Hardware adverts will sell you the dream – WiFi filling the whole house, with an extender or two plugging any gaps. Anyone who’s tried this knows it isn’t so easy. Plug-in WiFi repeaters have been a disappointment for over 15 years now. In my experience, it doesn’t matter what the model, firmware or proprietary standards are, let alone what the adverts say – they often don’t work at all and are flaky at best. Best avoided.

Ethernet over powerline has also evolved over time, mainly in terms of speed. Devolo and others have established a number of common standards, especially the HomePlug brand, but these are often incompatible or fall back to the lowest common denominator. Although far more stable than repeaters, and reliable for “point to point” in some cases, never needing a reboot, problems like three-phase power supplies can make them unworkable. There’s often no signal at all across the different phases, or an intermittent signal of widely varying speed. A non-starter if you want reliable always-on functionality, and who doesn’t?

What about hard-wiring a number of access points round the house? A few Cat 5 cables and some old routers can soon be converted into access points and the house is blanketed in WiFi. Then the problems start. Some people advise different SSIDs to avoid problems, but this means programming everything with a number of username and password combinations and leads to long delays in roaming devices switching from one AP to the next. Using the same SSID worked well for me, with much reduced delays in connecting – the clients now stay connected, but there are a number of not-spots throughout the house. You soon get used to standing *just here* to get connected, not moving until the podcast download has finished but it’s very, very tedious, especially if a slow broadband connection means that everything takes longer than it should.

Along came mesh networks – from a variety of providers at a range of price points. I went with the Tenda MW3 early in 2019 and it was a total revelation. Turn off the WiFi on the router, plug in the “master” MW3 node with power and Ethernet and set up the SSID and password. Bridge mode sees a seamless working relationship with the (excellent DrayTek) router and you’re away. Compared to what came before this is paradise. The MW3 comes in 3-packs and I soon learned where the not-spots were. Another 3 pack ordered and the not-spots get smaller. A third 3-pack and we have total coverage. Perfect.

Or so I thought… The MW3 is wonderful but multi-hop wireless backhaul from something with limited radios soon slows things down. Two separate networks with the same SSID causes no end of problems, which feel like an IP conflict – long pauses, hangs and disconnections with a constant need to reboot the Tendas, the clients and the router.

One large Tenda network is the answer, but speed suffers with the multi-hop and as soon as some more enthusiastic clients join (video streaming) things get unstable. Would more MW3s help? No – Tenda warn of network stability problems with more than 10 nodes. We activate “capacity-oriented mode” (for more than 30 clients) and try without “fast roaming” but it’s no better. It is MUCH better than what came before, so we persevere. It feels like we’re up against the limits of this consumer system.

Some time later, after a chat with a real expert who installs networks in commercial premises, I’m looking at Ubiquiti kit. The internet is alive with stories I’m familiar with – cheap(ish) consumer grade kit failing on stability, scalability and range. Replace it with bulletproof, weapons-grade professional equipment and all the problems melt away.

I’ve ordered 3 of the snappily-named Ubiquiti UBI-UAP-AC-PRO access points and will see how we get on. They apparently relatively powerful radios, so I’m hoping for more penetration than the Tenda MW3s. From what I understand there’s no multi-hop but there is single hop mesh capability, which should be enough. Further similar “mesh” devices can then be added which can use multi-hop but this is inherently less stable than wired and is to be avoided. The more advanced analytics and network maps look wonderful and should provide an insight into how to structure things more efficiently on the network. I’ll report back on how it goes.

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