Safe as houses? The role of Wi-Fi at home – Mobile Europe

Mobile Europe

Published September 22, 2017

For the consumer, home Wi-Fi is anything but simple. But therein lies an opportunity for operators, reports Sue Tabbitt

After decades of preoccupation with national infrastructure and outside coverage, mobile operators have conceded that the new battleground is indoors, where a lot of mobile activity is now concentrated. This is a situation that will only intensify as more smart devices are introduced to the home, requiring a reliable, fast and preferably wireless network.
As much as mobile technologies are advancing, consumers’ reluctance to incur mobile data charges at home and continued poor coverage indoors mean that cellular networks are not going to replace Wi-Fi any time soon. Mobile operators’ attitude to Wi-Fi has evolved accordingly, according to John Delaney, VP for Mobility at IDC Europe. “Eight to 10 years ago, operators came to IDC to understand how much of a competitive threat Wi-Fi was. As the backhaul became overwhelmed, they became more disposed to offloading traffic to Wi-Fi.
“In 5-10 years’ time with fixed-mobile convergence and an access-agnostic IMS control layer, the type of connection will cease to matter.” So rather than try to compete with it, or worry about its erosion of data revenues, operators’ best strategy is to play an active part in home Wi-Fi. The emerging opportunity is to ‘make Wi-Fi work well’. Home-based connectivity is frustratingly complex for users and becoming more rather than less so. With fibre-based broadband, more powerful devices, and a range of Wi-Fi accessories, consumers might have expected speed and coverage to improve.
“Wi-Fi is no different to other networks – traffic is increasing, with more and more powerful devices consuming video, streaming TV and other data-intensive applications such as gaming,” Delaney notes.
Yet the more smart gadgets consumers introduce to home networks, the more common they see service degradation. And pinpointing the problem is rarely straightforward. It could be thick walls, the wrong frequency, interference, a separate problem entirely, or a combination of them all, that is causing problems.
But in 2017 consumers just expect everything to work and if it doesn’t, then what? If they were a business, they’d have proper technology support to diagnose issues and fix them. But without that help, consumers can struggle solving their problems – sometimes a simple router upgrade is enough to provide more control over device-based access and bandwidth consumption.
Left to find their own devices, customers could make matters worse, so it is in service providers’ interests to be proactive, according to Graham Harvey, Head of Wi-Fi Services at communications and technology consultancy and testing specialist Cartesian. “They might decide to source new equipment themselves, adding to the complexity if this introduces new issues,” he notes.
Cartesian advises network operators on how to maximise the customer experience, which it tests in the real world rather than laboratories where conditions are likely to be unrepresentative. Harvey believes solving the ‘whole home’ network experience, including the performance of apps, service responsiveness, device clashes and capacity bottlenecks, is a huge opportunity for operators.
He says: “To deliver a high-performance Wi-Fi experience at home, you need a whole chain of technologies – high-speed broadband, a highperformance router, and suitable devices. Any one of these could be a weak link.
“People hold on to old phones and laptops for example, but if they support old standards they’re like a slow car on the road, slowing down the traffic for everyone else.”
He believes mobile operators need to look at the whole picture, from Wi-Fi devices and well-trained installers and call centre staff, to a feedback loop back to developers who can keep improving the customer experience.
BT, which has long emphasised Wi-Fi as part of its broadband strategy and now positions itself as an end-to-end fixed-mobile operator, is among those to have developed a ‘whole home’ approach. Luke Buxton, Head of Broadband at BT Consumer, says: “The larger the home and the thicker the walls, the more likely it is that customers will experience dead spots. Additionally, older and smaller devices often don’t perform as well over longer ranges and aren’t able to take advantage of the faster speeds from the newest Wi-Fi hubs.”
BT’s solutions include the Smart Hub, which it claims offers the UK’s most powerful Wi-Fi signal compared to rival broadband providers’ routers, and a Whole Home Wi-Fi mesh network system. “This intelligent, self-configuring wireless network cleverly switches to the fastest, strongest and most reliable Wi-Fi signal as users move from room to room,” Buxton explains.
Connectivity begins at home To promote more seamless, non-conflicting WiFi, industry body the Wi-Fi Alliance is promoting a range of initiatives that should simplify home solutions for customers – such as certifications for Wi-Fi in new-build properties. The Alliance is working with service providers and device vendors to ensure that these standards work in a live service environment.
Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Shrikant Shenwai echoes the view that expectations of treating Wi-Fi as a standalone revenue service has morphed into a more strategic view, noting that “Wi-Fi has become the critical enabler between fixed networks in the home and cellular networks on the move, now playing a key role in both”.
In this context, Shenwai agrees that telecoms service providers have an increasingly important role to play – one that’s likely to extend beyond their immediate portfolios to deliver more complete solutions. He points to AT&T’s Digital Life home security and automation system, which consumers can manage via an app on their smartphones; and SK Telecom’s equivalent, provided in partnership with Samsung and LG. Other glimpses of more holistic innovation include Comcast’s XFINITY On Campus, allowing university students to stream live TV to their devices via their campus network, a service that depends on good Wi-Fi.
Orange is also proactively embracing the ‘whole home’ as a strategic priority. In April it announced an Intelligent Wi-Fi solution which adapts to household usage, as well as a decision to virtualise aspects of its Livebox wireless router, so that more controls are managed in the network rather than via a box in the home.
Nick Sampson, Orange’s Director of Wireless Access and Core Network Standardisation, says: “We agree that operators need to take a more proactive and holistic approach, and this is what we are trying to do. Simplicity of use is a key focus, so that consumers can use services without pain.”
Beyond rethinking the way products and services come together, Orange believes it needs to do more to educate consumers, for example about common causes of Wi-Fi performance degradation, and to provide more managed Wi-Fi services including installation and assured ease of use – not just via Livebox, but also through customer apps.
Although ultimately this could boost service usage and revenues, the immediate goal is to improve the customer experience. “We’re looking very proactively at fixed-mobile convergence: a common core network,” Sampson says. “The goal is to provide a seamless solution to customers that uses the most appropriate network at the time.”
Get Smarter
Of course, mobile operators are unlikely to be able to do everything themselves: many of their service innovations will depend on smart devices and intelligent software to route and manage wireless traffic. ARRIS, for example, provides Wi-Fi devices and solutions which are used by service and content providers including Liberty Global, Altice and NOS in Europe.
Charles Cheevers, ARRIS’s CTO for Customer Premises Equipment, believes a number of device-side developments will help propel the home Wi-Fi experience forward. “Older devices that support 802.11n will diminish,” he says. “Newer devices are getting better radio support, with 2x2 [two antennas supporting two data streams] being common and high-end laptops supporting even 3x3 [three antennas, three data streams and so on]. Meanwhile, devices like the iPhone can support 400Mbps+ and users like the snappiness of Wi-Fi performance at speed.”
However, televisions, another increasingly heavy user of Wi-Fi, need additional support, Cheevers says. “For smart TVs, Wi-Fi performance is poor and typically needs to be augmented with a better Wi-Fi set-top box [such as one able to support constant 4K HDR rates of 25Mbps+]. We see 2x2 Wi-Fi set-top boxes only working when the home is supported with an extender; 4x4 or 2x4 is required in the set-top box when the home does not have good coverage.”  
Then there are personal assistants, which bring their own set of issues. Edward Finegold, Director of Strategy at network management software company Netcracker, claims the digital assistant is the fastest growing component of the connected, in-home experience and many homes have more than one. “Voice control changes how people interact with their Wi-Fi environment,” he says. So any in-home Wi-Fi strategy will need to take that into account.
However, televisions, another increasingly heavy user of Wi-Fi, need additional support, Cheevers says. “For smart TVs, Wi-Fi performance is poor and typically needs to be augmented with a better Wi-Fi set-top box [such as one able to support constant 4K HDR rates of 25Mbps+]. We see 2x2 Wi-Fi set-top boxes only working when the home is supported with an extender; 4x4 or 2x4 is required in the set-top box when the home does not have good coverage.”
Then there are personal assistants, which bring their own set of issues. Edward Finegold, Director of Strategy at network management software company Netcracker, claims the digital assistant is the fastest growing component of the connected, in-home experience and many homes have more than one. “Voice control changes how people interact with their Wi-Fi environment,” he says. So any in-home Wi-Fi strategy will need to take that into account.
However the home Wi-Fi opportunity plays out, operators that underestimate it do so at their peril. “When you see numbers pointing to more than 400 percent growth in Wi-Fi homespots across Europe in just the last few years, it suggests the home may be critical,” Finegold concludes. “It makes sense to become a primary provider of what is fast becoming a utility service. There are many major players vying for a position in this space, so operators need to stake their claim.
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