0BT Mesh WiFi

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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