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How Wi-Fi mesh networks work

Google Wifi
Google Wifi

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!

Google home family

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 mesh network has a map that looks like a spider's web — everything is connected to every thing else.

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.

WiFi mesh network

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.

Wi-Fi mesh networks aren't new but finding equipment to build one this easy to set up and reliable has never been this inexpensive.

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!

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

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.

80 Comments
  • You get to play with the app yet?
  • My question is if I set a unit near the rear wall of my house (wood/sheetrock), will it send a strong enough signal to my outdoor patio?
  • yes, wifi signal can penetrate wood/sheetrock.
  • Still1 is correct and your patio should be covered fine. Sheetrock is actually fairly transparent when it come to Wi-Fi. Wood and paper products absorb radio Wi-Fi signals, but does not kill them completely. Concrete, brick, and ceramic tile attenuate the signal, metal reflects, and glass with safety wire often blocks (depending on the wire pattern and density). Metal is usually not a big deal in homes (unless you put your router in the kitchen with a huge metal hood over the stove), but it can be a problem in large buildings with ceilings full of large air ducts. When a Wi-Fi signal reflects off a metal surface, it can create multi-path interference when your device receives the original signal, then receives the reflected signal for the same set of data packets. It should be noted that, although the 5Ghz bands are faster, they do not penetrate solid materials as well as 2.4Ghz does.
  • My home doesn't have dead spots per se, but does have areas where the signal is noticeably weaker (router sits in middle of basement). I'm looking into getting at least one Google WiFi device to take care of that. On a side note, I like that a Nexus One was used in the illustration. :-)
  • The worst place for a wifi router is the basement. It is my understanding that wifi signals "drop" kind of like gravity, so you may very well get rid of many of the dead zones if you moved your router up stairs. There is a good chance the Mesh network may solve your problem. But I don't think the Google Mesh system will work with your existing router. One of the units would replace your router and another one you would place upstairs. They should work with about any modem/gateway.
  • Also, Wi-Fi signals go out from the antenna in a oval shape and not a circle... so the range is much greater horizontally from the antenna than laterally.
  • The actual coverage depends on the antenna and its pattern. A lot of wireless antenna when vertical are designed to act like a dipole and provide better side coverage and not as much up or down, but the signal depends on the antenna build and orientation. Ideally, if only one unit, the wireless would be in the 3D center of the needed coverage area. Here is a good read, much better than my simple comment. http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/data-center/80211-time-to-clear-up-some...
  • You'll need two of them. Having just one won't add on to your existing router.
  • Well, I've been considering getting the OnHub router prior to the Google announcement...my current router is roughly 3-4 years old. Wouldn't using OnHub coupled with Wifi give me an overall better coverage?
  • I absolutely love my OnHub router.
  • Since OnHub can be a member of the mesh then yes an OnHub and 1 wifi will work together to give you better coverage. But personally, if I were you I would probably skip the OnHub and just get the 3 pack of wifi.
  • The Nexus One, my first Android phone, made me smile too.
  • I might need to get one of these to help out over at my wife's sisters house. I have there Netgear wireless router in the office on one end of the house and the other end of the house the signal is week. I guess these will work good with with a Netgear router.
  • No these won't work with existing routers, unless your existing router is an OnHub. These replace the router.
  • I'm assuming you can use them as simple wifi access points which attach to your current network and improve signal reach or are they designed to completely replace your router?
  • Curious about this too.
  • I'm assuming they will work in conjunction with your existing router as I doubt Google would expect non technical people to come figure their fibre/cable credentials on them. Could someone please confirm?
  • From a wifi "mesh" perspective they will likely only communicate/work together with other Google units. I'm sure though that you can plug the gateway unit into an existing router/firewall. Point is from a wifi perspective these will replace your existing wifi but you can continue to use an existing gateway/router/firewall.
  • I believe they're intended to replace your router.
  • If that's the case UK customers will have a problem, SKY fibre customers have the service provider provided routers have the credentials baked in, the ISP won't provide these credentials to users to let them use their own routers, I had to use wireshark to get my credentials to use in my own router, then I had to ensure the router I bought (Asus dark knight) support Mac Encapsulated Routing as most UK routers dont, if it doesn't it won't work on SKY, so common routers like TP-LINK etc won't actually work with SKY in the UK.
  • I have similar arrangement, I disabled the wireless in my cable modem and set up my own router in front of that.
  • That's right, according to Google's website. It's meant to replace your router.
  • I bet you can disable the built in routing and just use them for wireless.
