The Next Big Thing in Wi-Fi? Multiple access points in every home

It's all a bit of a mesh. Oh and expect a patent battle

Opinion Faultline suspects there is going to be a patents battle in Wi‑Fi mesh software. The reason this is important is because of a second suspicion: that operators around the world will move lock, stock and barrel to multiple Wi-Fi Access Points in each home, potentially doubling or even trebling the number of devices in next generation Wi‑Fi.

A side-effect of this is likely to be more robust in‑home Wi‑Fi, a dramatic reduction in retail Wi‑Fi devices and a reducing need for wired backhaul in most homes. And it all comes down to technical improvements we have been writing about at Faultline for the past six or seven years.

Faultline managed to conclude all of this from one telephone conversation this week with Irvind Ghai, the Qualcomm Atheros VP Product Management, in charge of Wi‑Fi mesh.

First, let’s go back about eight months, when American globo-corp Comcast came out with a surprise announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show and said that by the end of 2017 it would offer software which would allow both the consumer and a remote help desk to control how Wi‑Fi is operating. It also said it would roll this out to all of its 15 million Xfinity customers in the US. Back in May it followed this up by saying it had signed a deal with US firm Plume (nee Wildfire.Exchange) and Comcast took a shareholding in the company.

Ghai revealed that all those Plume devices can have Atheros chips inside them, not too surprising since it was started by ex-Atheros people, but essentially Plume is supposed to be hardware-agnostic. But more to the point, they will work with a Comcast X3 router* which also has an Atheros chip inside it, so as Plume Adapts its technology all those chips at Comcast Xfinity could come out of Atheros.

At 15 million homes in the United States, and three access points per home, that should be some 45 million chips – in a year. In a country where there are only 118 million homes, that’s a lot of chips.

Extenders, interference, band-steering – what a mesh!

Ghai also said that he has two more tier 1 accounts which he cannot reveal as yet, which will show their hands this year, and we have already seen Broadcom and Quantenna licensing software very akin to Plume mesh software from Turkish firm AirTies, and have suggested that this is to retain supply deals with someone big, possibly AT&T. AirTies has already licensed Sky in the UK, Germany and Italy with its Wi‑Fi Mesh technology which even allows for powerline as an alternative backhaul, where 5 GHz Wi‑Fi signals are not clear enough.

So that’s around four of the US majors about to go to market with very aggressive and very similar services covering as many as 74 million homes over the next few years and at three access points per home using up 222 million access points. Potentially this will also improve performance for any Homespot based Wi‑Fi network, like the one that Comcast will use to support its new Xfinity mobile service. Fundamentally this next generation all relies on mesh, and the key ingredient of any mesh system is that each access point knows what is going on with the other access points in the mesh.

They know if they change channel and have access to channel state information stored for neighbouring channels, in case they have to jump to a spare channel, which is less congested. For instance they know if they have a neighbouring access point from next door interfering and reducing their performance level even if they cannot witness that directly, but get it from another mesh node.

Until now most retail products which have targeted improving your home Wi‑Fi in the US, have focused on selling extender products which work in exactly the same way, except that they do not share information, they merely pass on the signal.

This makes the Wi‑Fi vulnerable to local interference and unable to offer client-steering and band-steering features. The emergence of Plume as a retail product is meant to do away with this. It is a genuine mesh product which has controlling software in the cloud, which takes all of this information that the mesh has, and takes clever policy decisions on how your Wi‑Fi should work.

It uses client steering, which is where the network decides which access point is best for a particular client, and band steering, where it decides whether 2.4GHz or 5GHz is best for the client. It is tough to work out how much of this is native on the Qualcomm chips and how much is managed by the Plume software.

But Plume has the job of integrating its tiny devices which are little more than electrical plugs with radios and antennas attached, which take an existing Wi‑Fi signal and spread it around the home in an intelligent mesh. With the Comcast service they have to get the existing router to become part of the mesh, and this can then report back to a cloud server with all the home network’s data.

It’s really a hybrid of what Plume was originally trying to do. This is a fantastic improvement for an operator’s help desk, which can avoid a huge percentage of truck rolls, because it knows by using that cloud data, what is going on with the home Wi‑Fi network. It can then use client steering and other facilities like cutting off a troublesome device or putting one device Wi‑Fi to sleep, to stop whatever is wrong with the network.

The next step is to anticipate these changes and do them automatically and also to put them in the hands of the customer, who can control things through an app, such as putting their children’s devices’ Wi‑Fi connections to sleep, when they the child is supposed to sleep. Add stuff like a cloud based parental control and you have a tons of reasons to take your Wi‑Fi from your operator, not from retail. Ghai didn’t like our conclusion that this would lead to more operator controlled Wi‑Fi, but conceded that many of the reasons people first went to a retail store and swapped out their home router, is because of problems with Wi‑Fi penetration around the home, and out of a desire to have some control over it, when it went wrong.

AirTies has already landed three tier 2 deals in the US and Israeli rival Celeno has also claimed that it has a tier 1 account coming in the US.

It was then that Ghai referenced one of our articles citing both Broadcom and Quantenna licensing the software from AirTies, and said that Plume could do similar licenses.

The patents

We looked at the patents which are now attributed to Plume, having begun life as Wildfire.Exchange and saw that it has patents dating back to 2012 relating to things such as Wi‑Fi authentication from a cloud AAA server; Dynamic channel selection algorithms; hidden nodes detection; optimization of Wi‑Fi access points – all things which are precisely what we have seen coming out of AirTies in the 2011 time frame.

If they ever go to court on who invented what first, it looks that many of the Plume patents might not survive. Since they are both suddenly falling back into a licensing model with the “big” players in the US market – people who use equipment suppliers who also dominate outside the US market – then with the world’s Wi‑Fi ready to enter a new generation, there will be everything to play for. And that’s usually when companies do one of two things: they either license everything from everyone, or they go to court in patent claims.

It will be interesting to see which way the world goes in this instance. Plume originally came to market with what it called a “routerkiller” which intelligently balanced home bandwidth between devices and offered plug-in pods for $49 each, which extend Wi‑Fi throughout the home.

But someone needs to operate the DOCSIS or ADSL modem to bring the broadband line into the home, and then that signal needs to be delivered into the Plume devices, usually by plugging the two together over an ethernet cable.

Comcast is integrating its xFi service into a unified experience and will this year release its own xFi pods (from Plume) which can pair with Comcast’s gateways to mesh Wi‑Fi throughout the home.

In the mean time we’d like to know whatever happened to Qualcomm’s own Streamboost (a cloud based QoS system) and its WiSON (Wi‑Fi Self Organizing Network) which tapped similar capabilities to those it is now boasting major US operators are about to bring out using Plume.

WiSON was supposed to deliver corner-to-corner Wi‑Fi around the home, as well as automated management and Netgear, Linksys D‑Link, TP‑Link ASUS and HiveSpot all said last year they are using it. It seems that the deals it does with operators put Qualcomm in competition with these suppliers.

Ghai commented, “The retail supply chain knows it has to innovate and get to 802.11AX early, and bring in things like voice integration to stay ahead of operators.” Given that Comcast has 13 million voice remotes already, we cannot see a Comcast home being tempted by voice integration.

Copyright © 2017, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.


* Do bear in mind the Comcast X3 router, and similar gateways, that use the Intel Puma 6 chipset can suffer from noticeable latency issues that have upset broadband subscribers worldwide. Your mileage may vary. Caveat emptor. – ed.

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