Tech Advances Broaden Options For Boosting Home Wi-Fi QoE

Greg Fisher, CTO, Hitron Technologies Americas

Greg Fisher, CTO, Hitron Technologies Americas

CableLabs’ Tests Show Superior Performance for both Mesh- and Extender-Based Approaches

By Fred Dawson

November 17, 2016 – Network service providers seeking to address customer dissatisfaction over the growing disparity between broadband access speeds and Wi-Fi throughput in the home have a difficult choice to make between mesh- and repeater-based solutions that have proven they can close the gap.

Without naming vendors, CableLabs recently ran tests that showed effectiveness of both approaches to dealing with the typical issues that are driving Wi-Fi-related subscriber complaints, namely simultaneous streaming of video on multiple devices in a big household. As described in a blog by John Bahr, lead architect for wireless technologies at CableLabs, the test results convey “excellent news for consumers whose access to the Internet is wireless and who want that access everywhere in their homes.”

In the fast-moving wireless technology arena, it won’t be long before network operators who rely on Wi-Fi to support connected-device access to their broadband service in the home will be looking at options that go far beyond what’s doable today, including three spectrum-channel access points (APs) and devices that can operate at the 60 GHz tier to support gigabit speeds and LTE and 5G small cells that will be able to operate over unlicensed 5 GHz spectrum. But, for now, with the volume of complaints rising by some counts to close to 50 percent of call-center traffic, the urgency is too great to wait for emerging technologies to mature.

As previously reported, AirTies, a leading proponent of mesh technology, has gained considerable traction with broadband service providers worldwide, including two named customers, Frontier and Midco, and others unnamed in North America since it began focusing sales efforts in this part of the world over a year ago. As Bahr makes clear in his blog, mesh technology, which uses multiple intelligent APs to optimize use of Wi-Fi spectrum throughout the home, has made great strides among cable companies looking for new solutions.

“Mesh Access points (MAPs) are quickly gaining traction in home networks mainly due to ease of installation (even over Repeaters/Extenders) and the promise of high throughput with whole home coverage,” Bahr says. “In the past year, there has been a dizzying array of product announcements and introductions for home Wi-Fi coverage, with many of them using mesh networking.”

As Bahr notes, mesh wireless technology, while new in residential home networking, has been in use with enterprise wireless LANs for the past decade. Simple linear extension of coverage in the home via Wi-Fi AP extenders has been a mainstay in the home networking market even longer.

But, just as mesh technology has benefited from proprietary advances in software and shrinking of form factors, repeater technology, too, has morphed beyond the traditional extender model. A case in point is Hitron Technologies, a leading supplier of DOCSIS modems and AP-equipped gateways, which is utilizing various techniques to enable highly intelligent optimization of Wi-Fi performance in the home with use of extenders.

“Our technology provides control from the gateway that automatically sets up and configures extenders so that there’s always one hop between any device and an AP,” says Greg Fisher, CTO of Hitron Technologies Americas. “We support MoCA to Wi-Fi, Ethernet-to-Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi.”

CableLabs’ tests of mesh and repeater technologies were conducted in a test home utilizing three APs to provide coverage across over 5,000 square seat of space. “We performed throughput, jitter, latency and coverage testing at more than twenty locations in and around the house,” Bahr says.

The test ran two streaming videos at HD bitrates of about 20 Mbps to video clients and a simultaneous feed to a test client. “Both mesh and AP + repeater solutions were able to handle this video throughput, as well as deliver over 50 Mbps throughput throughout the house and even to some areas 20’ outside the house,” Bahr writes.

CableLabs’ goal, he adds, is to help operators move away from dependence on proprietary solutions by defining a standardized “AP Coordination Protocol” that would enable APs to share the information essential to making client steering decisions and performing network maintenance tasks. The organization is working with vendors to come up with such a protocol with no indication yet as to how close they are to consensus.

Meanwhile, the need to limit customer dissatisfaction resulting from Wi-Fi issues that, traditionally, haven’t been regarded as an operator’s responsibility has become an urgent matter with an average of 63 percent of home Wi-Fi users worldwide experiencing issues, according to the 2015 ARRIS Consumer Experience Index report. Moreover, 72 percent of consumers surveyed by ARRIS said that Wi-Fi availability in every room of the home is very or vitally important and 54 percent indicated they are not experiencing the range of coverage they need.

As represented by the AirTies and Hitron strategies, mesh and advanced repeater options constitute very different models for moving forward. Presently, the momentum at least as far as publicity is concerned, appears to be on the side of the mesh solution providers.

