The home Wi-Fi upgrade we never asked for is coming. The one we need is not
46Gbps to our sofas. At last, freedom from the nightmare of a mere 9.6
Column Magicians, management, and marketing depend on misdirection. A deception that doesn't quite qualify as a lie, it implies something they want you to believe while drawing attention away from questions that would destroy that perception. It's worth learning how to spot these as they highlight exactly the questions you should be asking.
Take last week's story that UK ISP and mobile operator EE is working with comms chip supremo Qualcomm to add Wi-Fi 7 to consumer broadband hubs. News worth knowing, although it would have been a much bigger story had it been that EE was just not going to bother. Faster, more reliable connectivity is always worth having, right? Let's answer that question in a moment, but only after shining the spotlight on a classic bit of misdirection snuggled coyly in plain sight in the messaging from the marketeers. Over to you, Qualcomm's finest.
"Qualcomm said that in current broadband systems, it is nearly impossible to manage for quality of service, given the diversity of devices, applications and connectivity technologies in use, and that these change regularly." The company goes on to say the cure for these woes is a selection of operator-run end-to-end and QoS options. Clever Qualcomm. It's lesson 101 in marketing college to define a problem then offer a fix. Trouble is, the woes listed in the messaging are those that previous versions of services and wireless standards claimed to fix. If they didn't fix them, why should we believe this lot will? If they did, what is Qualcomm actually saying? It's a paradox.
It's also easily fixed. If you've had to configure or troubleshoot Wi-Fi problems in business or for friends, family or yourself, you'll know how many pigs live in that problem sty. Black spots, drop-outs, devices that won't connect, or won't work when they are connected. And so on. It's particularly bad in consumer land, where households and public spaces are filled with an infinite variety of strangely configured devices and their infinitely confused owners. Will Wi-Fi 7 make life better for the access-addicted masses as EE and Qualcomm claim?
No. Wi-Fi 7 is indeed a marvel, with each individual channel four times wider than the entire original 802.11 band in its entirety. With around 500MHz to play with in most of the world and double that in the US, it uses the new 6GHz band and a handful of new techniques to get a headline raw top speed of 46Gbps. Which is genuinely awesome, and as much use to the public as the toilets on the International Space Station. Wi-Fi 6's comparable maximum rate is 9.6Gbps. There is no consumer problem of today, no domestic use case imaginable, where 50Gbps works where 10 will not. The 6GHz band, which in the US actually goes some way beyond 7GHz, is more easily blocked by walls and other physical stuff necessary for gracious living than 5GHz, so coverage problems won't be fixed.
It would be amazing if one in a hundred households notice an iota of difference if their current router magically sprouted Wi-Fi 7, and this won't change much for the years it takes to get phones, laptops, and everything else with older versions of the standard upgraded. Good luck getting those managed end-to-end services up and running too.
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What does make life better for Wi-Fi users and those unfortunates who have to support them isn't to expect more from the ISP's router but to ask much less of it. Put it into modem mode and pass all the packets straight through to a third-party router. Then with full control over everything and running the services you need rather than those the ISP chooses to provide, the complications of reliable, extensible wireless are far more easily dealt with. Pick a router with mesh if you need to extend range. Pick one that can do cellular fallback if you want more reliability. Pick one that has regular firmware updates and hasn't been built down to a price the way so many ISP-provided routers have been. Plus, keeping the ISP-provided device in dumb mode makes it much easier to change ISPs. Not the sort of thing ISPs like.
They do like the idea of having more control over customers, though, which is why the idea of having more services they can sell to buff up tier differentiation is so tempting and why Qualcomm is happy to supply the means. This doesn't mean things will get better for consumers – the evidence is that the more ISPs concentrate on just delivering the bits to order, while letting other parts of the industry develop the specializations and techniques to manage and innovate everything else, the better it all works.
Nobody's expecting consumers to want or be able to manage a full-fat router. The ISPs are never going to go out of their way to encourage a market in anything that reduces their control. Yet there is a global market of billions who could have a better experience if they could plug in a box that managed their broadband needs better than, and independent of, their ISP. That huge potential exists, but we're not supposed to notice. Nor have we. Now that's misdirection. ®