fi access point. This is automatic, and all the traffic uses WPA2-PSK and the Google Wifi stations each have an Infineon SLB 9615 trusted platform module for hardware-based encryption.
In a traditional network, node A will connect to the internet and will also connect to node B. Node B connects to Node C as well. If you unplug node B, node C has no connection to the internet. In a mesh network, node C is connected to node B and node A. If your phone was connected to node C, nothing would happen. If your phone was connected to node B, it would just switch to whatever node was available and had the best signal. Instead of network traffic following a line like a highway, it follows a mesh like a spider's web.
That's not the only advantage, either. A Wi-Fi mesh network using Google Wifi is simple to set up. Find a spot that could use a better (stronger) signal, plug in a Google Wifi station and open the Google Home app to tell the network to use it. This makes the network easy to extend — a single Google Wifi unit will cover between 500 and 1,500 square feet, while three units can cover between 3,000 and 4,500 square feet. Google will sell units individually, as well as in packs of three.
The networking equipment and Google Home app also continuously monitors traffic patterns and can adjust how it flows from your phone back to the internet most efficiently. This can be really important for things like online gaming, where ping times are as important as bandwidth. The Google Home app will also help you decide the best place to put your stations..
Wi-Fi mesh networking isn't new. Places like Hospitals and factories where a network needs to cover a lot of area and be reliable through equipment failures often use them. So do internet of things devices that use ZigBee radios or Google's Thread protocol. What Google Wifi does is bring an affordable option to homes and small businesses. For anyone with a house or office that's hard to blanket with Wifi from just one access point, Google's new networking products may be just what you're looking for!
- See Google home at Best Buy (opens in new tab)
- See Google OnHub at Amazon (opens in new tab)
- See Google Wifi at Google (opens in new tab)
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Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.
The Google Wifi network is meant to replace the existing router that you have, but that doesn't mean they can't both co-exist. Technically you don't have to replace anything unless you want to. Most ISPs provide a router/modem something to get you internet access, and most of those can be turned into a bridge mode that turns it into just a modem and usually disables all router capabilities. If you don't understand that, a router and a modem are not the same thing really. A modem allows internet to flow through and a router actually assigns addresses to devices connecting to it (that is a pretty simplified explanation). Currently I have the ISP router/modem in bridge mode and another router connected to it that does all of the routing work. The same can be done with the Google devices. Your existing router can usually (brands may differ) be turned into bridge mode only and just provide raw internet without any routing capabilities. You would then plug in the Google hardware and operate as instructed.
Now, with that being said, this does not mean you have to turn off the router features of the ISP router/modem or even a secondary router. You can simply plug the Google hardware into the port and let the existing router assign it an IP address without turning off other functions. This will usually have two wifi signals (depending on if you left that on the original router) or more. The problems that arise from this scenario are that the Google hardware will not have a direct link to the internet and may cause some functions to act funny, the Google wifi and existing wifi signals may cause interference with each other, and there may be a slight loss of bandwith/performance on the Google hardware. I know that some problems arise because I tried to leave the router function on the ISP router and run my consumer router at the same time and my DDNS did not work correctly.