  • The only problem with it replacing your router is that it only has 2 ethernet ports, right? That may be enough for some, but I'll probably still need a router with more ports. The question I would have regarding wiring them as access points is whether there would still be just one network with this setup. I have a small office where the software runs from the server requires an uninterrupted connection to the client. We have areas that have poor wifi signal. I have put in access points, and they work OK, but you can't travel between the spaces and keep the un-interrupted connection.
  • You can plug in a gigabit 8 port switch for about 25 dollars, and that is actually the "better" way to do it. Consumer "routers" are just a hodge podge of network gear that in professional setting are independent devices. At home I have a 16 port switch in a closet which has my AP plugged into it., and all the in wall Ethernet connections throughout my home plug into the switch.
  • Exactly! It's very rare to find a consumer router the has more than 4 LAN ports... so if one or two ports are not enough, is 4 ports really going to be enough either? It looks like Google's intention is to keep these devices small and inconspicuous so the can sit out in the open in any room. Network ports take up a lot of space and given the size of these devices it would be difficult add additional ports without making these devices much bigger. Get a switch if you need more ports... it's a better way of doing it anyways, dedicated switches usually have better performance.
  • Help me understand - the new Google wifi things would replace my existing router? My router connects to my cable modem, then sends out both a wireless signal as well as 4 wired connections. So with Google's solution, you lose out on the wired connections (great for my various consoles that sit right next to the router) and... ok so what is the benefit exactly? I get that you can buy 2+ and cover more ground within your house, but my 800 sqft apartment doesn't need that. What's the sales pitch?
  • I think it would really only be for people who need the larger coverage and happen to need/want a new router. That's probably why it's really not getting much news coverage. It's nice and great when you need it but it's not like people go out and buy a new wireless network every year like they do a cell phone. Any router will do QoS (gives priority to connections that need it and don't let one connection hog all the bandwidth) Google is just giving it a different name. My Asus router calls it adaptive QoS I think.
  • Right. I don't think there is a huge draw for those with smaller coverage areas. For those folks, its just like a regular router (and probably not as good as other options). But for those with larger coverage areas where a single router can't cover everything, the mesh network capabilities is a bonus.
  • I don't think there would be any advantage for an apartment your size. For larger areas and multiple units this system might be a good solution. And you could always just add a switch if you needed more wired connections.
  • There's no sales pitch for you. :) An 800 sq ft apartment should be served just fine by pretty much any router you can pick up at Best Buy. Unless your walls are made of solid brick, I doubt you'd benefit from this product at all.
  • I'm sure these devices can simply be wifi units and not act as a network gateway. With that you can just turn off the wifi on your existing router/access point so it's basically just a network switch and router. You wired devices plug directly into the router switch ports and wireless over the google wifi.
  • I wonder how my different connections it can hold at once? If I use these to support a small business of about 50 employees, each person having a laptop and 1 or 2 cell phones, that is 100 to 150 connecting points. That can be hard for even commercial equipment.
  • more of this i believe should be able to handle more of end points
  • Typically, you can have up to 15 devices connected to each access point before performance starts to degrade. But, that depends on what type of traffic is going over the network. If it's only email and saving office documents to the server, you can have more devices connected before the complaints come in. But, all it takes is a few people streaming music and a couple binging on YouTube, and your performance will drop pretty quickly if you have a lot of people on only a few AP's. And with a mesh network, the capability drops because the other access points are now also wireless connected devices with no physical connection to the network. A mesh network is great for home or small business use. But, with a large number of devices, you'll get better results with hardwired access points going back to the access layer of the network. The other caveat with mesh is that is forces the data to make many more hops which adds to latency, and VOIP phones don't like latency ;)
  • You don't want anywhere near that number of users on a commercial AP either. Best practice is to have no more than 15-25 clients per radio per AP, the exact number depends what the clients will be doing on that network.
  • So just to be clear... would I be able to network one of the Google WiFi stations to my Verizon router?
  • I believe so. I disabled the wireless side of my Verizon router and cabled in a wireless access point. I am sure you would be able to do the same.
  • Good to know. Thanks.
  • As I understand it, they just do the wifi bit of routing so you still use your existing cable modem, adsl modem or fibre modem, just turn wifi off on it and plug one of these into it. Then you position another near any wifi deadspots. If you don't have deadspots don't buy these.
  • T-mobile gives free routers so
  • Not at all relevant
  • So this mesh is defferent than using a WiFi extender? The speed will stay the same in its grid or will it be cut in half like range extenders do? My place is WiFi's worst nightmare, a lot of concrete and iron rods. I'm currently using a second router connected to a power-line extender to distribute WiFi to impossible to reach places, but it's a ***** because sometimes it un-syncs, and also can't get the maximum speed delivered from the main router. I have high hopes of finally resolving my home's networking issues with Google WiFi.
