Wi-Fi coverage is critically important in the modern world, enabling both residential and business connectivity needs. In fact, market research predicts the global Wi-Fi network market will grow from $9.3 billion in 2021 to $24.6 billion by 2028 as reliance on wireless networks increases. Two primary methods exist for extending Wi-Fi range – mesh networks and wireless access points. But these technologies take quite different approaches to achieve expanded coverage.
This in-depth guide will analyze how mesh networks differ from access points across nine key factors: network topology, coverage and scalability, speed and performance, security, management, interference handling, cost, use cases, and more. By the end, you‘ll have the expertise to determine which solution best fits your environment.
Defining Mesh Networks and Wireless Access Points
First, let‘s clearly define what mesh networks and access points are:
Mesh networks utilize multiple wirelessly connected nodes or access points to form a decentralized network. The mesh nodes automatically relay and route signals between each other to create one large blanket of Wi-Fi.
Wireless access points (APs) are devices that bridge wireless devices to wired networks. An AP connects over Ethernet to a router, switch, or wall network jack to provide a zone of Wi-Fi coverage around the access point.
Network Topologies: Decentralized vs Hub-and-Spoke
Mesh networks and access points utilize very different network topologies:
Mesh networks create a decentralized topology. Rather than routing traffic back to a central router, the mesh nodes directly connect to one another to relay data and expand coverage:
This geometry allows mesh networks to easily scale coverage by adding more nodes that seamlessly join the existing network fabric.
Access points, on the other hand, follow a traditional hub-and-spoke topology. The access point acts as a hub that connects wireless clients back to the wired switching infrastructure (the spokes):
![Diagram showing access point topology with central router]](https://www.historytools.org/access-point-topology-diagram.png)
This model provides a clear route for traffic back to the core network. But expanding coverage requires running Ethernet cable to place additional access points.
Network Coverage and Scalability
When it comes to delivering Wi-Fi across a large physical area, mesh networks have a clear edge over access points. Leading home mesh systems can cover over 5,000 square feet out of the box, with the ability to add further nodes incrementally.
For example, a 2019 case study found a 3-node Amplifi HD mesh network provided a strong -55dBm signal across 98% of a 5,800 square foot two-story home. An access point solution would require carefully mounting 6-8 APs throughout the home and strategically adjusting transmit power to achieve full wall-to-wall coverage.
Access points generally offer a coverage radius of 100 to 150 feet depending on construction materials. Expanding beyond this limited zone requires running new cabling or positioning additional units to overlap signals. Most mesh nodes can simply plug-in to available power outlets without concerns over Ethernet wiring.
When it comes to scaling out coverage, mesh networks inherently excel compared to access points:
Each new mesh node automatically joins and extends the existing network. Most residential systems can add 4 to 6 nodes seamlessly.
Access points must be manually configured and ceiling/wall mounted. Expanding coverage requires incremental planning and infrastructure changes.
For organizations needing campus-wide Wi-Fi with minimal dead zones, a well-planned mesh network is much easier to expand compared to stringing Ethernet cable to hundreds of access points. The wireless backhaul built into mesh nodes vastly simplifies growth.
Network Speed and Performance Factors
Understanding the bandwidth, throughput, and latency characteristics of these two network options is key for matching the technology to your needs:
Bandwidth and Speed – Access points almost always outperform mesh networks in terms of maximum available bandwidth and peak throughput, especially for clients located near the AP. But total throughput is shared across associated clients, so user density impacts per-device performance.
Latency – Multi-node mesh networks exhibit slightly higher latency versus a direct access point-to-client connection, since traffic must hop between nodes before reaching the destination. But for applications like web browsing, latency variance is rarely noticeable.
Congestion – Mesh networks dynamically load balance traffic across nodes which helps minimize bottlenecks and congestion issues. But as more clients connect, overall throughput can still be impacted. Access points are more prone to congestion as wireless user load exceeds the available capacity in a local zone.
Range Degradation – Mesh network speeds remain relatively consistent regardless of range thanks to intelligent node hopping algorithms. Access point throughput drops steadily as client devices move further away and experience poorer signal strength.
In real-world testing, a 3-node Velop mesh system maintained 300 Mbps throughput 25 feet from the main router. But at 70 feet, speeds slowed to 150 Mbps. A Linksys access point started at 330 Mbps but deteriorated to less than 50 Mbps at that 70 foot distance mark according to the SmallNetBuilder study.
So while access points offer blazing fast peak speeds, performance consistency degrades more rapidly in real-world conditions. For maximum coverage across a large footprint, mesh networks maintain good speeds but sacrifice some peak throughput.
Enabling wireless encryption is critical for any Wi-Fi network type. However access points tend to offer more advanced security capabilities compared to consumer mesh platforms:
Access points – Enterprise-grade APs support robust security mechanisms like VLAN segmentation, VPN networking, user access controls, intrusion detection/prevention systems, and more. This allows secure network zones for guests or IoT devices.
Mesh networks – Most mesh kits focus on simplicity and provide basic WPA2/WPA3 encryption controls. Advanced security customization isn‘t commonly available on home platforms, although some business vendors do offer better safeguards.
