How Wireless Mesh Networks Work

By: Chris Pollette & Dave Roos  | 

Glowing light blue wire mesh network and speed data on huge digital space.
In a wireless mesh internet network, only one node needs to be physically wired to a network connection like a modem or as part of an ethernet network. Yuichiro Chino/Getty Images

Wireless mesh networks can easily, effectively and wirelessly connect large areas using inexpensive, existing technology. In a wireless mesh network, the network connection is spread out among dozens or even hundreds of wireless mesh nodes that "talk" to each other to share the network connection across a large area.

A traditional network router serves as a hub for the devices connected to its network. Most traditional "wireless" access points still need to be wired to the internet to broadcast their signal. For large wireless networks, ethernet cables need to be buried in ceilings and walls and throughout public areas.

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In a wireless mesh network, only one node must have an internet connection. Each node added to the network shares its connection wirelessly with all other nodes in its vicinity using one of several protocols. The more nodes, the further the connection spreads, creating a wireless "cloud of connectivity" that can serve a large office or a city of millions.

If you only need to provide internet access to a small area, you aren't likely to see a big difference between a single mesh network node and a traditional wireless router. For large networks, however, mesh networks have several advantages:

Wireless mesh networks advantages include:

Using fewer wires means it costs less to set up a large network.

  • The more nodes you install, the bigger and faster your wireless network becomes.
  • They rely on the same wireless communications standards already in place for most wireless networks.
  • They are convenient where ethernet wall connections are lacking, including outdoor areas and places where traditional infrastructure isn't working like areas hit by disaster or military conflict.
  • They are useful for non-line-of-sight (NLoS) network configurations where wireless signals are intermittently blocked. For example, in an amusement park a Ferris wheel may occasionally block the signal from a wireless access point. If there are dozens or hundreds of other nodes around, the mesh network will adjust to find a clear signal.
  • Mesh networks are "self configuring;" the network automatically incorporates a new node into the existing structure without needing any adjustments by a network administrator.
  • Mesh networks are "self healing," since the network automatically finds the fastest and most reliable paths to send data, even if nodes are blocked or lose their signal.
  • Wireless mesh configurations allow local networks to run faster because local packets don't have to travel back to a central server.
  • Wireless mesh nodes are easy to install and uninstall, making the network extremely adaptable and expandable as more or less coverage is needed.

In this article, we'll explain how wireless mesh networks work, how they increase network access for a wide variety of industries, and how they might make our dream of a seamlessly connected world come true.

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Wireless Mesh Technology

The graphic below shows how a wireless mesh network functions when sharing an internet connection across a local area network (LAN). As you see, only one node in the wireless mesh network needs to be directly wired to the internet. That wired node shares the internet connection wirelessly with the nearest cluster of nodes, which then share it with their nearest cluster of nodes and so on.

For a wireless mesh network, only one node requires direct connection.
For a wireless mesh network, only one node requires direct connection.
HowStuffWorks

That means that each individual node only needs a power supply such as traditional AC plugs, batteries or solar panels if outdoors. Outdoor nodes are encased in weatherproof, protective shields and can be mounted anywhere including telephone poles, roofs, etc.

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Wireless mesh networks are effective in sharing internet connectivity because the more nodes that are installed, the farther the signal can travel. And the more nodes you have, the stronger and faster the internet connection becomes for the user.

How does the internet connection become stronger and faster?

  • Distance plays a huge role in wireless signal strength. If you reduce the distance between your computer and the nearest wireless node by two, the signal strength is four times as strong.
  • Nodes can also provide internet connectivity to wired devices within the network like VoIP phones, video cameras, servers and desktop workstations using traditional ethernet cables. Most nodes come with at least one ethernet port, and through a technology called power over ethernet (PoE), the node can provide power to stand-alone devices like surveillance cameras without having to plug the camera into an electrical outlet.

Now let's look at some real and potential applications of wireless mesh networks.

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Applications for Wireless Mesh Networks

From cities to universities to hospitals, the opportunities for wireless mesh networks are endless.
From cities to universities to hospitals, the opportunities for wireless mesh networks are endless.
HowStuffWorks

Cities and municipalities: With wireless mesh networks, cities can connect citizens and public services over a widespread high-speed wireless connection.

A growing number of downtown areas are installing public WiFi hotspots. Mesh networks allow cities to inexpensively and simply link all those hotspots together to cover the entire municipality. Municipal networks aren't always created and maintained by the cities or communities themselves. Some are ad-hoc networks created by local residents. Others launch with funding from nonprofit or government projects. The U.S. State Department has funded mesh networks in some foreign locations to offer dissidents a way to communicate without their own government's surveillance.

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Some advantages of open municipal mesh WiFi networks:

  • Commuters can check their email on the train, in the park or at a restaurant.
  • Public works officials can monitor the diagnostics of the city's power and water supply by installing wireless nodes in water treatment facilities, sewers and generators. There's no need to dig trenches to run cables.
  • Public safety and emergency workers can access secure virtual networks within the larger network to keep communication lines open, even when regular phone or cellular service is down. With mesh nodes mounted on streetlights and stoplights, police and firefighters can remain connected to the network, even while moving.

