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WiFi ‘Volcanos’ No Longer Cut It

Like the DVR before it, WiFi is rapidly become a component of a cable operators’ whole-home product set.

Thanks to the Internet of Things alongside the proliferation of tablets, laptops, video streamers, smartphones and gaming consoles hanging off the home network, and the demands of over-the-top video and other bandwidth-eating apps, simply installing one primary WiFi access point is not enough to carry the load. The shift is toward smart, mesh-based, multi-AP setups that provide a quality wireless connection to all corners of the customer’s home.

About 47 million connected home devices shipped globally in 2015, a number that will explode to 477 million in 2020, according to a forecast from IHS..

“The idea of having a single volcano, a single WiFi access point, is starting to reach its end,” Charles Cheevers, chief technology of consumer premises equipment at Arris, said.  

“We’ve been preaching the fact that multiple, coordinated access points is an effective way to tackle this problem,” Philippe Alcaras, CEO of AirTies, added. “Coordinated access points and mesh [architectures] solve this problem. We’ve been preaching in the dark for a while now and see some other companies doing that quite successfully, in retail mostly.”

Indeed, companies like eero, which cut its teeth on a retail model for its whole-home WiFi products, are now pushing forward with product strategies focused on the service provider market. 

“Our key premise is that if you are going to have great coverage in your home, you have to have multiple access points. There's just no way around that,” Nick Weaver, eero’s CEO, said, noting that his company is making some “pretty big investments” in its new ISP-focused business strategy.  Of recent note, eero has hired Matt Packard, late of TiVo and SeaChange International, as head of operator sales and business development, with a focus on cable, satellite and telco providers.

“The ISP vertical and the MVPD [multichannel video programming distributor] vertical are critical because they drive a lot of unit volume,” Weaver said. “For us, it’s important that we tap into this market…We've had quite a bit of contact across a whole range of potential partners.”

And operators appear to be getting the message that they need to be doing more.

Midco, Frontier Communications and Sky in the U.K. (for its next-gen SkyQ whole-home video offering) are examples of partners that are using AirTies’s WiFi APs and associated software to deliver whole-home WiFi service and product options.

In addition to filling gaps and applying a halo effect on their cable modem service, these offerings can also carve out a new revenue stream.

Midco, for example, is using AirTies gear for a whole-home offering that runs $7.95 per month, a price that includes up to three devices, with extras running an additional $2 per month.

Making that kind of offering available on top of the MSO’s broadband service is now a differentiator for some ISPs, but it’s rapidly becoming table stakes as consumers demand more from their providers than a quality high-speed connection.

“We realized that the customer’s perception of their home network is very important, because that reflects on our network,” Jon Pederson, chief technology officer of Midco, said. “We decided to take that extra step over the threshold and really help them [our customers] out in that regard.”

RELATED: Frontier, AirTies Make Home WiFi Connection

Midco launched that offering initially in Sioux Falls, S.D., and has been ratcheting up the marketing behind it ever since. The results have been “more positive than we expected,” Brian Oyen, Midco’s senior manager of operations support, said.

“It’s not just a matter of numbers that’s been positive,” Pederson added. “It’s also been about customer perception among those that have it.”

And whole-home WiFi is not just about the strategic placement of access points. Vendors are also pairing that with smart, software-based systems.

In the case of AirTies, it’s mesh platform and APs work together to steer signals and the mobile devices on the home network to the nearest access point, and collects anonymous data that helps its system understand, measure – and fix --the behavior of the devices in the home.

“It needs to be managed and it needs to be monitored all the time,” Alcaras said, citing data showing that 20% to 30% of calls into operators about broadband are WiFi-related.

In addition to selling products directly to MVPDs and ISPs, AirTies also has a licensing program that gives those partners the ability to sub-license AirTies technology to their broadband gateway vendors.

RELATED: Sky Meshes With Whole-Home Video

“For any operator that is serious about whole home WiFi…needs to have the technology embedded in the gateway,” he said.

Eero, meanwhile, pairs its in-home devices with a cloud controller that monitors how the network is performing and sends out occasional software updates to its devices in the field.

“It’s kind of like your admin in the sky,” Weaver said. “But at no point are we looking at where people are going on the Internet. It’s about gathering anonymous diagnostic data that can be used to improve the product.”

Cheevers agrees that managed systems, such as those that could operate on the company’s own Arris Home Network Controller  and ECO management system, offer a better solution than so-called WiFi “repeaters” that some consumers use today.

“They’re loved, but they’re also hated,” Cheevers said of those WiFi repeaters. While they can provide some extra signal strength to the bedroom, they are woefully inefficient because they chew up valuable bandwidth to send and receive.

And that becomes an issue as more video travels the home network, and as consumers continue to gravitate to heavy duty 4K video.

Arris has been expanding its whole-home systems for MSO partners, but has also been focused on it at retail with the recent launch of a line of ‘SURFboard’-branded routers and extenders that uses WiFi in tandem with a wired backbone that relies on powerline-based technology.

Cheevers also views new 2.5 version of the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) platform, which enables up to 2.5 Gbps over in-home coaxial networks, as a platform that is well-suited as a wired, in-home backbone to enable whole-home coverage.

And those solid whole-home wireless/wired hybrids will also become increasingly important as MSOs start to focus more heavily on wireless set-tops.

“The last thing you want as an operator is a WiFi set-top with marginal performance,” Cheevers said. “That has to be pretty bulletproof.”