It is rare that two sworn WiFi technology enemies, such as Broadcom and Quantenna, go ahead and license the same technology, but this week Quantenna put out a release which read very similarly to a statement Broadcom made a few months back. Both related to the licensing of AirTies’ mesh technology for operators.
What lurks behind these mirrored announcements is a fundamental change to the way WiFi is being installed in homes by broadband operators, and at the heart of that change is likely to be a contract with at least one of the largest US providers.
The answer is not in AirTies’ current customer list of AirTies – which in the US includes only Atlantic Broadband, Frontier and Midco, not big enough to force rival WiFi firms to adopt external software. So this is likely to point to adoption by one of the Tier 1 operators.
The first time we heard the expression “hardware has gone as far as it can in WiFi” was about four years ago. Now the time really has come for software to take control. Operators can no longer just put a very powerful, very clever chip in a home gateway and expect WiFi to be available all around the home. Instead, they also need several key pieces of software and a commitment to work with more than one access point to get good full-home wireless coverage even for high quality video.
This is what AirTies claims to provide. The key pieces of its software control a number of aspects of WiFi. They support frequent use of DFS (dynamic frequency selection), rather than just once at start-up, so that the best channel is always used for a given video stream. They support ‘one-button push’ set-up of a home mesh, and to extend it every time a new AP is added; plus the meshing calculations which provide the best route for packets in a particular combined home networking environment.
Other capabilities include client steering – making the device select the right node of a mesh to attach to – and band steering, which selects whether to attach to a 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz link. These both protect against a sticky client or a bad apple, infamous problems that beamforming hardware just made worse. And finally, there is software to report back and allow a helpdesk to diagnose and fix problems on a remote AP.
AirTies says that an operator can now combine access points based on Quantenna and Broadcom technology in a WiFi home system. They could use the very powerful Quantenna 8×8 MIMO chips, or one of the slightly less powerful 4×4 options, or even a dual-mode system (8×8 plus 4×4). These can now be paired with less developed, cheaper Broadcom chips. That way they can get the best of both worlds and run the software-based mesh across all of a home’s access points. AirTies software can currently support up to 6 APs in a single home mesh.
Out there somewhere is an operator driving this close partnership between software and hardware on WiFi. We suspect it is a telco because at present telco broadband is not quite as good as cable. The shift will be a simple proposition, taking a home gateway, then adding not an extender, but a mesh AP, the difference being that the two together can work cooperatively, rather than separately, solving the whole home WiFi issue. An extender does not know what is going on in the remainder of a WiFi deployment, whereas a meshed AP does.
Now if we worked at Qualcomm Atheros and saw this licensing deal, we would probably be knocking on the door to take our own deal, and the same goes for Ralink or Marvell and even Israel’s Celeno (although it has demonstrated some similar software of its own).
That will immediately make AirTies into a different business. Yes it still has incumbent home gateway and set-top customers – for instance, its own technology is inside the Sky Q box in Europe and at Swisscom. But slowly AirTies is becoming a software company, with IPR assets and licensing revenues, and should not have to build set-tops and gateways for much longer.
At the same time, set-top vendors like Arris are also likely to have to license this technology or at least use the chips that support it, in their box designs. It would be better for AirTies not to compete with its biggest customers, and we could see it selling off its manufacturing business, and its direct client relationships in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe, and becoming entirely a WiFi licensing business.
In future WiFi built this way can obviate the need for any other home network and technologies like MoCA may come under threat, as today that is often sold as a home backbone for multiple WiFi networks.
“AirTies and Quantenna have been successfully working together to deliver best in class video and mesh solutions for years. This partnership is the next step in our business relationship,” said Philippe Alcaras, AirTies CEO. “AirTies mesh software can leverage Quantenna’s large footprint in high performance WiFi deployments with service providers around the globe.”