If you’re shopping for a new mesh router system, you may come across references to the platform’s “backhaul.” Here’s what it is and how it affects Wi-Fi performance.
What is a return trip?
The term backhaul is used widely throughout the telecommunications industry to refer to the connection between the main network and the perimeter subnets. For example, the link between your cellular provider’s main network and your local network of towers near your home is the backhaul.
Your phone communicates with the local network maintained by the tower, and the devices in the tower then communicate back to the main network via backhaul. Data is then transmitted over very high-speed connections like fiber-optic lines or dedicated microwave uplinks, not the same type of connection used between cell towers and cell phones.
Just as these backhauls connect all the large networks around us (like cellular), they can also be present in our homes when we use mesh networking platforms. Just as backhaul improves your experience with your smartphone by maximizing transfer speeds between towers and larger networks, backhaul in a Wi-Fi mesh router can also boost speeds in your home.
Types of Mesh Router Backhaul
In the cellular network example above, we gave two backhaul examples: one wired (fiber optic line) and one wireless (microwave uplink). We used this particular example because it is a good comparison to mesh systems.
All consumer mesh systems use one or both of these connection types to link back to the main mesh node via a wireless connection over Wi-Fi or a physical connection over an Ethernet cable. Let’s take a look at the two Wi-Fi backhaul variants you’ll encounter, Ethernet backhaul, and how each affects Wi-Fi performance.
Shared Wi-Fi Backhaul
Many mesh systems, especially the more affordable ones, have shared Wi-Fi backhaul. Usually these systems are dual-band, with only one 2.4GHz and one 5GHz band, so if you’re looking at a mesh system that only has dual-band, it’s a pretty safe bet to have a shared backhaul.
A mesh system with shared Wi-Fi backhaul uses a single 5GHz band for both fronthaul activity (such as your phone communicating with mesh nodes) and backhaul activity (nodes communicating with each other).
Examples of such systems include Google Nest WiFi, the many variants in the TP-Link Deco line, such as the Deco X20, and the Amazon Eero, Eero 6, and Eero 6+ systems.
Shared backhaul isn’t the end of the world, and thousands of people are happy to use our shared Wi-Fi backhaul example listed above, but it does impact performance. Increase the number of clients, especially demanding clients, and you will consume more and more shared bandwidth to accommodate them.
Dedicated Wi-Fi Backhaul
When you’re upgrading from budget options and earlier mesh systems, you’ll often find dedicated mesh systems with dedicated backhaul.
These mesh systems have three or more frequency bands, one of which is entirely dedicated to backhaul communications. The most common configuration is a tri-band configuration, with one 2.4GHz band and one 5Ghz band for fronthaul and one 5GHz band for backhaul.
The TP-Link Deco X68 is an upgrade to the Deco series, with premium options like the Netgear Orbi RBK752 and the Asus Zen Wi-Fi XT8 featuring dedicated wireless backhaul using the additional 5Ghz band.
Some systems, such as the Amazon Eero Pro 6, have a tri-band configuration, but don’t dedicate a 5Ghz band to backhaul traffic — backhaul traffic is algorithmically distributed across all three bands. Technically, this is not dedicated backhaul, but a similar level of resources is dedicated to backhaul traffic.
Offloading all inter-node communication to the dedicated backhaul band frees up the entire other 5Ghz band for fronthaul use – a significant performance boost for homes saturated with Wi-Fi devices.
In addition to shared and dedicated wireless backhaul, many mesh systems also support the use of Ethernet as a dedicated high-speed wired backhaul. Generally, if additional nodes beyond the base unit of the system have Ethernet ports, that’s a good sign that the system supports Ethernet backhaul.
In the case of dual-band (and some tri-band) systems, this allows you to link all mesh nodes back to the master node to free up the entire range of Wi-Fi bandwidth for fronthaul clients to use. This is great for a dual-band mesh system because it offloads all the backhaul traffic that clutters up the bands you’re actually using.
It also benefits more advanced mesh systems with dedicated Wi-Fi backhaul. Although you may not get the expected tri-band boost. When mesh nodes are connected via Ethernet, some tri-band routers will free up their extra 5GHz band for fronthaul, which makes each node and the entire mesh network behave like a tri-band router.
But even with wired backhaul, some systems always reserve the extra 5Ghz band for internal use. For example, tri-band mesh systems in the Netgear Orbi series and TP-Link Deco series reserve the extra frequency band even when connected to Ethernet, while the nodes in the Linksys Velop series will free up the extra frequency band.
However, this can change even within a specific product line, so read the fine print when comparing models, don’t just because a particular version of a brand’s mesh system releases the extra straps they all have .
However, whether or not your system frees up bands, we recommend doing so if you have Ethernet available to connect mesh nodes. Today, Gigabit Ethernet ports are a standard feature in mesh systems that support Ethernet backhaul.
Some advanced systems, like the Netgear Orbi RBK852, support 2.5 Gbps on the host and gigabit on the nodes to help those with multi-gigabit broadband connections take advantage of all the extra bandwidth.
But whether the system is dual-band with shared wireless backhaul or tri-band with dedicated backhaul, you can’t beat the stability and speed of Ethernet. By switching to Ethernet backhaul, you’ll reduce latency, increase speed, and reduce network congestion.