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  • Writer's pictureNick Lansley

Wi-Fi Mesh ‘Whole Home’ Networks really work!

I have finally fixed the Wi-Fi!

Since the BT engineer had to rewire our telephone cable to the back of the house, getting Wi-Fi signal to the front of the house has been a nightmare – especially to the main TV where we watch internet shows from BBC iPlayer, Netflix and others. This is because our house has massive amounts of metal-backed insulation even inside internal walls, causing Wi-Fi signals to get blocked.

The electrical wiring is such that the back and front of the house are on completely different electricity circuits, stopping power-line adapters from communicating with other over the mains cables, so getting internet transferred that way has been a complete failure.

What to do?!

Step forward the latest generation of Wi-Fi routers called ‘Wi-Fi Whole Home‘ – or “Wi-Fi Mesh Network” to us geeks.

Instead of having one Wi-Fi hub we now have three ‘disc’ hubs positioned around the house. They communicate with each other over their own hidden back-channel Wi-Fi network and decide on the best configuration (‘network topology’) to get fast Wi-Fi across the house. The result? 70Mbps (the fastest we can get over our BT Infinity ADSL line) is now right there at the TV!

Here’s the system I bought from BT, called Whole Home Wi-Fi:

Here is one of the three discs. The first one is permanently connected to the back of my existing router (Apple Airport Time Capsule) via a supplied ethernet cable. This means that the router is not made redundant as it still is the device that connects to the internet over ADSL and provides IP addresses to devices on the home network using its DHCP service (and in Time Capsule’s case, local backups). This first disc just uses that connection and forwards network requests to the router just as a directly connected device would. I’ve also turned off the router’s own Wi-Fi signal.

I installed the ‘BT Whole Home’ iPhone app to configure the disc; mainly to change the network name and password.

The second and third discs happen to be ready-to-link to each other out of the box, but I ran through a factory reset and firmware update via the ‘BT Whole Home’ iPhone app to completely refresh them. You don’t have to do this but I found that the other two discs were not appearing in the BT app, which was annoying.

I reset the discs and reconfigured them using a mix of information from instructions linked to at the foot of this article:

  1. Pressed a pin into a reset hole on discs 2 and 3 to perform a factory reset.

  2. Connected disc 2 by ethernet into the router alongside disc 1 and turned it on.

  3. After it started up, disc 2 collected configuration information from disc 1 (including the new network name and password).

  4. I then unplugged it and re-sited it in its new home.

  5. I repeated this for disc 3.

The discs then appeared in the app, having created their mesh network.  The ‘Bedroom’ disc is connected to the router.

You see how the ‘TV Area ‘disc (for my TV and streaming boxes) has been daisy-chained from the ‘Study’ disc in the middle of the house, which in turn gets signal from the ‘Bedroom’ disc at the back of the house next to the router. Those black lines are actually ‘back-channels’ – additional Wi-Fi channels used by the discs so as not to disturb the bandwidth being used by the devices. According to the specification, these back-channels work at 800 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and 1700 Mbps on 5.0 GHz. What’s important is that the discs decide how to communicate with each other, on what channel and waveband (2.4 GHz and/or 5 GHz). This process is known as ‘mesh’ networking, as the discs decide the best way to communicate with eah other.

Another good example of mesh networking is Hive Home, a smart home devices networking service using the Zigbee protocol, where the light bulbs, heating thermostats and smart switches detect nearby devices and relay signals to each other to create a mesh of communications between each other and the Hive Hub, which is their gateway to the home network and internet.

Back to Wi-Fi Whole Home, and a nice touch is that I am able to use the redundant ethernet socket on the back of the ‘TV Area’ disc to plug directly into my Amazon Fire TV box, so in effect that box is using the back-channels for its streaming and not the ‘user’ Wi-Fi signal generated by each disc for use by devices and their humans.

Another nice feature is that hand-off between discs is super smooth. My mobile carrier is 3 and my iPhone 7 can use ‘3 Wi-Fi calls’ which uses the internet rather than cellular towers for calls when I’m at home. I can wander around the house talking without the slightest disturbance to the phone call as each disc hands over the voice stream to the next disc.

Wi-Fi mesh network has solved my networking problems, especially for getting Wi-Fi from teh back of my house to the front.

Here’s how I uncovered how to configure my factory reset discs to work with the first one, now I had changed Network name and password. These instrcuctions are sctually for if you buy another disc to extend the network:

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