For example, Cisco‘s Meraki MR access points allow administrators to implement firewalling, content filtering, application-aware traffic shaping, and location-based access policies. Consumer mesh kits lack those sophisticated controls. For businesses managing sensitive data or niche use cases, access points provide much more fine-grained oversight and safeguards.
Ease of Setup and Ongoing Management
Consumers quickly realized one the of key benefits mesh networks offer compared to traditional access points – simplified deployment and maintenance:
Mesh setup – Nodes automatically join the existing network out of the box with minimal manual intervention needed. After positioning units and plugging them in, the mesh fabric handles channel selection, transmit power optimization, and traffic balancing automatically.
Access point setup – Requires meticulous planning for placement based on coverage zones, cable runs to each unit, power availability, and more. IT staff must manually configure each access point via web GUI or CLI for settings like channel, power, SSID, and authentication.
Mesh management – The distributed mesh fabric continuously monitors connections between nodes and optimizes performance. For consumers the network "just works" without any manual tuning needed.
Access point management – To avoid issues like interference and congestion, network admins need to continually monitor and tweak settings like channel selection, user capacity, and transmit power on a per AP basis. It‘s an ongoing effort.
For novice home users or small offices, mesh networks provide that "set it and forget it" experience many prefer. But for network engineers, access points reveal many additional gears and levers to adjust performance – at the cost of added complexity. It comes down to your appetite for network administration.
Minimizing Wireless Interference
Interference from neighboring Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth devices, microwaves and more can disrupt throughput and connectivity. So how do mesh networks and access points combat interference?
Mesh interference mitigation – Nodes automatically select optimal channels and power levels to avoid neighboring signals based on built-in monitoring. Some mesh systems like eero also support channel shifting to avoid transient interference when detected.
Access point interference handling – More manual management is required. IT staff need to carefully plan channel reuse patterns and transmit power adjustment on each AP to minimize overlapping coverage zones. This takes careful surveying and monitoring.
Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) can also help APs and mesh networks avoid interference by switching channel bands if an existing radio channel experiences disruption. Not all products support DFS however. By automating much of this interference monitoring and mitigation, mesh networks take a huge burden off users. Access points provide knobs for adjusting settings but require diligent management.
Let‘s break down the hardware, software, and installation costs associated with both network expansion models:
|Cost Factor||Mesh Network||Wireless Access Point|
|Hardware (2,500 sq ft home)||$200 – $700 for mesh router + 1-3 satellites||$400 – $1000 for 2-3 enterprise APs|
|Hardware (20,000 sq ft small business)||$1,500 – $4,000 for 5-10 mesh nodes||$2,000 – $7,500 for 7-15 enterprise APs|
|Accessory Cost||$0 – mesh nodes are wireless||$200+ per Ethernet cable drop and PoE injector|
|Installation/Configuration||$0 – plug and play mesh setup||$500+ for professional AP mounting, cabling, setup|
|Subscription Fee||$0 to $90/year for monitoring||$150 to $700/year for central management platform|
Both options require significant upfront hardware investments, with scale of deployments driving overall costs higher. However access points carry the added costs of professionally running cabling, placement, and configuration – a cost most mesh products avoid. Ongoing remote management and monitoring also tends to be pricier for enterprise-class AP controllers compared to consumer mesh platforms.
Ideal Use Cases
Given the differences outlined so far, here are the ideal deployment environments for mesh networks vs. wireless access points:
Mesh networks – Optimized for homes, especially multi-floor houses where nodes can relay signals between levels. Scales easily to improve coverage across large interior spaces. Less wiring and simple expansion are big advantages.
Access points – Ideal for offices, hotels, and other businesses that need advanced management features like user policies, traffic shaping, and access controls across the network. APs integrate with enterprise network infrastructure.
Outdoor coverage – APs are easy to mount externally on eaves and poles to provide coverage across outdoor spaces. Weatherproof enclosures and wireless uplink support make outdoor AP expansion simple.
Temporary networks – Access points can quickly add wireless coverage at events, construction sites, and other temporary venues since they don‘t rely on local power/cabling.
Specialized environments – Hospitals, retail stores, schools and more take advantage of AP VLAN, filtering, and traffic shaping capabilities to meet their niche networking requirements.
|Mesh Network||Wireless Access Point|
|Expandability||Add nodes||Add APs + cabling|
|Speed||Consistent||Excellent nearby; drops with distance|
|Control||Basic||Advanced management features|
|Security||Encryption||Encryption + advanced options|
|Interference handling||Auto channel selection||Manual channel planning|
|Cost||$-$$$ per node||$-$$$$ per AP|
For many homeowners with normal bandwidth needs across a large interior, an off-the-shelf mesh kit is the easiest way to banish dead zones and get blanket Wi-Fi coverage. Business users who crave more control over network policies, analytics, and customization will prefer the accessibility and oversight wireless APs provide.
Carefully weigh your use cases, performance expectations, and in-house technical capabilities when deciding between these two major wireless expansion options. For wide swaths of home users and small business subscribers, mesh networks satisfy their demands via simple deployment and steady performance. But more complex organizations may benefit from the fine-grained control enterprise-grade access points enable if the IT staff and budget allows.