There have been recently a lot of announcements around improving the residential Wi-Fi play. These innovations are happening on two fronts. The first is better coverage through mesh networks or easier-to-add access nodes. The second is by offering network based services such as security or parental controls through Wi-Fi routers.
Mesh Networks in the home
Mesh networks aims at solving the problem of coverage, largely within the home. The concept of mesh networks is all but new. IEEE 802.11s is an IEEE 802.11 amendment for mesh networking, defining how wireless devices can interconnect to create a WLAN mesh network. Wireless mesh network device (Mesh STAs) form mesh links with one another, over which mesh paths can be established using an ad hoc mobile routing protocol. A key aspect of this architecture is the presence of multi-hop wireless links and routing of packets through other nodes towards the destination nodes.
In the traditional approach to mesh, hops introduce latency, and reduce throughput. Several vendors are trying to provide their own secret sauce to solving the coverage/capacity trade-off.
We see increasingly in the market mesh network gateways with a core gateway and either nodes or repeaters that go with it; in many cases, the package the consumer gets has three or four devices such as from vendors Eero or Plume. The underlying principle is simple: A centralized gateway architecture with a multi-node mesh solution provides coverage throughout the home, with nodes placed, for instance, on an upstairs floor, the main floor and maybe the garage or a basement, creating a resilient network. If one node goes down, another is there in the mesh.
We spoke to Plume who is deploying its solution with Comcast with the aim of resolving not only the coverage problem but also the need to provide more visibility to ISPs on what is going on inside the home where ISPs had no visibility. Plume has some heavyweight investors which include Comcast, Liberty Global, Shaw Cable, Japan Cable, among others. Plume delivers a network management layer with unified control plane which allows for dynamic resource management, self-optimizing to interference, band steering, load balancing.
Nodes are called pods and Plume reports about 6 pods for each access point. It has been deployed in hundreds of thousands of homes through direct retailing aimed at building a critical mass of big data coming from real deployments in turn feeding software development. This is a necessary step before launching next year in millions of homes through either a hardware replacement or a firmware download.
On the silicon side, Qualcomm announced in June its Mesh Networking Platform, which not only recognizes the forthcoming 802.11ax standard but also pays heed to talking assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and Samsung’s new Bixby. It claims over 90% of OEMs are already using its mesh reference design.including Linksys, Google, Samsung, TP-Link, ASUS, Plum, Ubiquity.
This is labeled as Mesh 2.0 which introduces beam forming, voice control and the on-boarding of IoT devices through the IoT connectivity suite. It is designed to help ensure compatible and simultaneous use of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and CSR mesh connectivity and 802.15.4-based technologies across a network while also supporting previously communication protocols, cloud services and software frameworks.
Mesh 1.0 introduced self-optimizing networks in the home and features like dynamic channel selection and MCS rate. To resolve the issue of coverage, a dedicated radio is used for backhaul. The Platform includes support for a variety of backhaul options that can be used to maximize the performance of mesh networks, including 802.11ac, 802.11ad, 802.11ax or Powerline technologies.
Qualcomm is also making application programming interfaces available for easier porting of its SON onto other silicon platforms, and enabling cloud-based diagnostics and analytics. The new platform has the potential to bridge the “islands of connectivity” that exist in many homes today when different technologies connect different devices. Even though Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Zigbee all operate in the 2.4 GHz band, Qualcomm claims it has developed a way to manage all of them without interference.
Mesh in High-Density Environments
Mesh Wi-Fi is also being deployed outside the home. Edgewater Wireless Systems says it can solve what is a Wi-Fi problem with Wi-Fi itself. It believes that a fundamental innovation is needed from the traditional Wi-Fi architecture. Edgewater advocates the use of more channels allocated to the backhaul dynamically instead of using a single channel architecture as in the traditional approach. Interference is dynamically dealt with and roaming occurs between channels.
Andrew Skafel from Edgewater added “mesh is not new for Wi-Fi and the outcomes of using the traditional, single channel architecture are widely known. The only way to progress the mesh agenda is to fundamentally adapt the radio architecture to address the demands of mesh, density and interference. He added “Traditional single-channel Wi-Fi approach is not designed with high density in mind – resulting in declining performance and data rates”. To prove his point, Skafel directed us to some detailed MIT studies which measure the performance gains of multi-channel radios for mesh. Having more available channels in a coverage area allows certain channels to be dedicated to the mesh link, reducing traffic congestion within mesh while reserving spectrum for clients.
As background, Edgewater developed a chipset designed specifically for the access point market. Using standards compliant Wi-Fi, they have implemented multiple, concurrent channels from a single radio — allowing features such as SSA, integrated Spectral Surveillance Architecture — supporting mesh as well. Their Wifi3 is said to offer the highest channel density in the industry, unlocking Multi-Channel Air Interference maximum frequency reuse & planning potential to deliver capacity. It is worth noting that Edge Wireless is pursuing to resolve the issue of capacity and coverage in high density environments such as stadiums, concert halls, airports, etc.
Based on work with CableLabs, Edgewater is seeing many of the challenges associated with high-density venues and public migrating to the home market. With the growing proliferation of IoT, any cable operators are planning for 50 or more devices in the home. There is a tsunami of wireless devices is headed to the home market and the challenges faced in high-density stadiums and public areas will be coming to homes near you! You could say that homes are becoming high-density wireless zones too.
The need for better residential coverage and interoperability between protocols will be necessary in the generally connected smart IoT home.