wireless mesh network (WMN)

What is a wireless mesh network?

A wireless mesh network (WMN) is a mesh network created through the connection of wireless access point (WAP) nodes installed at each network user's locale. The networking infrastructure is decentralized and simplified because each node need only transmit as far as the next node. WMNs may or may not be connected to the internet.

Wireless mesh networks, which can also be a form of wireless ad hoc network (WANET), are often used for the following:

  • home Wi-Fi networks;
  • public Wi-Fi access provided by cities and municipalities;
  • Wi-Fi and networking in temporary locations, such as construction sites;
  • connecting internet of things (IoT) devices, such as sensors, security systems, smart appliances and monitoring systems;
  • building networks in developing communities that lack internet wiring infrastructure; and
  • providing consistent wireless access to hospitals, educational campuses and warehouses.
chart of wireless mesh network
An example of a wireless mesh network configuration

How do wireless mesh networks work?

Wireless mesh networks work through nodes, mesh clients and gateways.

  • Mesh nodes are WAP devices with multiple radio systems. Nodes act as mesh routers and endpoints. Firmware enables them to share data between other nodes in the network.
  • Mesh clients are wireless devices, such as laptops, mobile phones and tablet computers.

Each node in a WMN has at least one, but often multiple, paths to other nodes, creating multiple routes of information for pairs of users. This makes the network more resilient, and in the event of a WAP or connection failure, information can still access other nodes.

The network topology of a wireless mesh network may be full or partial mesh. A full mesh network means every node communicates with every other node. In a partial mesh topology, nodes only communicate with nearby nodes. When data is transmitted between two nodes that do not communicate with each other, data hops from one node to the next until it reaches the client. The nodes are programmed to use adaptive routing algorithms to constantly determine the optimal route between nodes for data transmission.

In a wireless mesh network, each node receives data from one node while forwarding data to the next node. The resulting network between connected devices is often called a mesh cloud. Having more nodes increases the range of the network that the mesh client devices can connect to for internet. Only one node will need to act as a gateway to and from the internet for connectivity.

Advantages of wireless mesh networks

Compared to traditional Wi-Fi routers, advantages of wireless mesh networks include the following:

  • requires only one node in the network to be physically wired for internet connection;
  • provides collaborative, redundant backup technology, which ensures data security in the event of disk failure;
  • is able to be configured dynamically for speed;
  • uses less power;
  • offers increased reliability, as each node is connected to several other nodes and, if one drops out of the network, its neighbors simply find another route;
  • uses the same set of standards as most Wi-Fi networks -- 802.11a, b and g;
  • is scalable, as it is typically easy to add nodes to the network; and
  • can effectively provide coverage to home Wi-fi mesh networks without reducing bandwidth, unlike Wi-Fi range extenders.

Disadvantages of wireless mesh networks

Using a wireless mesh network also comes with downsides:

  • Networks with low processing capabilities may have more latency, as data often must hop through several different nodes.
  • The lack of a central server can make mesh systems more complicated to monitor, control and troubleshoot.
  • The lack of centralization can make routing and resource management processes more complex than with other types of wireless networks.
  • Initial network setup can be complex, as ideal node placement across different points in the area will likely involve some trial and error.
  • For homes, node devices can be less cost-effective than traditional router/modem Wi-Fi networks.

Read more to learn about the four main types of wireless networks and how wireless local area networks (LANs), personal area networks (PANs), metropolitan area networks (MANs) and wide area networks (WANs) compare.

This was last updated in April 2021

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