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Comcast’s new Wi-Fi solution points the way — but isn’t the final destination

Posted by Todd Mersch on 6 June 2017

Previously, we’ve taken a close look at the approach MSOs have had to Wi-Fi management, in particular Comcast’s Advanced Wireless Gateway. While delivering an improved Wi-Fi router and application gave the appearance of taking Wi-Fi management seriously, it didn’t address the main issue that consumers have with home Wi-Fi: they want it to perform better and more reliably. Consumers want to be able to connect to Wi-Fi wherever they are in the home, don’t want to suffer interference from neighbouring access points, and they want the Wi-Fi connection to be able to meet the needs of the application they are using, whether it’s low latency for gaming or high bandwidth for 4K streaming.

Comcast’s newest announcement, however, may go some way to giving customers better Wi-Fi. According to Ars Technica:

Comcast’s recent decision to invest heavily in Plume, hop onto its board of directors, and offer it directly to their own customers via inside sales channel a potential game-changer…later this year, Comcast customers who have been using the company-provided equipment will be able to purchase Plume pods directly from Comcast…customers won’t need to replace their existing (Comcast) router or change their network settings—they can just add pods.

This approach to delivering a Wi-Fi solution as an operator should be applauded. It is also common sense as the majority of customers blame their operator for Wi-Fi issues even if they bought the router themselves. Comcast’s approach means they can offer disappointed customers a solution: customers can buy extra Plume pods to fill in the gaps the primary Wi-Fi router from Comcast doesn’t reach, so the customers are happy as well as more profitable to Comcast and less likely to churn.

However, the wireless “mesh” that Plume provides is only really a temporary stopgap, an interim solution that won’t solve the issues with Wi-Fi in the long term. Last month Light Reading reported on the performance of several mesh networks, including Plume, against a Wi-Fi network that used MoCA (data over coax cable) as the backhaul. The results were that MoCA delivered 800 Mbps or better downlink Wi-Fi performance in all homes, while Plume was unable to reach even 200 Mbps.

Comcast — and all MSOs — need to think of Wi-Fi as an extension of their infrastructure. The Comcast approach is reminiscent of mobile operators wading into the femtocell space. MNOs attempted to sell consumers a product that fixed the operators coverage issue. We all know how well that has worked out. So while, the addition of a retail solution like Plume is a great start, this approach won’t provide the speed, bandwidth and control needed for new use cases. 4K streaming television across multiple devices in the home, for example, will be difficult to deliver. When customers hit the limit of what this solution is capable of, they will look elsewhere, and this will mean ditching Comcast’s solution, making the customer far more likely to churn. Additionally, if service providers intend to deliver more applications on top of the home wireless network – like wireless streaming of 4K, virtual reality, and so on – the gap in performance will become even more apparent.

So, if a mesh solution is just part of the journey towards a home Wi-Fi service, what does the destination look like? The right solution, that will deliver the best experience for the customer, will ensure that the router or AP is using the best possible slice of radio waves at any point in time. This guarantees that no matter what access points are nearby and causing interference, the best spectrum is being used in the current circumstances. Additionally, it will provide operators the capabilities they need to deliver better services, such as providing priority to wireless television distribution to ensure high-quality throughout the home.

Making sure that there is a signal available everywhere is just part of the solution. Devices should be connected to the best possible radio, either 2.4 GHz or 5GHz, and best possible access point, based on the distance from the access point, the application, and the current congestion across the home wireless network. Finally, the solution is one that can scale as service demands increase without needing to replace millions of devices.

Comcast’s move is a welcome one, turning a negative scenario (i.e. the MSO will be held responsible for poor Wi-Fi in the home) into a potential differentiator by providing a solution proactively. But it’s just an interim step in embracing Wi-Fi as a key component of the home service package.

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