Not All Whole-Home WiFi Is Created Equal

WiFi is the foundation for the super-connected home. With escalating device counts, increased video streaming, and the rise of the Internet of Things, the need for a new approach to whole-home WiFi has never been clearer. But, not all whole-home WiFi solutions are created equal.

Retailers are aggressively marketing new kinds of whole-home WiFi solutions to consumers that circumvent service providers. At the same time, service providers have an array of whole-home WiFi choices from suppliers. In evaluating what to do, several key things should be considered.

Retail vs. Managed Solution
Improving in-home WiFi should not be a consumer’s problem to solve. Most consumers are not IT experts – nor should they be. In fact, survey research commissioned by AirTies across the U.S. and UK found that nearly 80% of consumers would prefer that all their WiFi equipment be supplied by their service providers – versus having to try to solve this issue on their own. There is a comparable history lesson from DVRs, which first gained popularity in retail, until operators seized on the opportunity themselves. WiFi remains the number one customer care call for many service providers. Service providers cannot afford to cede this new market opportunity to retail competitors.

Multiple Access Points: Tree vs. Mesh Topology
There is a growing consensus that multiple WiFi access points are required to provide consistent, quality coverage throughout the home. One approach is a “tree” topology whereby WiFi is extended from the core gateway using repeaters/extenders that can only make a single path to the gateway node without any alternative paths for in home data flow between devices. Another is to use a “mesh” topology whereby every extender connects with each other simultaneously to manage data flow dynamically.

New advances in repeater technology and adaptive cloud management software, coupled with a rise in devices that support 802.11v, can certainly make a multi-AP tree topology more effective that having a single WiFi router in the home. However, there are some key issues to consider.

Most homes have numerous legacy devices that lack 802.11v support, meaning the gateway can’t be relied upon to command a device to connect to a closer AP, thus increases latency and bandwidth consumption. For devices that can, the AP switch can cause an interruption in the signal flow as the transfer to the new AP occurs. Such disruptions can impact streaming video quality, especially live broadcasts, a “no-no” for many service providers. Most repeaters also cannot prioritize video over other in-home network traffic. In addition, simply forcing a device to connect to the closest AP isn’t always the best option based on network conditions, if that closest AP has more hops compared to a slightly further gateway.

Tree topologies rely heavily on the gateway for network intelligence, which presents its own challenges. Most gateways do not support WiFi’s Wireless Distribution System (WDS) technology. Implementing a repeater technology without supporting WDS requires a manipulation of users’ device MAC addresses when roaming between gateway and repeater nodes, which often creates problems such as a DHCP server assigning a new IP address, device applications getting disconnected, or connection drops. In addition, a single gateway can only measure the interference from where it’s located, thus it may not make the best WiFi channel selection for extenders in the home, which may be experiencing very different network conditions. Repeaters also do not obey the rules of regulators for radar detection, because they ignore radar signals detected by the repeater which is located in a different location compared to the gateway node.

Mesh systems, in contrast, rely on more sophisticated approach because every extender has the intelligence to participate in determining optimal use of aggregate resources.

The internet itself is based on a similar principle. Mesh technology avoids the inherent challenge with tree topology-based repeaters because it uses WDS protocol, which employs additional MAC address fields to carry the original MAC address of the client devices when they roam between the gateway and extenders, enabling fast and seamless roaming. Mesh systems also fully comply with DFS rules as the radar channels are vacated even when only one extender detects a radar signal.

When evaluating Mesh systems, ISPs must consider whether it can continuously calculate the best data route and dynamically adjust to changing conditions in real-time, based on the number of active devices, the traffic profile, and any QoS required. This intelligent routing should also enable client steering, which dynamically connects devices to the best available WiFi channel and frequency (2.4GHz or 5GHz), based on actual network conditions in the home to ensure optimal performance. The system should be able to leverage client steering to sequester slow performing devices so they don’t degrade the performance of other devices in the home, and should work with any legacy WiFi device, which account for most of all devices in use today -- not just those with 802.11v/k/r.

Other considerations
Selecting the right in-home hardware is not enough. Service providers should also consider whether their whole-home WiFi software is portable across original equipment manufacturers and chipset suppliers. They should also look for a cloud-based solution that can provide real-time monitoring, analytics, and remote control of in-home WiFi to assist field technicians, call center operators, and subscribers.  

Service providers now realize that they can either view WiFi as a problem, or as a significant new opportunity. Relying on outdated WiFi is no longer a viable option. Subscribers demand and deserve more. Fortunately, new innovations in whole-home WiFi will enable service providers to reap the benefits, including: competitive differentiation, the ability to upsell subscribers to higher broadband plans or generate new monthly subscription revenue, and to better serve all of their subscribers.

Metin Taskin is CTO and co-founder of AirTies.

[Image Source:  Best  Buy]