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Mesh Network Setup: Hardware Diagrams and Practical Tips for the Best Result

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A Wi-Fi system generally includes two or more broadcasters—if you get a canned solution, it’s often available in a 2-pack or 3-pack. Between these units, the best way to set up a mesh network can be tricky.

The basic is that you use the primary router unit to connect to an Internet source—such as a cable modem, a Fiber-optic ONT, a gateway, or another router—via its WAN port. After that, the rest of the broadcasters work as satellites to extend the network.

Some mesh systems, such as the Asus ZenWiFi, TP-Link Deco, or Netgear Orbi family, come with pre-synced hardware. All you have to do is set up the router unit and then place the satellite at a reasonable distance. Others require adding the satellite manually via a mobile app or a web interface. After that, they automatically work with the main router to form a unified Wi-Fi network.

However, arranging these hardware units to get the best performance and coverage can be tricky, and is where this post comes into play. When through, you’ll be able to handle yours with ease.

Dong’s note: This post is part of a series on mesh Wi-Fi systems. If you have not already, it’s recommended that you read the piece on what a mesh network is before continuing.

Linksys Velop Pro 7 Three Angles
Mesh network setup: Having only a single Multi-Gig port, the Linksys Velop Pro 7 is, so far, the only Wi-Fi 7 mesh system that’s best used via wireless backhauling. This system includes identical hardware units, but only one will work as the primary router, and the rest will work as satellite nodes.

Mesh network setup: The general rules of connecting Wi-Fi hardware

In a mesh system, a satellite unit must be behind the primary router in terms of the network connection. Specifically, it needs to attach to the router directly or indirectly—via a switch or another satellite.

This arrangement is automatically the case in a fully wireless mesh setup. However, in a system with wired backhauling, things can get complicated. You might accidentally put the primary router behind or at the same level as the satellite, causing the system not to function at all or to function in an unintended way.

Wired backhauling: The only way to get the best-performing mesh

The thing is, wired backhauling — where network cables are used to link the broadcasters — is the only way to have the best Wi-Fi performance out of a mesh network. That said, here’s a simple flow to connect a mesh system’s hardware via network cables, represented by the arrows:

Broadband Internet service line –> Terminal device or gateway (*) –> the primary unit of the mesh (the router) –> switch(es) / satellite unit(s) –> (switches) –> more satellites.

(*) If you use a gateway—typically the case when the hardware is supplied by the Internet provider—check out this post on double NAT.

Again, the key here is that the primary router unit is the only device that connects to the Internet source—or sources in a Dual-WAN situation—and the rest of the devices within the local network need to be behind it. In a mesh system, all network ports on the satellite unit(s) function as LAN ports.

To make matters more straightforward, below is a diagram of the mesh system, which includes a primary router and five satellite units connected via both wired and wireless backhauling.

Mesh network setup: Here's a diagram to connect mesh broadcasters, applicable in situations where you have both wired (recommended) and wireless backhauling. A satellite unit might have multiple network ports or none at all. If it has a WAN port, use this port for the wired uplink. If it doesn't (in the case of an access point), use its LAN port.
Mesh network setup: Here’s a diagram to connect mesh broadcasters, applicable in situations where you have both wired (recommended) and wireless backhauling. A satellite unit might have multiple network ports or none at all. If it has a WAN port (in the case of another router), use this port for the wired uplink. If it doesn’t (in the case of an access point), use its LAN port.

In a fully wired mesh network, you don’t need to worry much about hardware arrangement. Each broadcaster will perform the same regardless of distance or placement. Still, it’s a good idea to place them strategically so that they can collectively blanket the desired area.

If you have Gigabit Internet or faster and want to enjoy it via Wi-Fi, Multi-Gig wired backhauling is a must. Alternatively, you can use a good MoCA connection. Generally, the Powerline connectivity won’t cut it.

In a wired backhaul setup, you can also use unmanaged switches between broadcasters or daisy-chain the mesh hardware—all the more flexible in hardware placement. In this case, note that the performance of the network is always that of the bottleneck device. For example, if you use a Gigabit switch in the network, all devices behind this switch will be limited to Gigabit at best.