  • Really depends on the number of channels this has and if some channels are dedicated for the mesh. 802.11ad is right around the corner and will have tons of bandwidth but lower range which will work great for this type of solution. I'm waiting on the 802.11ad version...
  • It's basically the same thing, only with simpler configuration-- instead of you manually saying "this is the network I want you to mimic, and this is the password for that network," you authorize it once, then when you sign into a new device & add it to the mesh, it pulls all that info from the cloud.
  • Ok, got it. This is what I'm currently doing with the equipment I have.
  • In the article it mentions Google Home is a part of the mesh. Does Google home produce a signal? If I have the home unit in the main living area and Google wifi in another will the mesh be created?
  • Same question. If Google Home does the same thing as Google Wifi and has assistant for the same price I don't know why both exist.
  • It said google home was only a client in the article...
  • They should really pull the "Google Home" reference from this-- the article really implies that if I buy a Google Home, it will double as an extender on my network.
  • I'm a WiFi engineer. Good article but it's missing some info I'd like to see: Is it meshing over the same radio as clients are being served on? If so, expect some serious performance impact, with performance degrading each time you add a node. Do they support networking over a wired connection instead of mesh? Mesh is always a 'last resort' medium used when you cant run cable, because it can be unreliable and low performance depending on the environment and the equipment. For those with drops in every room, wiring them up is going to work much much better than mesh would.
  • Came here to say the same - surely each 'extender' or 'mesh node' would need to relay all existing traffic, so, every additional node will half the existing bandwidth available?
  • I believe they have 2 wired Ethernet ports each node. My understanding is each point will amplify the signal and provide no degrading, as opposed to using an old-school extender which would half the bandwidth each time.
  • The only way that is possible is if there are dedicated channels for the mesh network. Furthermore you can only have so many channels and your total bandwidth is determined by the number of channels you can use. Let's imagine these have 4 channels and 2 are dedicated to the mech. That leaves only 2 for devices and some devices can use multiple channels. if you have a lot of devices the speed will degrade quickly especially when multiple devices are streaming UHD or something like that.
  • The term amplifying means it receives and retransmits the same packets, which by definition cuts throughput in half, if it's doing so on the same channel.
  • I'm not a wifi engineer but an network engineer and have the same concerns. Once 802.11ad is implemented that should reduce the performance concerns if this is really the case.
  • Really enjoy the On Hub router by TPlink. Looking forward to getting a single unit to boost connection upstairs. Google is doing some good work here. Looks like their work with Fi has deeper implications.
  • This is very helpful, Jerry. Thanks! But will it work if I'm not using a Nexus One?
  • I currently have a router provided by my cable provider which integrated with a whole home DVR. Because my house and lot are on the large thing I have wired in 2 wireless access points to give WI-FI coverage through the house and back yard. Because of it's integration, my gateway/router can not be replaced. Will replacing my extra wireless access points with thing provide any advantage?
  • If you have several wired access points you are better off although these are suppose to improve client handoff but most current devices already do that well enough.
  • Open-mesh.com is low cost and very simple to setup and manage. As far as Access Point placement. Don't put the second wireless access point in the area with the weak signal. Instead, put it about half way between the area of weak signal and your router/gateway. That way it will have a stronger signal to connect. Finally, meshing is not a booster.
  • I've been using this for like 10 years with some NetGear routers. Would it be considered Mesh or repeating the signal? Any difference? The only thing is that repeating the signal with this routers can only work with WEP security which by now is pretty much no security at all. Anyways, 3,500 square feet house doesn't have any dead spots and I have very strong signal and speed and even the whole outside (front and back yard) is covered with wifi signal. Cost of 3 NetGear N routers $60 :)
  • Well the security is one advantage and depending on the channel setup of these there may be performance improvements. I'm guess your wirelss speed deteriorates quickly when a lot of devices are on and some are streaming UHD. Repeating is effectively slicing up your bandwdith, the more being used the worse it gets... The appeal to Googles solution is easy plug and play setup with good/adequate security.
  • My big question is how does the "mesh" wireless communications affect overall performance. With a wired device (2 or 3 wired access points around your house) the bandwidth between each unit and the gateway is over a wired connection but in a mech wifi network it's over wifi. With the latter you only have so much wireless bandwidth you can use based on the wireless channels. If the mesh wifi uses the same channels then when ever you are connected to a mesh'd unit (wifi unit not connected to a wire) you are effectively doubling up the bandwidth utilization (tablet <-> wifi unit and wifi unit <-> gateway). I'll admit with 802.11ad bandwidth is probably not going to be a concern but that is the future and 802.11ac (depending on number of channels used) is not always that fast at least compared to wired networks. If you had 3 or three devices all pulling UHD video through the same wifi mesh'd unit I would imagine that might be a problem but if the wifi unit was plugged directly in to the network it would not. None the less I do like the idea of this and I think in the next generation (802.11ad) my performance concerns will be not be an issue but at this time I do have some concerns.