Mesh is definitely gaining momentum, says Khin Sandi Lynn, industry analyst at ABI Research. “Wi-Fi mesh network systems are one solution and a newer concept for homes, though enterprises commonly utilize them,” Lynn says. “This technology is beneficial in larger households that suffer from pockets of inadequate coverage, as their broadband routers are strong enough to provide premium coverage to the entire home and all of its connected devices.”

But, she quickly adds, they are expensive, with prices for a three-AP mesh system ranging between $300 and $500, which “could price some residential broadband users out of the market.” That could be mitigated if service providers foot the bill and can get people to pay a subscription fee for an enhanced Wi-Fi service, she says, noting AirTies customer Midco, the Tier 2 U.S, MSO, is now charging $7.95 monthly for such a service.

While Lynn agrees with Bahr that mesh systems are easier for consumers to install, since they are self-forming and self-optimizing, a mixed wired backbone with multiple APs can be more stable, she says. As noted in our previously cited report, AirTies is offering what it calls Hybrid Mesh, which puts the wired home network under control of the mesh system software.

As explained by Bulent Celebi, executive chairman and co-founder of AirTies, Hybrid Mesh selects a combination of wired and Wi-Fi hops to route packets, which, he says, dramatically increases total network capacity. As he notes, this is significantly different from traditional wired/Wi-Fi extender configurations, which treat the wireline as a fixed backbone with no dynamic interplay to ensure optimal connectivity.

A hybrid combination of APs and MoCA or Ethernet wiring is what Hitron’s customers are most inclined toward, says Greg Fisher – but not with mesh on the wireless side. “Most of our customers agree with a non-mesh strategy,” he says. “While we can do Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi, that’s not the preferred mode.”

Hitron, which has emerged as a leading player in DOCSIS modems and gateway routers over the past few years after playing a role as OEM supplier to other brands, is focused on leveraging cloud technology and industry standards to create a home networking environment that can maximize Wi-Fi performance with use of its gateways and extenders.“Hitron’s strategy is to deliver a Wi-Fi experience where the MSO’s demarcation point is the customer’s finger tips,” Fisher says.

One element to this strategy is a new marketing and sales partnership between Hitron and Adaptive Spectrum and Signal Alignment, Inc. (ASSIA), a leading provider of broadband diagnostic and optimization solutions to telecommunications companies globally. Leveraging ASSIA’s machine-learning CloudCheck architecture with an agent solution in Hitron’s gateways, the new system performs real-time analysis taking historical information into account to automatically optimize wireless network environments without operator or user intervention, says Jarrett Miller, vice president of global alliances for ASSIA.

“CloudCheck dynamically optimizes Wi-Fi and provides operators with true visibility into and control over subscriber Wi-Fi environments,” Miller says. “This helps to eliminate, or shorten, inbound calls through the self-healing of subscriber Wi-Fi environments.” In addition, he notes, the system is able to send accurate contextually based recommendations to subscribers to aid them in ensuring extenders are properly placed or in identifying device issues, such as when a dual-mode device capable of using both the 2.4 and 5 GHz spectrum tiers fails to jump to 5 GHz when the traffic over the 2.4 GHz channel is slowing things down.

The Hitron strategy also exploits the capabilities of devices equipped to support the IEEE protocol 802.11k, Fisher says. “As the device moves away from the gateway it automatically channels off and moves over to an extender,” he explains, noting that older devices without 802.11k must be “brute forced” into the transfer, which can take a few seconds. Also, rather than simply always connecting to the AP that provides the strongest signal, 802.11k-enabled devices connect to a more distant AP when the close one is over saturated, enabling higher throughput when there’s little or no contention on the weaker signal.

Along with automating optimization of connectivity, Fisher says the Hitron/CloudCheck combo enables a more robust per-device diagnostics regime than operators get with either SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol), which doesn’t reach beyond the gateway to monitor extenders, or TR-069, the Broadband Forum protocol that’s designed to look at all the CPE. “TR-069 polls every six hours or so when it’s implemented on a public cloud service like Google Web Services,” Fisher says. “We do it every few seconds.”

Operators are able to look at per-device performance to assess the QoS on connectivity to any CPE element, including MoCA as well as Ethernet clients, he adds.  “Analytics across the entire premises footprint allows them to see which devices need help, what steps need to be taken to optimize performance,” he says.

Hitron, which provides commercial-grade as well as residential gateways, counts Charter, Mediacom, Altice, Shaw, Rogers, GCI and Videotron as customers, some of which use its products in both commercial and residential scenarios. Charter is using the gateways just for commercial customers, Fisher says.

With this embedded customer base Hitron clearly is positioned to drive momentum behind the non-mesh approach to advanced Wi-Fi service. It will be interesting to see how these technologies play out as operators move to address the Wi-Fi dissatisfaction issue in the near term.

In the long term, other options to providing robust wireless connectivity loom. We’ll explore these in a forthcoming article.