However, running network cables can be difficult or even impossible in some situations. So, wireless mesh systems are commonplace. In this case, how you arrange the hardware is crucial.

Wireless backhaul: Convenient but temperamental

Over the air, the wireless connections between the mesh broadcasters can vary greatly depending on each broadcasting unit’s range. So, in mesh Wi-Fi coverage, there are two things to consider: distance and topology.

1. The distance

That’s the gap between two directly connected broadcasters. The closer you keep them to each other, the stronger the signals are between them, which translates into a faster backhaul link and more bandwidth. The catch is you’ll have less Wi-Fi coverage and probably more interferences.

On the other hand, a longer distance means more extensive coverage, but you’ll have a slow Wi-Fi network, especially when the system has to use the 2.4GHz band, which has the most extended range, for backhauling.

Most, if not all, Wi-Fi mesh systems automatically choose the 2.4GHz band as the backhaul when you place a satellite unit too far away, even when you explicitly select the 5GHz or 6GHz band as the dedicated backhaul.

It’s tricky to find the sweet spot where the Wi-Fi range balances coverage and speed. Generally, if there are no walls in between, you can place a satellite between 40 ft (12 m) to 50 ft (15 m) from the primary router unit—25 ft to 30 ft is the maximum distance if there are walls.

The easiest way to find out where you should put the satellite is via the signal indicator on your phone or laptop. You want to place it where the signals of the band you intend to use as backhaul, which is often the 5GHz, change from full bars to one or two bars lower.

This post on Wi-Fi power discusses those bars or visual ways to determine the Wi-Fi signal strength at a particular location.

Ultimately, it’s the speed that matters. If you only need modest network speeds—such as in a home with slow broadband—you can go a bit crazy on the distance to get the most extensive coverage.

2. The topology

In a wireless setup, signal loss and latency are inevitable. To reduce the adverse effects of the two, you need to use the correct topology, which is the way you arrange the broadcasters. Again, this is relevant only in a system with wireless backhauling and only in a system with three or more hardware broadcasters. Have a 2-pack mesh? You can skip this part—you’d always have the correct topology anyway.

Mesh Wi Fi system hardware setup diagram with wired and wireless backhauling topology
Mesh network setup: The recommended star (direct) topology vs. the daisy-chain topology applicable to a mesh without wired backhauling.
The star topology

This one is the recommended topology. It’s where you place a wireless satellite directly around the primary router (or a wired satellite node).

This arrangement ensures each wireless satellite directly connects to a wired broadcaster, namely the primary router of the system or another wired satellite unit, making the Wi-Fi signals hop only once before getting to the end client.

The daisy-chain topology

The daisy-chain topology refers to when you linearly place the hardware units. As a result, the signal has to hop more than once—from a wired broadcaster (such as the primary router) to a wireless satellite, then to another wireless satellite, etc.—before it gets to the device.

In this case, the actual speed will suffer greatly—even when you get full-bar signal strength on the device—and you’ll experience severe lag due to compounded signal loss. In a wireless setup, it’s always a good idea to avoid this daisy-chaining topology.

Tri-band hardware with a dedicated backhaul generally has better speed than dual-band. Still, it’s best not to daisy-chain the broadcasters.

Netgear Orbi 970 Series RBE973S BackNetgear Orbi 970 Series RBE973S Wired Backhauling
Mesh network setup: With all Multi-Gig ports, the Netgear Orbi 970 series comes with multi-Gigabit wired backhauling right out of the box via daisy-chaining.

Mixing wired and wireless backhauling

In many cases, you can’t use wired backhauling throughout and need to employ an extra wireless satellite unit at a tricky spot.

In this case, keep the following in mind:

  • It’s generally better to mix wired and wireless backhauls than pure wireless.
  • Only Wi-Fi clients connected to a wireless-backhauled satellite will suffer signal loss. Those connected to a wired broadcaster still enjoy fast and reliable connections.
  • It’s best to wire the router to a satellite and then use another wireless satellite (that connects to either).
  • It’s OK to wire the satellites together and have (any of) them connected to the router wirelessly. However, in this case, clients connected to any satellite will still suffer from signal loss.