  • 802.3ad is only going to work in the same room as the AP, it won't penetrate walls.
  • The target market for these is gonna be kinda narrow, and that's before considering any performance degradation or downsides (very likely)... Any geek/enthusiast or large property owner with resources already installed one additional access point (or more) hooked up by Ethernet to their main router, which is the best solution. Anyone living in a smaller space and/or pinching pennies doesn't need this or isn't gonna drop $300 on Wi-Fi gear. So basically it's for non techies living in medium sized houses who've simply lived with Wi-Fi dead spots all along because they don't know any better... I would've liked more technical info on how the mesh is built. The main advantage it'd have over two ~$100 routers (one set up as access point) and a cable running between them is the opportunity to remove that cable, likely with tradeoffs, and have the device handoff between routers be more seamless.
  • So do you think someone with a smallish 4 room apartment would be better off with an OnHub or one of these Wifi pucks?
  • I see a lot of people asking about the existing router and the Google Wifi network. I don't have one and I'm going off of mainstream technology so here goes.
    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.
  • Having two router/devices emitting competing Wi-Fi signals on top of each other just makes both worse, it's the whole reason Wi-Fi performs like crap in dense apartment complexes despite the spaces being small (dozens of routers all set on full auto and competing for channels and bandwith)... Best to just disable Wi-Fi functionality on your 'free' or rented combo router/modem, the Wi-Fi on that kinda device is usually crap anyway. You can usually disable just the Wi-Fi without touching the actual router functionality (so any additional devices end up as access points automatically), and that's the simplest approach, tho there's other ways of going about it obviously.
  • As long as both wireless routers are on non-overlapping channels, it won't effect performance on either.
  • The tech is real and works great. I got an Orbi and it's fantastic, plus the satellite has 4 ports of its own so I put it on my second floor next to my home theater gear so the Roku, BD player and AV receiver all have "wired" connections.
  • I have a 2 story house with my office off to one side on the first floor where the fiber to the house enters and mates up with the modem... which connects to my AC56U router. I have a cat5E cable to the other side of the house and have an N66U router setup as an access point. I have continual issues with sticky clients and have experimented with running individual SSIDs for each radio (2.4GHz and 5GHz in each router), I've tried using one SSID for all, and my best results seem to come from using individual SSIDs so we can manually select the AP to connect to. Will a mesh network overcome these sticky client issues? I can connect two units downstairs via ethernet cable. But I don't have ethernet going upstairs. Does mesh employ both 2.4 and 5 GHz bands? For wireless sharing, is it like extending where the throughput is halved? I'm not really very pleased with my current setup and have recently reset both the router and AP and upgraded the firmware to the latest version from Merlin, but still have some connectivity and throughput issues. This mesh concept sounds like it will simplify the wireless environment unless there are trade-offs I'm not aware of.
  • Hi guys- I have been very intrigued about the home Mesh Wifi, I read a great blog post I wanted to share with you guys.. Which explains Mesh: https://blog.amplifi.com/2016/09/15/what-is-home-wi-fi-mesh-technology/ So I received an Amplifi HD last week, which is from the company Ubiquiti Networks. I must tell you it has been one of the best investments I had made this year, this product is rock solid, I have a house thats not wifi friendly. Finallyy I get something thats easy to setup and strong, and literally solved all my issues, range and performance so far has been incredible!
  • A lot of people report that these access points need literal line of sight to the others to really work, especially for things demanding high amounts of stable bandwidth such as gaming and streaming. This isn't a magical answer to hard wiring in, which is my major concern for how it's being marketed.
  • You don't need line of sight for 2.4GHz or 5GHz, it can penetrate drywall and other wooden walls relatively easily.
  • Ok, so here is what I don't get. Say I have the puck that is connected to the internet in my living room and the other side of my house has a crummy connection. I could put a puck there and get a strong wifi signal there, but aren't I still limited to the speed that the two pucks can talk to each other? Are the puck talking to each other on a different standard that con penetrate walls better or something like that? Or do I have to have a chain of pucks to get to the other side of the house better?
  • I have the same question! It makes sense that it can rebroadcast the incoming connection and make that connection reach further but the whole incoming connection is slow bc it's far away from the router connected to the Internet so it will be making a stronger signal in dead spots but it's a stronger signal for a weak speed
  • Yes and no, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies don't necessarily need line of site to reach there intended destinations. But it's not because they penetrate walls, higher frequencies bounce around a lot more than lower ones so they are better equipped at eventually finding openings to pass through before they die out due to being absorbed by the environment. Lower frequencies don't bounce around as much but they have better wall penetration. That's part of the reason why Verizon's network better penetrates masonry buildings and basements while T-Mobile's does not.
  • T-mobile and Sprint both have low frequency wall penetrating bands and have had them for some time. Most of their more recent network build out uses them.