After replacing my BT SmartHub with a pfsense router, I’ve been looking to upgrade the house WiFi as well. Most devices are wired as most rooms have wired connections I fitted for my parents years ago when wireless was barely a reality. However phones, tablets, e‑readers, and laptops really do work best with wireless (or only with wireless in some cases), and to work well need a wireless system that enables mobility.
Our house is old and fairly large — no single wireless point has ever provided reliable coverage, so I previously had 2 netgear EX6150 access points to ensure full coverage. I also had 1 PC linked via powerline adaptors which I have been very unimpressed with. I had looked at wireless mesh networks and reviews a few times but felt (and still feel) that £100-£200 per access point is daylight robbery. There are plenty of basic devices out there for £50 or less than have all the hardware required, so I decided to investigate if these cheap devices could be turned into a mesh network
I should be clear about the difference between a mesh network and a collection of access points, as many other articles are not clear on this point. The key difference with a mesh network is that the access points communicate with each other and then tell client devices which access point to communicate with. With a set of normal access points a client device will stay connected as long as it can and will only switch to a new access point if it loses connection to the original. This means you can have a very low speed signal from a distance access point depite being near to a much stronger signal from a different access point. To put it simply — if you want to be able to roam and always get the best possible connection you need a mesh network.
To turn a cheap device into a mesh-compatible device just means the software on it needs to be able to communicate with the other access points and then issue advice to clients about the best access point to use. Of course no-one if giving away free software upgrades to old or cheap devices — instead they’d rather you junk the old hardware and splash out on new. Fortunately there are several open source replacements available, OpenWRT, LEDE, DD-WRT, and Tomato which can be flashed onto many old routers and access points.
Unfortunately for me, none of the open source builds appeared to be compatible with either my BT SmartHub (v6) or the Netgear EX6150 access points, probably because they’re UK only devices. I considered buying 2 or 3 cheap routers to flash and had a look around for sales on any routers with wireless-ac support. The only models under £50 were TP-Link devices which were also not listed as supported by any of the open source builds.
I had resolved to wait for devices to come down in price but then spotted that the BT Whole Home WiFi system was on offer with 2 discs only £100. After a little research I ascertained that all devices featured a wired ethernet port, that the system supports wired ethernet “backhaul” and that 2 sets would work together as a single big set. I ordered 2 kits, so for only £200 I got 4 access points.
Initial impressions (after only a week) are very positive. Setting up the system was straight-forward — connect each device in turn via a wired connection so that it can receive the settings for the system across the wired network, then unplug it, locate it where you need (within range of another access point) and away you go. I connected all of my devices to wired connections and left them there. I now get multi-hundred megabit wireless connections in every room in the house, and when moving between rooms handover works fantastically and seamlessly. For the price I’m very impressed with the system so far.
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