Hardware

What Is Ethernet Backhaul?

For most people, the mobility and flexibility of Wi-Fi is preferable to being hooked to the Ethernet cable and not being able to move around or sit somewhere comfortably. The speed and reliability of Wi-Fi, however, are still its biggest drawbacks especially for areas outside of its coverage. You’ve probably already heard of Wi-Fi Mesh networks where several wireless access points are scattered all over the house or office to expand the wireless coverage. This is commonly implemented in homes and offices but there are similar systems that cover larger areas. In these types of wireless network, communication between the access points is still through wireless. Signal degradation due to interferences, wireless dead spots, and limited coverage therefore still pose challenges to these network systems. To overcome these challenges and improve the network’s performance, networking experts turned to Ethernet to serve as the network’s backbone, otherwise known as Ethernet backhaul.

Wireless Mesh Network (WMN)

To better understand Ethernet backhaul and its role in the Wireless Mesh Network or similar wireless systems, it is important to first understand how a WMN works.

WMNs consist of a primary access point and secondary access points or mesh nodes that are interconnected to each other. The devices that connect to the nodes are called the mesh clients. The nodes can have one or multiple paths for data transmission. When the mesh clients send data to a nearby node, the node will forward the data traffic to another node until it reaches the primary node which is the gateway to the internet. WMN’s goal is to provide a wider wireless coverage, to reach every corner of the house or building especially in areas that a single wireless router cannot cover. WMN improves the wireless connectivity in homes and offices by providing a more reliable wireless connection with wider coverage, however, it still has its downsides.

Data hopping from one node to another increases latency which impacts the network’s performance. Nodes must also be placed strategically for optimum performance. No matter how close your device is to an access point, if there is a poor connection between a node and the primary access point, the speed will still be crawling. Another downside is that the nodes are occupying one channel for communication which means a reduced bandwidth for the network clients. Some mesh kits use a dedicated band exclusively for node communication called the Wi-Fi backhaul. The tri-band system offers a great improvement on the network’s performance but it would still be relying on wireless speed which is still susceptible to latency and interference. To overcome these limitations, a more efficient solution is to use an Ethernet connection between the nodes.

Ethernet Backhaul

It is common knowledge that Ethernet can provide a notoriously more solid connection than wireless. Inserting an Ethernet cable between the nodes in a WMN therefore provides a better connection than relying on a Wi-Fi band. This frees up some load off the wireless bandwidth resulting in a much faster data transfer between the mesh clients and the access points. In addition, placement of access points is more flexible; they can be placed farther apart without compromising the speed. What’s even better is, you can expand the network further by setting-up a WMN with an Ethernet network. For example, you can use a switch and connect the primary access point and the nodes to it. At the same time, you can connect additional devices to the switch such as your game consoles and smart TVs or any other device that requires faster speed. This takes off more load from the wireless network and provides higher bandwidth to other devices.

Wired vs Wireless Backhaul

Wired connection is always faster than wireless that’s why most, if not all, WMN include Ethernet backhaul support. There are, however, WMN kits that rely purely on wireless. In fact, some manufacturers have levelled-up their technology for the wireless backhaul to have a comparatively close performance to an Ethernet backhaul. An actual test on an Asus Lycra AC2200 mesh Wi-Fi system shows that the download speed is 50% faster while the upload speed is 110% faster when using Ethernet backhaul on a 2.4GHz band but things are a little different on the 5GHz band. Wi-Fi and Ethernet backhaul speeds are almost on the same range but there is still a significant difference on the upload speed where Ethernet backhaul takes the lead with 60% faster speed.[1] In most cases, Ethernet backhaul is still the better option especially if you’re aiming for faster speed and a more stable connection.

Disadvantages of Ethernet Backhaul

An Ethernet backhaul unquestionably makes the Wi-Fi system more robust, however, it still has its limitations. For one, not all mesh systems support Ethernet backhaul. You normally can’t find Ethernet ports on the nodes included in the Mesh kits that don’t have Ethernet support. It is also not feasible for larger areas where you have to run extra lengthy Ethernet cables to connect the nodes to each other. Lastly, it is more costly to set-up a WMN with Ethernet backhaul since it requires additional cost for installation, cables, and any other additional equipment especially if you’re setting it up in larger offices. Some premises may even have to undergo minor renovations to properly install the wired backhaul.

When to Use Ethernet Backhaul

Wired backhaul is an excellent solution for faster and more reliable connection in a Wi-Fi mesh system, however, there may still be scenarios where it is not ideal considering its downsides. Moreover, more and more manufacturers are producing mesh systems with a dedicated wireless backhaul. There are situations, however, which call for the use of the wired backbone. For example, there are homes and buildings with rooms that any Wi-Fi equipment fails to reach. Similarly, thick walls and plaster walls prevent wireless signals from passing through. The same is true for rooms full of appliances composed of electrical components, such as microwave ovens and refrigerators, that interfere with wireless signals. Also, there are businesses that require faster speed than what wireless can provide for large file transfers. In these scenarios, using Ethernet backhaul is still the most ideal solution, after all, it still has higher throughput, faster speed, lower latency, and more reliability than its wireless counterpart.

Ethernet speed is still unrivalled by wireless despite the innovations and improvements in the wireless technology. Although adding an Ethernet backhaul would mean more cost, the improvement on speed, latency, and reliability is certainly worth the price.

Source

[1] Rusen, Ciprian Adrian. “WiFi vs. Ethernet backhaul: Performance improvements for your mesh WiFi system!”. February 28, 2019. https://www.digitalcitizen.life/wifi-vs-ethernet-backhaul/ Accessed September 17, 2021

About the author

Glynis Navarrete

A freelance blogger who loves to write about anything related to technology. Born and raised in the Philippines and worked in Singapore for eight years as Technical Support for a wide range of IT equipment. Took a dive into the world of freelancing and now enjoying doing what I’m passionate about while not losing touch with technology.