FRITZ!OS 6.98 and Mesh Networking


Intended Audience

This post will be of interest to you if you use a FRITZ!Box 7490 as your DSL modem and use repeaters to extend Wi-Fi coverage in your home or business. An Australian audience is targeted, but the post may still have relevance to other FRITZ!Box users.

At the time of writing, I’m working with FRITZ!OS 6.98 build 56046 of the beta. It’s important to note that FRITZ!OS 6.98 is currently only available for the FRITZ!Box 7490 in Australia. To take full advantage of this post, Australian users must have access to a minimum of two FRITZ!Box 7490 devices.

Background

The FRITZ!Box, made by the German company AVM GmbH, is my DSL modem of choice. It has some really rich functionality out-of-the-box that is readily accessible to the average user. FRITZ!OS 6.98, which is still in beta, brings with it some exciting new developments. One of these is mesh networking, which is discussed in some detail in this post.

What is Mesh Networking?

Newer modems and repeaters support both the 2.4 GHz and 5GHz wireless bands. The 2.4GHz band offers greater coverage, but operates at slower speeds. This band is also prone to interference as it is used by other consumer devices such as security systems, cordless phones, microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, baby monitors, and some amateur radio equipment. The 5GHz band is less prone to interference, offers higher speeds and capacity, but at shorter distances.

Up till now, you had to manually choose between one band or the other if your device supported dual bands. To do this, you had to expose the Service Set IDentifier (SSID) for each band on the FRITZ!Box. For each repeater added to the network, you exposed two additional SSIDs in order to have the option of connecting to a band on the closest repeater. Things start to get very messy and out of control with each repeater added to the network.

Mesh networking allows you to consolidate all the SSIDs back to a single SSID. This is possible because the decision of which band and which repeater to use is made within the mesh. Mesh networking is achieved through band steering and crossband repeating. For more information on these concepts, read the AVM spiel here.

Here is a mesh master view of a mesh made up of three FRITZ!Box 7490s; one acting as mesh master and the other two as mesh repeaters.

screenshot.142

The FRITZ!Box 7490 has four LAN ports so wired devices can be connected to it. Using a FRITZ!Box 7490 as a repeater works well if you have workgroup clusters consisting of several wired devices, for example, a printer, maybe a local NAS and a couple of wired PCs. Roaming devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops will automatically connect to whichever FRITZ!Box 7490 provides an optimal signal path for a particular device.

What’s the catch?

Unfortunately, there are a number of challenges for Australian fans of the FRITZ!Box. The majority of gotcha’s relate to AVM product marketing in Australia.

  1. The FRITZ!Box 7490 is the only FRITZ!Box variant currently available for sale in Australia. It retails for around AUS$250. To participate in mesh networking, a minimum of two FRITZ!Box 7490s are required. That’s a minimum outlay of AUS$500.
  2. Right now, Australian consumers don’t have access to the newer FRITZ!Box 7590 (it is coming!). Surprisingly, our New Zealand neighbours do. Check it out here. A word of caution: If you’re thinking of buying AVM routers from New Zealand, be aware of possible problems when it comes to warranty or RMA questions.
  3. The FRITZ!Box 7390, the previous version of the Fritz!Box available in Australia, will not receive the updated OS and therefore will not be capable of participating in mesh networking.
  4. There are a number of products that complement the FRITZ!Box that are available in the European Union, but not in Australia. These include the FRITZ!WLAN and FRITZ!Powerline products, both which are able to participate in mesh networking. The FRITZ!WLAN is a wireless repeater with a single LAN port. The FRITZ!Powerline uses the house wiring to extend the range of the FRITZ!Box. Read more about these products and FRITZ!DECT smart technology products here. I suspect that the relevant Australian regulatory authority has not approved these products for use in Australia.
  5. Using a FRITZ!Box 7490 as a repeater is only cost-effective for clustered workgroups as described above. If you have a single isolated device with a LAN port, such a security system in the roof space, a FRITZ!Box 7490 is not a cost-effective option. Use of a third-party repeater is required if hard-wiring is not an option.

From a technical perspective, a possible weakness in the current implementation of mesh networking is the single point of failure that the mesh master represents. There may be a way to address this weakness. Time permitting, I’ll explore this in a future post. For the moment, I keep a spare FRITZ!Box 7490 handy in case I need to replace the FRITZ!Box that is actively participating as my internet gateway as well as the mesh master for the local network.

Use of third-party repeaters

Since build 55302 of the 6.98 beta, I’ve experienced serious connectivity issues with one third-party repeater. From the eclectic collection of predominantly legacy extenders I have, I’ve tabled what I’ve found to date.

Brand Model Wireless LAN ports Issues?
Netgear WN3000RP b/g/n 2.4GHz 1 x 10/100 Major [1]
Netgear EX7000 b/g/n 2.4GHz
a/n/ac 5GHz
5 x 10/100/1000 Minor [2]
Belkin F5D7132v1 b/g 2.4GHz 1 x 10/100 Minor [3]
D-Link DAP-1150 b/g 2.4GHz 1 x 10/100 Minor [4]

[1] An initial wireless repeater connection can be established. The connection fails to re-establish after any action which results in a reboot of the repeater. At this stage, it’s unclear what’s caused the connectivity issues. This was not present prior to build 55302 of the beta. Hopefully, the issue will be resolved prior to the official release of FRITZ!OS 6.98.

[2] Both the devices attached to the repeater as well as the repeater are visible in the mesh view. A pair of virtual MAC addresses for the wireless bands is also visible in the mesh view.

[3] Neither the repeater or the device attached to it is visible in the mesh view, though both respond to a ping.

[4] The device attached to the repeater is visible in the mesh view, but the repeater is cloaked from view. Both respond to a ping.

It’s quite clear that unexpected results will almost certainly arise from the use of third-party repeaters, ranging from serious to mildly irritating. From the limited testing I’ve done, it appears the older the vintage of the repeater, the quirkier the interoperability symptoms.

Edit: Refer to the following posts for later beta feedback to AVM developers.

  1. FRITZ!OS 6.98-56435 BETA Update

References

  1. AVM: Expand your WiFi. With mesh networking!
  2. SnapperNet: Routers
  3. AVM: Products
  4. Lifewire: Wireless Standards 802.11a, 802.11b/g/n, and 802.11ac
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