So this overview is slightly different, not only are we taking a look at a UK ISP, we are taking a look at their latest Mesh WiFi 6 offering – Consisting of a TP-Link EX230v router and HX220 Mesh Access Points.
So where does this all begin? Recently in Medway, Kent, many areas have been equipped with superfast FTTP courtesy of a rollout by CityFibre. One of the first ISPs to sign up to sell these services is a small ISP called VFast.
VFast is part of Orbital Group based in Canterbury, Kent, which is well known for its Wi-Max services (often sold to remote areas and holiday parks etc), as well as its business-to-business datacentre offerings. As a result of the CityFibre rollout, they are making a big push into FTTP services. Currently, they are offering 3 different FTTP packages with speeds ranging from 150/150Mb all the way up to 900/900Mb.
Now at the time when placing my FTTP order, I could only choose between VFast and TalkTalk, I didn’t want to go with TalkTalk as I had been a customer of theirs before. I saw that VFast are a local company and I am one for fully giving a local business a chance. So I signed up with them and so far the service has been fantastic. I opted to go for their 900Mb/900Mb package because it presented the best value for money at the time.
The speed and service have been a solid 10/10 so far. However, the problem you have with the higher speeds is that not a lot of routers and devices support the full throughput yet. Given that full FTTP/FTTH is only available to around 50% of the UK currently, there hasn’t been a need for some of the networking giants to produce fully capable hardware yet.
I contacted VFast as I had a mesh system of my own that wasn’t working great, to give them some feedback and asked whether they were considering offering a mesh system of their own. They quickly responded with an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Currently, they are trialing a TP-Link EX230V router as well as HX220 Mesh Access Points. We live in a standard 3-bed mid-terrace property and our problem comes from the chimney breast. We lose a lot of signal through that, so getting decent speeds upstairs has always been an issue. There’s also a lot of congestion on the 5GHz band from neighbouring properties.
I got offered a trial of the aforementioned devices. The Mesh system itself is likely to be offered as a premium service going forward.
As you can see, this router certainly packs a punch, it’s a dual-band AX1800 Wi-Fi 6 device, and it supports 1201 Mbps (5 GHz) + 574 Mbps (2.4 GHz). It is fully equipped with 3 10/100/1000 Mbps RJ45 LAN Ports and 1 10/100/1000 Mbps RJ45 WAN Port, as well as an FXS Port and a USB 2.0 port.
One could argue why you need both the EX230v and the HX220 units, well there is a reason for this. The EX230v has more ethernet ports, supports a VOIP landline (if required) and handles TP-Link’s mesh system (called EasyMesh).
But the HX220s do support both router and access point mode, so in theory, you could ditch the EX230V if you do not benefit from the full functionality, but VFast should offer a complete experience by including the router too.
In our setup, the ONT (Optical Network Terminal) – where the fibre terminates, plugs into the router and the HX220 units all act as wireless nodes and can be placed where needed over the property. You also have the option of hardwiring the HX220 units directly to the router, this will create a wired backhaul thus improving performance even more. However, I haven’t done and probably won’t do this yet. As you can see each unit has 3 Gigabit Ethernet ports (1 is an automatically sensing WAN/LAN port).
Now in total, we have the router and 3 mesh devices on our property and so far, performance has been pretty solid. But I have noticed one thing, sitting near one of the mesh units and ensuring I am connected to that unit, I only seem to be able to pull around 300-400Mbps on a fast.com speed test.
If I hardwire a device into one of the mesh units (in my case I hardwired an Xbox Series S into one of the mesh devices), I can pull around 550 sometimes 600Mbps. Remember that these mesh units are all connected wirelessly with no wired backhaul in my property. So the throughput is pretty good here.
The EX230V and HX220 units are aimed at ISPs directly as they support the TR-069 remote management protocol, which allows your ISP to remotely manage and fine-tune the performance of the devices.
For those less computer-literate users, this is a good thing as it’s one less step that the user needs to worry about, particularly if you live in a high-density WiFi area. Or if you make a configuration change and you’ve not sure what you’ve done, this is where the ISP may be able to step in and help, without the costly need of an engineer, or factory resetting your device.
Another little test that I ran was to see just how the signal strength held up in the most central point of the house. As you can see it comes in at a respectable -49dBm. Not bad TP-Link, not bad at all.
At home, I run a Pi-Hole DNS Server and VFast has confirmed that this shouldn’t interfere with the TR-069 management side of things. So if you are like me, and are a bit of a tweaker, then this shouldn’t be an issue.
As you can see, the devices are pretty much meshed as fast as they will go wirelessly. With all 3 of them almost hitting max speed. The only way to make it even better in our case, would be to add an ethernet cable from each mesh unit, directly to the router to solidify that performance.
So not only has the mesh system made a difference in terms of coverage, it has definitely improved connectivity upstairs (where issues have sprung up before). Don’t get me wrong, the idea of a mesh network isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a heavy user, or have multiple devices throughout the house, it is well worth considering. Especially as TP-Link produces consistently reliable and innovative hardware. Like the Deco X50 and AX90 we’ve reviewed previously.
The point I’m trying to make here is if you happen to be with a smaller ISP like VFast, don’t be afraid to approach them with constructive feedback and any concerns, as it turns out they may actually be able to assist you. Good luck getting that kind of engagement from one of the top 4 names.
Bear in mind, this is currently a trial and is likely to be offered as a premium service or an optional extra going forward. However for great Wi-Fi in almost every room, it’s something I’d definitely consider.
Now we just need the hardware vendors to catch up, to really maximize the available speed. A lot of hardware ISPs provide in 2023 still don’t support Wi-Fi 6 yet, although there is change on the horizon.
It’s worth examining whether your hardware (such as a laptop, desktop, etc) could benefit from the performance increases that Wi-Fi 6 offers. Often these upgrades are relatively cheap and the performance gain makes it worthwhile.
Granted one of the top 4 ISPs out there does provide a mesh system for free, but then they have a bigger sway in the market and more buying power. You have to weigh that up that some of the top 4 aren’t known for great customer service. Whereas VFast is changing that perception. Every e-mail sent to them has been responded to quickly and professionally. They certainly aren’t just reading from a script. I customise the configuration in our household and VFast supports that.
So keep an eye out on the progression of the FTTP/FTTH rollout as it continues across the UK, and don’t be afraid to research smaller providers. Remember that loyalty doesn’t always pay, it’s always worth shopping around at renewal time (the same applies to any major utility/bill).
For now, the testing continues, but I’d like to thank VFast for allowing me to participate in this latest trial.