50% of calls to complain about residential broadband relate to poor in-home Wi-Fi. The industry has responded with Wi-Fi access points that co-ordinate between themselves, wired or wirelessly, and many new products are coming to market. These dramatically improve performance towards that found from more costly Enterprise Wi-Fi solutions. How do these work, what do they cost and what are the longer term implications.
Consequences of tight budgets and a focus on headline datarates
Cable and wired broadband operators usually include a residential modem as part of their package. Often this also incorporates a firewall, 4 port Ethernet switch and Wi-Fi access point. Customers locate this next to the main telephone or cable outlet which may be hidden in a closet or in full view in the living room.
Competitive price pressures have led to some very sharp procurement processes, leading to lowest cost designs where every cent counts. Unobtrusive styling encourages the use of internal and less efficient antenna.
At the same time, the Wi-Fi industry has been emphasising peak data rates, with 802.11ac Wave 2 achieving hundreds of megabits in the lab. These speeds are often irrelevant for the home user throttled by a single 10 to 50 Mbps shared broadband service or suffering poor coverage in the basement.
The issue is compounded by the huge growth in the number of Wi-Fi devices we have in our homes. 10 to 15 is not unusual when you add up Smart TVs, tablets, phones, computers, printers and games consoles. An average of 20 per home is forecast by 2020. The additional load reduces the range of each Wi-Fi access point, increasing the chances of congestion. A lack of prioritisation can mean that important business conference call is disrupted by an interactive video game.
This has led to poor customer satisfaction. ASSIA report some 50% of calls to broadband providers relate to poor Wi-Fi performance.
Spoilt for choice
There are quite a few options available to the average residential user. One is to install wired Ethernet cables for the most demanding static equipment, such as TVs, video streamers, computers and printers. This offloads a lot of traffic, improves service to the wired devices and frees up Wi-Fi spectrum for portable equipment. But with most home hubs limited to four ports and the cosmetic issues of running long cables everywhere, this isn’t very common. Not everyone installs 48 hardwired Ethernet sockets throughout their home like this guy (video).
Using the home electrical wiring provides a simpler and cosmetically more attractive alternative. HomePlug (shown right) emulates an Ethernet connection between two or more electrical outlets, with some devices incorporating a local Wi-Fi access point. These are now fairly reliable and can deliver rates up to 200Mbps or more.
Where Wi-Fi performance is lacking, a second (or third) access point can be fitted. These are often setup with their own SSID, and so appear to the end device as a separate network. A common problem is that portable devices won’t automatically switch to a stronger signal as you move around the house, preferring to stick to the original, weaker one.
Repeaters rebroadcast the Wi-Fi signal on another channel and are useful to extend the range of a Wi-Fi hotspot. Unlike additional access points, the end device remains connected to the same AP, just on a different frequency. While these can work well, some residents fit them where the signal is weakest rather than mid-way between the good and poor areas, making them less effective.
A downside of backward compatibility
The Wi-Fi industry is right to be proud that almost every Wi-Fi device works with any Wi-FI access point. The system is designed to be backward compatible, so that even the oldest 802.11b equipment can talk to the latest access point.
However there are a few drawbacks.
Wi-Fi will downgrade itself to cope with the lowest common denominator. In general terms, if even just one of your devices is 802.11b, then all devices sharing the same frequency channel will revert to that.
This is also true of some of the very latest features. For example, 802.11ac Wave 2 includes MU-MIMO (Multi-User MIMO) that uses spatial separation and beamforming through multiple antenna to share the same spectrum for different users in different areas at the same time. But it requires all end user devices to support this mode to be fully effective.
Mesh Wi-Fi to the rescue
A Wi-Fi mesh is created between several adjacent access points which co-ordinate operation. The end user device can seamlessly switch between access points, similar to handing over between cellular basestations.
The main Wi-Fi standard for this is 802.11s. It defines HWMP – Hybrid Wireless Mesh Protocol – although other mesh protocols can be used instead. As an open standard, it should interwork within a mix of different vendor’s access points.
There have been a number of mesh Wi-Fi products on the market for some years, such as Ubiquiti Unify.
Many more are now coming onto the market. A prominent one is Google Wi-Fi shown on the left (they supply the hardware and management App) priced at $125 each and another is Netgear Orbi which costs $300 for two units. Packs of three units are available from Linksys Velop ($450), Eero ($400), BT Whole Home W-Fi ($250). In all cases, any individual access point can be wired or wireless and the system will self-organise for best performance. The idea is that if you still have a deadzone in your home, you just buy another unit and plug it in.
These latest products are dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and support fast speeds with 802.11ac. Early review feedback is very positive – these systems do solve coverage blackspots and deliver higher throughput. However I suspect early adopters who choose to pay for these systems are probably more tech savvy than average.
Targetting disaffected customers
I’m hearing that one strategy adopted by broadband suppliers is to carefully identify which customers are likely to be suffering issues and target these better performing solutiosn at them. Using the Pareto principle (80% of issues relate to 20% of customers), operators may only need to invest in a smaller number of user equipment upgrades to significantly improve their satisfaction ratings.
Poor performance can be assessed using statistics from home routers, augmented by geographic data such as house size, type and even building material.
It’s unclear to me how many customers may at this stage be prepared to invest several hundred dollars in upgrading their Wi-Fi routers or installing additional access points to improve their service. They may expect their broadband supplier to do that for them.
Upgrading a home router/Wi-Fi access point alone may well provide a substantial improvement from an older unit. It remains to be seen if these cope with the growing number of connected devices and throughput demands. Enterprise level Wi-Fi access points deliver very high performance but cost several hundred dollars and are usually beyond the price tolerance of most residential customers.
Do residential Femtocells still have a market to address?
Some commentators would argue that once Wi-Fi delivers robust, consistent and reliable service throughout a home then VoIP should be adequate for cellular voice calls. Mesh Wi-Fi will certainly improve the situation for those prepared to pay for it.
However, LTE continues to have several important performance benefits compared to Wi-Fi. This is particularly true when operating in licensed spectrum unpolluted by other unknown devices. A single femtocell easily provides good coverage and performance throughout most residential homes, without the hassle to remember to turn Wi-Fi on and off. Incorporating this into a set-top box or cable modem remains a good solution.
More promising is the potential of dynamically shared spectrum, such as the CBRS scheme in the US. The choice of using some unpolluted spectrum in your home that is compatible with mobile devices could be a very useful option in the longer term, whether used standalone or simply to boost capacity and speed using carrier aggregation.