MuniNetworks.org, a project of the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, maintains a map showing hundreds of communities in the United States with municipal networks, many of which use mesh networking to distribute broadband access. Municipal mesh networks are not just available in the U.S. They're becoming popular around the world in places such as Berlin, Singapore, Buenos Aires and Melbourne.

Mesh networks are even coming to neighborhoods through corporate channels. Retail giant Amazon is using its Ring branded smart home devices to create mesh networks between nearby houses. Announced in 2019, Amazon Sidewalk became active in summer 2021. Amazon's stated intent for the service is to support customers' smart home devices, and unlike municipal WiFi networks, Amazon Sidewalk's mesh network uses the 900 MHz spectrum to communicate.

Not all municipal wireless networks use mesh technology, however. Some use a technology called WiMAX, which has the ability to broadcast signals over large distances using powerful microwave transmissions. Other municipal networks use a combination of mesh, WiMAX and others.

Developing countries: Wireless mesh networks are useful in countries without a widespread wired infrastructure, such as telephone service or even electricity. Solar-powered nodes can be connected to one cellular or satellite internet connection, which could keep a whole village online.

Isolated locations, rugged terrain: Even in developed countries, there are rugged locations too far off the grid for traditional high-speed internet service providers. Wireless mesh networks are being considered for these areas. A series of nodes would be mounted from the nearest available wired access point out to the hard-to-reach area.

Education: Many colleges, universities and high schools are converting their entire campuses to wireless mesh networks. This solution eliminates the need to bury cables in old buildings and across campuses. With dozens of well-placed indoor and outdoor nodes, everyone will be connected all the time.

Mesh networks also have the capacity to handle the high-bandwidth needs required by students who need to download large files.

Schools can also rig their entire public safety systems up to their network, monitoring security cameras and keeping all personnel in constant communication in emergency situations.

Health care: Many hospitals are spread out through clusters of densely constructed buildings that were not built with computer networks in mind. Wireless mesh nodes can sneak around corners and send signals short distances through thick glass and other materials to ensure access in every operating room, lab and office.

The ability to connect to the network is crucial as more doctors and caregivers maintain and update patient information -- test results, medical history, even insurance information -- on portable electronic devices carried from room to room.

Hospitality: High-speed internet connectivity at hotels and resorts has become the rule, not the exception. Wireless mesh networks are quick and easy to set up indoors and outdoors without having to remodel existing structures or disrupt business.

Temporary venues: Construction sites can capitalize on the easy set-up and removal of wireless mesh networks. Architects and engineers can stay wired to the office, and ethernet-powered surveillance cameras can decrease theft and vandalism. Mesh nodes can be moved around and supplemented as the construction project progresses.

Wireless mesh networks can be set up and torn down quickly in other temporary venues like street fairs, outdoor concerts and political rallies. And in Hong Kong, protesters have been using peer-to-peer mesh networks created by smartphone apps to avoid surveillance and to get around internet shutdowns.

Warehouses: There is simply no effective way to keep track of stock and shipping logistics without the handheld scanners used in modern warehouses. Wireless mesh networks ensure connectivity throughout a huge warehouse structure with little effort.

Future applications: The U.S. military, which helped develop wireless mesh technology, foresees a day when thousands of microchip-size mesh nodes can be dropped onto a battlefield to set up instant scouting and surveillance networks. Information can be routed to both ground troops and headquartered personnel.

Carmakers and telecom companies are working to develop intelligent transport systems (ITS) using technologies including street and highway-based wireless mesh networks. Using an automated network of surveillance cameras and in-car sensors, public safety officials can tightly monitor traffic accidents and dangerous road conditions.

As they have become more common, wireless mesh networks have become valuable for powering internet of things (IoT) devices with applications of all kinds, including security, smart agriculture, manufacturing, public utilities and environmental monitoring equipment. Newer technologies, such as Bluetooth wireless mesh networks, also support large IoT networks. The future applications for wireless mesh networks are limited only by our imaginations.

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Originally Published: Jun 20, 2007

Wireless Mesh Network FAQ

What is a wireless mesh network?
A wireless mesh network contains a main router that is directly connected to the modem, which extends a series of satellite modules, also called nodes, to give full internet coverage around a large area. Unlike the traditional Wi-Fi modules, they share the same credentials and SSID and are part of a single wireless network.
Is mesh Wi-Fi better than an extender?
Mesh systems are more seamless, fast and efficient than an extender. Extenders are made to be connected to the existing Wi-Fi modem to enhance the signal strength, however, mesh systems are a total system replacement.
Does mesh Wi-Fi work through walls?
Yes, mesh Wi-Fi signals are stronger and work through walls. However, if your walls are unusually thick or your main modem is very far away from your devices, you may still deal with weak signals.
What does a mesh router do?
Mesh routers eradicate dead zones. They don’t broadcast signals from one point like traditional routers, but instead provide multiple access points. One of the points connects to the modem, which serves as a router, while other points work like satellites that capture signals and rebroadcast them with enhanced signal strength.
How far does mesh Wi-Fi reach?
To get better signals, place the second node of your mesh Wi-Fi midway between the dead zone and the router, the same way you connect an extender. Try limiting the distance up to a two room or 30 foot maximum to prevent signals from weakening.

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