Generally, Tri-band Wi-Fi 6 and Quad-band Wi-Fi 6E are best for mixed wired and wireless backhauling.

Wi-Fi 7 has so much bandwidth that the extra band is generally not necessary in a wireless setup. However, considering the standard’s bandwidth, you need wired backhauling to truly enjoy it.

Extra: Mesh and gaming

This portion of extra content is part of the explainer post on gaming routers.

Mesh Wi-Fi and gaming or real-time communication: The Important Rules

Generally, get your home wired for the best online experience—including online gaming or whenever you want to ensure the connection is reliable and has the lowest latency.

Get your home wired (almost) like a pro today!

After that, connect your gaming rig to your network via a cable. No matter how fast, Wi-Fi is always less ideal and will put a few extra milliseconds, or even a lot, on your broadband’s latency.

Reliability and low latency are more critical than fast speeds in gaming or any real-time communication applications. So it’s more a question of wired vs. Wi-Fi than Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 7.

But we can’t always use wires. That said, the rule in Wi-Fi for gaming is to avoid multiple hops.

Specifically, here is the order of best practices when connecting your gaming device to the network via Wi-Fi:

  1. Use a single broadcaster—just one Wi-Fi router or access point.
  2. If you must use multiple broadcasters (like a mesh system), then:
    • Use a network cable to link them together (wired backhaul).
    • If you must use a wireless mesh, then:
      • Connect the game console directly to your home’s first broadcaster—the primary router. Or
      • Connect the gaming device to the first mesh satellite node using a network cable. Also, in this case, it’s best to use mesh hardware with an additional 5GHz band unless you have Wi-Fi 7.
      • Avoid the daisy-chain mesh setup.
  3. Avoid using extenders. If you must use one, make sure it’s a tri-band.

Again, the idea is that the Wi-Fi signal should not have to hop wirelessly any additional time before it gets to your device—you’ll get significantly worse latency after each additional hop.

Mesh network setup: The final notes

No matter what type of mesh Wi-Fi network you have, the primary hardware unit of the system should be the only one that functions as a router.

If you already have an existing router, such as when you can’t remove the ISP-provided gateway, get a mesh that can work in the access point (AP) mode. In this case, the mesh extends your existing home network without offering any features or particular settings.

You can also turn the existing gateway into a modem by putting it into bridge mode.

Double NAT vs. Single NAT: How to best use the ISP-provided gateway

Using network cables to link a mesh system’s hardware broadcasters is the best way to build a reliable and high-performance network. If you’re into a robust Wi-Fi system, consider getting your home wired today.

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6 thoughts on “Mesh Network Setup: Hardware Diagrams and Practical Tips for the Best Result”

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  1. Hmm isn’t the definition of a mesh network wireless by nature? Wired backhaul thus makes it non-mesh. Yes if they are on same system then you might get seamless roaming/handoffs, single pane of glass configuration etc; but the APs no longer form a mesh wirelessly, right?

    Reply
      • I suppose it might be semantics but to many, “mesh” is a confusing terminology. Seems like it originally meant the wireless mesh network organized between APs/nodes – but what marketing is trying to imply is that “mesh” means the seamless handoffs/roaming and single pane of glass configuration/management, regardless whether the nodes are connected via wired or wireless.

        Reply
        • We can have seamless handoff, with nuance of “seamless” as mentioned in the post, via wired backhauling, Paul. I speak from experience.

          Reply
          • yup I defo respect your experience! I think it’s just semantics. Some people prefer to strictly use the terminology “mesh network” to just mean a pure wireless backhauled self-healing network. Seamless handoff is not regarded as part of the terminology “mesh”.

          • You have better self-healing via wiring and when the wire is cut, the hardware generally automatically links via wireless when applicable. Wired backhauling only adds more to the original concept, it doesn’t take away anything.

            Ultimately, it’s about getting things connected, not a nerding contest.

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