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Managing the Home Network’s Connectivity Conundrum

Today’s home WiFi network has become a true point of contention with residential customers. As device usage increases, so too does network strain and customer frustration. This means more support calls, truck rolls and even subscriber churn.

Significant increases in simultaneous streaming, work from home, virtual classrooms and video conferencing have exacerbated the demand on the network. As families shelter at home, device usage has skyrocketed, adding to the barrage of heavy traffic and unprecedented pressure on our home internet gateways.

Bill McFarland

Bill McFarland, Plume (Image credit: Plume)

In fact, we’ve seen device usage at home more than double during the workday in the United States since Jan. 29.

But this also presents an opportunity — a new way for service providers to differentiate their offerings and better serve subscribers. The bottom line is consumers’ homes, habits and connected devices are evolving, and so should the way we measure and manage our internet performance.

For years, internet service providers have looked at quality of service (QoS) to assess a home’s network and troubleshoot issues. While this is a great way of measuring the “pipe” — things like throughput, latency and jitter — in today’s increasingly complex connected home, QoS ends up answering the wrong question altogether. Whether a device works well depends not only on what the network provides, but also on the needs of the device, and application, at hand. If we’re only looking at raw performance of the broadband connection, we’re missing half the picture and will end up with a poor connection, and worse, unhappy subscribers.

Instead, service providers today must focus on what keeps consumers happy — the performance or, put another way, the experience of their devices.

Delivering on this promise requires getting closer to the customer experience, looking at the “happiness” of every device, and critically, fully understanding the device a consumer is using right now. After all, it’s not the internet that consumers really care about — it’s the quality of experience (QoE) when using their connected devices.

QoE is an entirely new approach to measuring internet performance that goes beyond QoS to address the modern challenges home networks face today. While QoS is all about broadband performance, a QoE mentality treats each device individually to deliver an optimal experience whatever the device or the application.

What exactly does this mean? To better understand what’s really happening inside our connected homes, we must consider:

1.) The entire set of paths from the internet to the devices in the home, particularly paths that include one or more hops of Wi-Fi. Most devices today are connected via Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi is often the biggest problem area on the path.

2.) A broader range of network performance factors such as data rates, signal strengths, packet error rates, interference, channel utilization, broadband throughput and the topology of the network in question.

3.) The needs of each device in the home, such as the type of device, networking capabilities, current and historical data usage and any other requirements in its specific environment.

Of course, there have been many attempts to remedy connection issues in other ways, but these have always come up short. Bigger, more powerful access points, for example, still can’t transmit enough to connect and power all the devices throughout a home. And adding multiple access points provides a static connection with no flexibility. Both these solutions simply “boost” signal, but they don’t adapt to rapidly changing network conditions.

This is where a QoE methodology truly shines. Equipped with an understanding of what’s actually happening throughout a home network, service providers can not only improve the offerings and customer satisfaction but also reduce costs while increasing ROI. These new and deep insights can be leveraged to better guide network configuration, establish whether Wi-Fi extenders are needed and can even enable support personnel to identify and resolve connection issues before a subscriber is aware of a problem. Equally important, these insights enable home networks to adapt to the needs of devices as they arise.

Let’s look at my home as an example. I have a WiFi-connected thermostat that can only achieve 5 megabits per second of throughput, as well as a video streaming device that can achieve 15 Mbps. Traditional measurements like QoS would lead us to believe the thermostat has poor performance, but the video streaming device is great. In reality, this is entirely backward — the thermostat is actually happy with even just 1 Mbps throughput, while the video streaming device would struggle to do 4K video reliably. Not only would the QoS method fail to highlight the problem with the video streaming device, but it might also put unnecessary attention and expense towards the thermostat.

By considering the needs of each individual device, QoE gives the more informed answer: the thermostat is fine, but the video device requires attention. Armed with this newfound insight, it’s possible to adjust the network and address the issue, even before I start streaming.

Don’t just take my word for it — this methodology has already proven successful. Despite load and congestion peaking at 69% and 80% above pre-COVID-19 baselines, ISPs that have adopted modern QoE metrics have maintained download and upload data speeds into and out of homes. In fact, disruption, load, congestion and optimization surges have increased by a combined 252%, yet many ISPs have managed to maintain network speeds within a 7% variation while ensuring device experience is preserved with the use of QoE.

The connected smart home is far more complex than it used to be, and the airwaves are only getting busier. But staying current and addressing new challenges doesn’t need to be difficult. It’s time we ditch outdated methods of measuring performance and adopt a modern approach that looks more deeply at a home’s connected digital health to ensure each and every device is happy. After all, happy devices equate to happy customers, and customer satisfaction is what drives new subscriptions, deepens penetration and prevents churn.

Bill McFarland is chief technology officer of Plume, a Palo Alto, California-based provider of whole-home WiFi products and services.