Connecting and managing all corners of the wireless network are now key components of broadband
7/31/2017 8:00 AM Eastern
For cable operators and other internet service providers, offering a solid broadband service no longer ends where the wire connects to the home. Now that most devices in the home are wireless, the responsibility of the ISP has rapidly shifted beyond modems and integrated WiFi gateways to tightly integrated, whole-home setups that extend coverage to every nook and cranny of the premises. Until recently, whole-home WiFi had been the primary domain of relatively expensive retail products tailored for tech-savvy consumers who don’t mind doing things themselves. However, the costs of those products continue to drop, opening the door to core and premium offerings that aim to drive retention alongside some new, incremental revenues while still being simple enough for the masses to install and manage. That has created opportunities for vendors. Among them, AirTies has hooked up with several ISPs, including Atlantic Broadband, Frontier Communications, and Midco. Eero, which has been focused on retail, has teamed with Blue Ridge Communications on a setup that includes the supplier’s WiFi access points and security solutions. And Cable One has launched WiFi One, a product set designed to boost wireless coverage in the home using a mix of gateways from Arris and Hitron, as well as Hitron-made WiFi extenders. Those examples are coming into focus as WiFi becomes the de facto means of accessing the internet in the home for most consumers, with some estimates showing that 86% of all in-home broadband now travels over WiFi. According to Cisco Systems’s latest Visual Networking Index study, 63% of all internet protocol traffic will be wireless (including WiFi and cellular), and 98.1% of broadband consumer premises equipment will be equipped with 802.11ac WiFi by 2021. Top of Mind WiFi has also become synonymous with internet connectivity in the minds of many consumers. “When we ask customers what is the internet, most tell you that the internet is WiFi,” Cox Communications vice president of product strategy and management Philip Nutsugah said. With that in mind, Atlanta-based Cox has pushed ahead with the national launch of Panoramic WiFi, a premium-level, whole-home WiFi service that starts at $9.99 per month. That offering centers on a modem/WiFi router with a DOCSIS 3.0 modem and WiFi extenders that utilize MoCA 2.0 technology and cost an additional $4 each per month. Panoramic WiFi also includes a customized installation, 24/7 support and access to My WiFi, a network management app for iOS and Android mobile devices. With the emergence of the smart home and the Internet of Things, WiFi is becoming the “critical last foot, last yard inside the home,” Nutsugah said. Other major ISPs have also taken notice and are doing something about it. “We knew two-and-a-half years ago that we needed to do something different in the WiFi space,” Eric Schaefer, Comcast senior vice president and general manager, communications, data and mobility services, explained. An average of 9.7 devices are connected to Comcast’s gateways at any given time, he said, adding that the MSO expects that number to grow to about 50 in the next three to four years. In another nod to the proliferation of WiFi, about 90% of Comcast’s XB3 gateways don’t have anything connected to their Ethernet ports. For Comcast, ‘xFi’ Marks the Spot Comcast is targeting this opportunity with xFi, a cloud-based platform launched in May. It enables consumers to manage their WiFi systems via X1 set-tops, a web portal or mobile apps. Offered free to Xfinity Internet customers, xFi supports millions of compatible devices, including the xFi Wireless Gateway (the rechristened XB3) and the xFi Advanced Wireless Gateway, a new DOCSIS 3.1-based device that used to be known as the XB6. “Our vision is to bring enterprise-grade management to every one of our xFi gateways,” Schaefer said. Later this year, Comcast will complement those gateways with a new line of WiFi “pods” that will fill in coverage gaps in the home. Comcast is developing those in partnership with Plume. (Comcast also led a recent $37.5 million investment round in Plume.) Among its features, xFi enables users to view their WiFi names and passwords, monitor network activity and troubleshoot connection issues. xFi users can also create individual user profiles and organize the devices they use (including giving nicknames to devices), view the devices connected to their home network and adjust their wireless gateway settings. xFi also lets customers “pause” all WiFi access on the home network, and use a “Bedtime Mode” whereby they can automatically pause WiFi access on the home network during scheduled times. Comcast is early into its xFi era, “but overall I’m pleased with where we are with the launch,” Schaefer said. The xFi app for Android devices has received an average ranking of 3.4 (out of 5), based on 311 total reviews, with 148 users giving it a five-star rating. ‘Home Operating System’ Schaefer said the initial batch of features for xFi are somewhat limited, but the platform’s cloud-based nature will allow it to rapidly iterate and tack on new capabilities, as is the case with X1, Comcast’s next-generation video platform. “It’s really the home operating system … that brings everything together in the home the same way X1 brought all of the programming content together on the video side,” Schaefer said of xFi. “You need to manage WiFi and organize it the way you would organize 100 channels of HD or 100,000 hours of VOD.” Comcast intends to add the Plume-based WiFi pod products and software to the mix sometime in Q4, Schaefer said. Those will also be woven into Comcast’s cloud-managed platform, which will make near real-time decisions as conditions ebb and flow in the home. For example, those devices will steer to a different band if the current one experiences interference. “The primary access point remains the gateway and the Plume pods will extend off of that main gateway,” he said. A big challenge, he said, will be managing all of those data transactions across tens of millions of devices, which Comcast will try to handle with its cloud-based platform and the use of RDK-B. That’s the broadband flavor of the Reference Design Kit, the preintegrated software platform for set-tops and gateways managed by Comcast, Liberty Global and Charter Communications (via its acquisition of Time Warner Cable). “It’s a different kind of scale,” Schaefer said. That scale also extends to the workforce. Nutsugah said Cox has trained its technicians to support the new whole-home WiFi product, learning about the importance of elements such as device placement. Providing a more solid WiFi platform will bring some operational benefits, because it will result in fewer customer calls, Nutsugah added. Making Things Simple “Our goal is to take the complexity out of it for the customer and simplify it for them,” Nutsugah said. Plume, which also counts Liberty Global, Samsung, Shaw Ventures and Presidio Ventures (a unit of Jupiter Communications, Japan’s largest cable operator) among its financial backers, entered the whole-home WiFi sector with retail products, but sees partnerships like the one it has with Comcast as the proper path forward. Comcast will be making its own pod designs that integrate Plume’s technology, but Plume has also notched a deal with France’s Sagemcom to make and supply pods to the service provider market. “The service provider angle … has been our plan from the beginning,” Fahri Diner, Plume’s CEO, said. “We’re launching Plume largely to service providers. This is not something that’s optional for [them]. It’s a must-do.” And though Plume sells devices, it views itself mostly as a software company, basing much of its activity on an “adaptive” platform that responds as the wireless conditions in the home change. “Hardware is not the issue,” Diner said. “What was missing is a very advanced control plane that can looks across multiple devices. … Think of us as air-traffic control.” It’s not just about raw connectivity, but connectivity that is optimized for video distribution around the home, Arris chief technology officer of consumer premises equipment Charles Cheevers said. “Managed video over WiFi absolutely needs to be reliable,” he said, noting that the need is becoming more pronounced as pay TV operators expand on the deployment of wireless set-tops. Comcast, for example, has begun to roll out the Xi5, a wireless set-top for its X1 platform.