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Ask Help Desk: The WiFi upgrade that will fix your dead zones

Getting a mesh router is a worthwhile home project if you have some spots with wonky service

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
6 min

One home improvement project probably worth the expense for anyone who spends a lot of time online is upgrading the router that runs your WiFi network.

The router is possibly the ugliest piece of technology equipment in your house. Your router may have weird antennas or be shaped like the forehead of an alien. But it is critical to making sure your growing collection of online devices can stay connected wherever you need them. In recent years, new technology known as mesh networks has come along to slay dead zones and unstable connections.

“What is a mesh WiFi network and do I need to upgrade my router?” asked one reader in an email to our Help Desk inbox. The reader upgraded to ultrafast fiber Internet service at home and was skeptical about the router he got from his service provider.

Mesh systems are designed to spread that sweet WiFi to places that older routers just can’t reach, so you actually take advantage of that deluxe Internet service you might be paying for. But, yes, it means buying or renting new router equipment that could cost around $200 or more. So how does the technology work?

Traditional WiFi routers operate as a single broadcast point, like a radio station beaming a signal out from a tall tower. Inside a house, however, those signals have to try to pass through things that block WiFi, such as walls, floors, pipes and showers. The result is that the signal becomes slower and less reliable the further you get from the router and may not reach some parts of your house at all.

Mesh networks are different because they rely on a couple of smaller router boxes, or hubs, that all talk to each other to spread wireless Internet around your house. They work kind of like a relay race, as one hub sends data wirelessly to the nearest hub, which can then pass that data on to other nearby devices or even another hub. Behind the scenes, software is running the whole system to make sure your devices connect to whichever hub is nearest or offers the best connection.

Mesh systems are more effective than older repeater devices, which just try to amplify the signals coming from a single router, much like a megaphone. But unlike repeater devices, mesh networks usually have to be all part of the same system, so you can’t simply add an extra hub to whatever router you’re using now.

How many mesh hubs you need to buy depends on the size of your home and how much you’re willing to spend on each hub. A small house might be covered with just two basic mesh hubs. But you could need three or even more for a large house or one filled with WiFi obstructions.

My house is a networking nightmare because it sits on the side of a hill, so I invested about $400 in five hubs to make sure all my gadgets get a strong Internet connection inside and outside in the yard. That was probably overkill but worth it.

Before you spend money on anything, you might still get significantly better Internet performance just by making some tweaks to your existing router setup. Start with my guide to wireless fixes that don’t cost a dime.

If you’re ready to make the mesh leap, you have lots of solid choices. One of the original innovators is a product called Eero. It is now owned by Amazon, but I used it long before it was bought, and so far, Amazon hasn’t ruined it by inserting features like its Sidewalk network to share connections. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all technology with the same critical eye.)

The setup isn’t too hard. You plug one Eero into your modem, or the box that receives the signal from your Internet service provider. Then an app guides you through setting it up and then pairing it with additional Eero hubs you spread around the house. You can add more hubs after the fact if you decide you still need more coverage. A basic Eero router costs $89, while a package with the router and two extra hubs is $199. (There are more expensive options that are faster or contain more ports on the back.)

Other excellent mesh WiFi routers include the Netgear Nighthawk, sold in a pack of three for $299, and the Linksys Atlas Pro, sold in a pack of three for $449. Google makes a product called Nest Home WiFi that includes its microphone-enabled smart speakers in the satellite hubs, known as points, sold in a set of three for $249.

Did your router come from your Internet service provider? It might still be selling or renting traditional routers, but some like Comcast and Frontier now offer mesh options. If you’re going to stay in the same home for a while, you could probably save money in the long run by ditching the router from your provider and instead buying your own mesh system. While you’re at it, see if you can also buy your own modem.

If you want to take your mesh network to the max in terms of speed and performance, there was good news this month. Eero introduced a new product called the Eero Pro 6E with the very latest version of WiFi that can broadcast over a newly authorized wireless band with 6 gigahertz speed.

That band is like an extra traffic lane for your mesh network, meaning less congestion and potentially much faster downloads and latency, which is another way to say delay, compared with older WiFi technology. Eero says its new model is designed for people with fiber connections like the one Spaulding uses. The Eero 6E costs $299 for one and $699 for a set of three.

Other companies also offer the latest 6E mesh routers, but to date they have been very expensive. The Netgear Orbi 6E model costs $1499 for a pack of three, and the Linksys Atlas Max costs $499 for one.

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