Fact or Fallacy: Mesh Networks Are the Next Model for Campus Wi-Fi

Low cost and easy deployment make Wi-Fi mesh networks a great alternative.

Traditionally, campus Wi-Fi networks are deployed with each access point having a direct connection into the wired network. This approach tends to create networks that are inflexible, a result of the expense and rigidity of deploying electrical and network cabling to each AP. It also makes it tough for IT administrators to respond to changing network requirements, particularly in spaces where a high level of connectivity is not always required or where cabling installation is difficult.

To address these issues, a growing trend in wireless networking is a Wi-Fi mesh design. Here, a system of APs cooperate in a peer-to-peer manner to create a Wi-Fi network. The APs communicate with each other to dynamically determine the best path through the system at any given instant, and data transmits step by step through the wireless portion of the network. 

It’s easy to deploy additional APs to strengthen the Wi-Fi signal in areas of interference, to increase the coverage area and to expand the range of the network. Unlike traditional Wi-Fi networks, one or a few APs connect to the wired portion of the network, passing data from wireless clients on to the ultimate destination. 

Let’s look at some of the factors that may influence the decision to deploy Wi-Fi mesh networks.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how universities are using data analytics to improve their networks.

Fact (Mostly): Mesh Networks Reduce Cost From Less Ethernet Cabling

In a traditional Wi-Fi network, each AP must be connected to the wired portion of the network. A mesh network, on the other hand, requires considerably fewer wired connections. That lowers cost, reduces complexity and increases the speed of deployment.

In an outdoor setting, mesh networks have another benefit, and that’s the ability to avoid the expensive optical fiber links that may be required to achieve the required distance between APs and network electronics. Indoor areas where it is difficult or impossible to run new Ethernet cables — in historic buildings, for example — are also good candidates for mesh networks.

Neil bright
Access points communicate with each other to dynamically determine the best path through the system at any given instant."

Neil Bright research scientist and associate director for research cyberinfrastructure at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Office of IT.

Fact: Small Power Requirements Make Alternatives Possible

Traditional electrical power connections are certainly the common way to deploy APs. However, the relatively small power footprint of an AP (less than a typical lightbulb) makes it possible to use alternative power sources. A few square feet of modern solar cells and an uninterruptible power supply can easily suffice. 

Fact: Data Sent Between APs Use Bandwidth on Dedicated Spectrum

It’s true that there is a limit to the bandwidth available to Wi-Fi clients in a given area. Just how much depends on the capabilities of the client devices and the APs. For instance, 5-gigahertz networks have more bandwidth than 2.4GHz networks, for instance. Good Wi-Fi mesh APs will use multiple radios to provide dedicated high-bandwidth wireless links between themselves while avoiding adverse impact on client devices.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how better wifi can open the doors for smart campus tech.

Fallacy: Wi-Fi Mesh Networks Are Difficult for Staff to Maintain

In large part, a Wi-Fi mesh network will configure and optimize itself, distributing configurations to APs from a central location and passing user traffic along the most optimal path back to the wired network. Mesh networks are also an excellent choice when rapid deployment is needed, such as preparing event spaces for workshops or symposia.

Rather than permanently installing APs to provide coverage to low-utilization spaces, staff can rapidly provision a mesh network and expand if needed. With appropriate visibility into event scheduling, this reduces the total number of APs required to cover all these types of spaces on campus.

$9.1 billion

The projected size of the global wireless mesh network market in 2024, up from $3.8 billion in 2017

Source: Zion Market Research, “Global Wireless Mesh Network Market Will Grow USD 9.08 Billion by 2024: Zion Market Research,” July 13, 2018

Staff can reduce or eliminate single points of failure by deploying a few additional APs so that each is within range of multiple others. That way, if an AP becomes inoperable, data can flow around the failure and maintain connectivity for user devices.

Fact: Wi-Fi Mesh Networks Are a Great Fit for the Internet of Things

Internet of Things deployments frequently feature two things: a multitude of devices and a wide coverage area. Such projects also tend to grow quickly in terms of number of devices and the area in which they are deployed. Fortunately, in many situations, IoT devices also have low (or at least predictable) bandwidth requirements. These properties make mesh networks a great fit for IoT. 

Imagine upgrading a building management system based on IoT devices that includes lighting and temperature control, door controllers and digital signage. Connecting all these devices in the traditional manner would require a significant installation of network and/or electrical wiring. Deploying a mesh network to which all these devices connect would save substantial time and expense. Similarly, connecting an asset management system based on RFID sensors to a Wi-Fi mesh network allows for easy expansion of the sensor network in areas of interest, while facilitating expansion of the Wi-Fi network.

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carloscastilla/Getty Images
Dec 18 2018

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