Over the past three years, mesh routers — which allow you to combine two, three, or even more routers into a single network to blanket your home with Wi-Fi — have become increasingly popular. But they’ve all had one major limitation: you have to buy all of your routers from the same company. That means if you ever wanted or needed to switch brands, you’d have to buy every unit over again.
But that may be about to change. The Wi-Fi Alliance, which oversees the use of Wi-Fi standards, is introducing a new standard called EasyMesh, which will allow router manufacturers to make mesh routers that work with mesh routers from other companies. As long as both routers support EasyMesh, you’ll be able to put them on the same network.
This is a pretty huge, consumer-friendly change that could help mesh routers become more common. Assuming it’s widely adopted, you’ll eventually be able to buy any router you want and add it into your network, rather than getting locked into the — likely expensive — system of whatever router company you bought from first.
Router companies won’t be required to support EasyMesh
But there are some big hurdles. Companies love lock-in: the current system forces customers to stay with one manufacturer, and any manufacturer that’s doing well in the mesh router market probably likes that. Mesh router companies won’t be required to adopt EasyMesh, either. So we have to hope that router companies will voluntarily choose to support it. And right now, none have announced their support. In a press release announcing EasyMesh, the Wi-Fi Alliance doesn’t have a single supporting quote from a router manufacturer.
The Wi-Fi Alliance believes that EasyMesh will catch on, though. The Alliance acts on behalf of its members — basically, all the big companies that make Wi-Fi-enabled products — so presumably companies were asking for this. But also, the Alliance believes that this will make mesh routers easier for consumers to pick up, which will benefit everyone. In particular, an Alliance spokesperson pointed out that cable providers, which are a huge business opportunity because they frequently provide routers to their customers, may be more inclined to choose mesh routers if they aren’t locking themselves into a closed system.
EasyMesh isn’t going to standardize absolutely everything about mesh routers: it’s just focused on allowing routers to communicate, regardless of how many bands they support or what company they’re from. Everything else a router does — like how it decides to broadcast its signal, prioritize transmissions, or move devices from one node to another — is still going to be up to the manufacturers. So the Wi-Fi Alliance suspects that Easy Mesh will lead to a lot more innovation around routers’ intelligence in the years to come, instead of around just the hardware.
The Alliance expects companies to focus on making their routers smarter
That also explains one of the reasons companies may want to build EasyMesh routers. If a company comes up with a much better system of managing Wi-Fi transmissions or just offers much better features, like parental controls, customers would be able to buy one of those routers and have it take over their entire network.
“That intelligence is where the differentiation is going to be,” says Kevin Robinson, VP of marketing for the Wi-Fi Alliance. “It opens up opportunities to use new controllers with existing equipment if someone develops more intelligence around managing the network.”
Certification for EasyMesh-enabled routers is supposed to begin shortly, but Robinson didn’t have an estimate on when the first routers would come to market. Existing mesh routers can be updated to support EasyMesh, he said, but it would be up to the manufacturers to decide if they want to do so.
Whenever these routers do start to hit the market, you’ll want to look for a note on the box or in the specs that says it supports EasyMesh. And while it’s not clear right now how widely this will catch on, there’s a good chance that many companies will support it. Smaller companies, at least, would limit their customer base by choosing not to; and if the pool of Easy Mesh-supporting routers gets big enough, it could push larger holdouts to get rid of their closed systems and join in.