Wi-Fi Bridges and Wi-Fi Mesh: What’s the Difference?

Here’s the tweet-sized tutorial on Wi-Fi bridges (or wireless bridging) and WI-Fi mesh: both replace physical cabling.

Hopefully, this fact doesn’t take the magic out of Wi-Fi—but access points (APs) need to terminate in a wired connection. We, the users, may be free to roam with WI-Fi, but APs prefer to be cabled.

However, running a physical cable to connect an AP isn’t always an option. It might be too difficult to bury or string a cable through or across some spaces. Maybe there’s no access (like through a city street). Or maybe the options available are just too expensive. That’s where Wi-Fi bridges and Wi-Fi mesh can fill the gap—or, more specifically, the air.

For some use cases, picking one over the other will be a no-brainer. But occasionally it’s a bridge vs. mesh smackdown. So let’s look at the two contenders for wireless-to-wireless connections.

Note: There may be some confusion over the function of a wireless bridge or wireless mesh and Wi-Fi extenders. Generally speaking, an extender is more closely related to a repeater or booster. The primary purpose of all three (which are frequently confused with each other, just to layer the confusion) is to amplify Wi-Fi signal strength to extend its reach.

What is a Wi-Fi Bridge?

A wireless bridge is sometimes called a wireless Ethernet bridge because the bridges replace Ethernet cabling. There are some basic things to understand about a bridge:

A Wi-Fi bridge is a dedicated (“I have one purpose”) appliance: A bridge is set up in a fixed configuration. Let’s assume it’s a point-to-point configuration. Both bridges are usually outdoors, but there’s no rule against using bridging from an outdoor location to an indoor location (like spanning a warehouse where cabling is cost-prohibitive).

Generally speaking, a bridge is specifically designed to span greater distances and carry more data through the air compared to the general use case for mesh technology. Take the Ruckus P300 802.11ac 5 GHz bridge. Ruckus describes it as “wire-like throughput over the air.” It can transmit wirelessly up to 12 km (using an internal antenna). And handle up to 500 Mbps of data.

A Wi-Fi bridge isn’t people-oriented: Physically, a bridge may look a bit like an AP. And it’s an RF device, like an AP. But bridges can’t talk to Wi-Fi clients. A bridge is a special purpose appliance—short on people skills, but big on its mission of transporting data wirelessly.

A bridge can be segmented to support multiple networks. You can use VLANs to separate and secure traffic over a Wi-Fi bridge. It’s worth noting (although not for this head-to-head comparison), that the Ruckus P300 is a very versatile bridge. You can also use it for point-to-multipoint bridging. Or deploying multimedia hotspots.

What is Wi-Fi Mesh?

Wi-Fi mesh technology does the same thing as Wi-Fi bridges. But that’s kind of like saying both movie theaters and tablets are used for watching movies. True, but they’re really different multimedia beasts.

Mesh technology will connect an AP wirelessly to a cabled AP. But here’s how it handles the task:

Mesh is enabled or disabled inside your AP: More specifically, mesh technology is inside all Ruckus APs (you have to check other vendors’ APs to see if mesh is a standard feature). You can make mesh available by just clicking “Enable Mesh” on the on-premises controller or Ruckus Cloud Wi-Fi dashboard.

Mesh is people-oriented: Because mesh is inside an AP, clients and devices can still talk to the AP. So mesh is more of a multipurpose solution than a bridge. Let’s say you have an outdoor event at your school or business. You have a vendor booth that requires a Wi-Fi connection. You can create a mesh connection between an outdoor (cabled) AP to the uncabled AP across the field or parking lot at the vendor’s booth. You can do the same thing with a bridge, but it’s probably not worth it for a temporary setup. And, remember, bridges won’t talk to user devices.

When you use mesh, however, there’s a performance penalty for the root AP (because it’s backhauling the data from the uncabled AP), supporting other mesh APs and devices, etc. Visitors around the vendor’s booth may enjoy the benefits of a Wi-Fi hotspot, but the performance won’t be as stellar as it would be without mesh in use.

Mesh is dynamic but not divisible. As mentioned above, mesh networks can form dynamically in the event that an AP in a network loses its wired connection. But you can’t use separate the bandwidth of a mesh connection with VLANs.

Which One is Right for Your Wi-Fi Deployment?

Remember that mesh is baked into your APs, so you actually have mesh at your disposal when you need it. And adding Ruckus P300 bridges is easy. If you’re still not sure which to use and when, run a couple of planning scenarios by your Ruckus partner. Why leave things up in the air?

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