Smart Living | Everything you need to know

What is mesh WiFi? How boosters make your signal go further

State-of-the-art WiFi mesh boosters are a leap ahead compared to older extenders and repeaters – we explain how they work as well as when and where you should put them to improve the range of your wireless signal.

Struggling with a weak or inconsistent WiFi signal can seem like an unsolvable nightmare, but a solution is available – WiFi mesh boosters. These handy devices can stretch the wireless signal from your router so that it reaches into rooms of your home that had previously been internet-free blackspots.

WiFi mesh boosters, such as the Super WiFi Booster available to Vodafone Pro Broadband customers, work their magic using a technology called ‘mesh networking’. This tech is only a few years old, so such devices are easily confused with older wireless extenders and repeaters that use less sophisticated technology.

image of a Vodafone Pro II Broadband Super WiFi Booster on a desk next to a M1 iMac
A Vodafone Pro II Broadband Super WiFi Booster on a desk next to a M1 iMac.

It’s important to note that there isn’t really an agreed set of standardised industry-wide names for such WiFi signal enhancers. For the sake of clarity, we’ll use the term ‘boosters’ and ‘mesh boosters’ for devices that use mesh networking and ‘repeater’ or ‘extender’ for those that don’t.

What are WiFi boosters?

WiFi boosters often come in packs of one-to-three. These little signal enhancers work together to expand the reach of your wireless signal seamlessly. Using built-in intelligent routing software, they’ll work out which one is closest to the computing device you’re using, wherever you are in your home, so you’ll get the strongest possible signal. They’ll also intelligently choose the radio link (2.4GHz, 5GHz or 6GHz), that has the best possible combination of interference-resistance and speed, for the computing device you’re using, where you’re using it.

Some WiFi boosters have a dedicated radio link for communicating between themselves, rather than using the radios used by your computers and other devices. This can help improve your wireless range and speeds, as your emails, streaming videos and other data aren’t competing with wireless admin traffic for the same radio link.

So will I get faster download and upload speeds using a booster instead of an extender/repeater?

It depends. It’s important to point out that WiFi boosters can improve the strength of your wireless signal. What they can’t do is the improve the performance of the cables from your local telephone exchange into your home. It’s the ‘sync speed’ of these cables, either copper and/or fibre optic, that’s the critical element in how fast your internet experience will be.

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That said, WiFi boosters and computing devices that use latest versions of that wireless standard, WiFi 6 and 6E, can be helpful in challenging conditions. Those standards are not only capable of the fastest speeds, but also use the very latest signalling techniques for minimising interference.

Plus, some WiFi boosters can cope better than older repeaters/extenders with a key limitation in WiFi technology – the inability to send and receive data at the same time.

Hang on, WiFi can’t send and receive data at the same time?!

Yes, indeed. As mind-boggling as it sounds, WiFi can either send or receive data. They can’t do both at the same time. This is known as ‘half duplex’. They can quickly switch back and forth between sending and receiving, but there’ll always be some level of performance penalty.

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This ‘half duplex’ issue is especially important to bear in mind when using WiFi repeaters/extenders. Using one such unit will unavoidably halve your wireless speeds. If you’re using multiple units to extend the wireless range of your router into the furthest reaches of your home, then each successive unit in your ‘daisy chain’ will halve your wireless speeds again.

Slow signal is probably better than no signal, but this is a critical limitation of repeaters/extenders to bear in mind.

Do WiFi boosters suffer from the same half duplex speed limitation?

This issue can affect boosters if they have to pass data between each other in a daisy chain due to the layout of your home. Having said that, they can minimise this speed penalty using the intelligent routing software already mentioned.

Plus, WiFi routers and mesh boosters with more than one pair of antennas can effectively send and receive data at the same time. This is known as Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) and has been around for several years. While it still has some limitations, it has matured to become especially effective in WiFi 6 and 6E models.

Are there any other downsides to using an older WiFi extender/repeater?

Repeaters/extenders will create additional separate WiFi networks in addition to your main one, so you’ll sometimes have to remember to disconnect from the weakest one manually and then connect to the one with the strongest signal. The experience is far more seamless with boosters, which appear on your computing devices as a single unified WiFi network.

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Where should I put my WiFi boosters to get the possible signal?

As a general rule of thumb, you should place your booster halfway between your main router and an area that you know suffers from poor signal.

If you’re using a Vodafone Super WiFi Booster, you should also ensure:

  • it’s standing upright;
  • the top of the unit isn’t covered;
  • it’s standing away from windows and heating sources such as radiators (where possible);
  • in the open and away from obstacles such as metal doors and cabinets (where possible);
  • and at least 1 metre away from large electrical appliances such as fridges and washing machines.

If some of these tips sound familiar, it’s because they apply to your main router as well.

Can I buy and use any brand of WiFi booster with my router?

In theory, it is sometimes possible to mix and match WiFi boosters. A standard called EasyMesh exists, which should allow compliant routers and boosters from any manufacturer to work together.

The catch is that EasyMesh hasn’t really caught on, although compatible models are available if you search for them. With that in mind, buying mesh networking gear from the same manufacturer is generally the way to go for the most hassle-free set up. So if you need more than one booster in your home, getting multiple units of the same model – or at least of the same generation – is probably wise.

With some models, boosters will come as a multipack with a main router intended to replace your existing one altogether.

Is there ever any reason to use a repeater/extender instead of a booster?

If you only need to stretch your router’s range by just a short distance of a handful of metres, then a single repeater/extender may be a cost-effective solution to your woes. As repeaters/extenders use less sophisticated technology than boosters, they’re usually cheaper. Having said that, don’t forget that Super WiFi Boosters are available as part of Vodafone Pro Broadband for a highly reasonable monthly fee.

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I’ve heard I can use the electrical mains wiring in my home to improve the range of my WiFi – is this true?!

Yes, using a technology called Powerline.

In the early 2000s (and today in some cases), it wasn’t uncommon for people to drill holes through the walls of their homes so they could thread long runs of ethernet cables from their router to the rooms where their computing devices were located.

Powerline is a less invasive alternative to such DIY palaver. It uses your home’s electrical wiring instead of ethernet cables to carry data. An ethernet cable is run from your router to a Powerline adapter plugged into a nearby wall socket. Data can then be sent from your router to other Powerline adapters plugged into other wall sockets throughout a home. Those adapters can have WiFi repeaters and/or ethernet ports for connecting computing devices.

How well Powerline works greatly depends on the age and quality of your home’s electrical wiring. Even if it is up to snuff, it’s not uncommon for sets of wall sockets on one story to be on a separate electrical circuit from the wall sockets on another story. This makes it impossible for, say, a downstairs router to communicate with a computing device located upstairs through Powerline adapters.

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