Pandemic, new tech drive need for Wi-Fi management in the home

The pandemic prompted a lot of folks to add more connected devices to their homes, but with all these devices, who do they turn to when problems arise?

An afternoon panel Tuesday will discuss the evolution of Wi-Fi in the smart home as part of the free FierceWireless Wi-Fi virtual summit.

With Covid-19 shining a spotlight on the importance of Wi-Fi during stay-at-home orders, it’s easy to see why service providers might want to step up their game when it comes to Wi-Fi management in the home.

Big box stores and online retailers are selling all kinds of devices with Wi-Fi in them – doorbells, lights, washers and dryers – and it’s not uncommon to see dozens of devices in a smart home. That makes the management of these devices all the more important.

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One could say that AirTies is all about taking the complexity out of Wi-Fi. It took a while to get there – actually, it took 12 years to reach the first 10 million homes. But in the past three years, it’s now reaching up to 30 million homes.

Until 2015 or 2016, the reaction from internet service providers was: Wi-Fi is not our problem. It’s the consumer’s problem. That’s according to Oz Yildirim, EVP and GM Americas Business Unit at AirTies.

“We really believe the solution should come from service providers,” he said. “Wi-Fi is a critical part of their service and we were pretty convinced that consumers were expecting the solution to come from their internet service providers. I think we are getting there, especially the last couple of years.”  

AirTies says it’s now the most widely deployed provider of managed in-home Wi-Fi solutions to operators around the globe. It offers smart Wi-Fi software to upgrade existing gateways/routers deployed by ISPs in the field, a cloud-based management platform and mesh extenders/access points.

Some of AIrTies’ publicly named customers include AT&T, Altice USA, Sky, Singtel, Telstra and Telia. AirTies sells the gateway software that sends the data over to the service providers about the health of the Wi-Fi system in the home. For example, it can alert the service provider if someone needs a Wi-Fi extender, thereby decreasing the number of service calls to the operator.

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It’s worth noting that Wi-Fi and some traditional cellular providers have had a love/hate relationship for much of their history together. In the early days of Wi-Fi, wireless operators described it as an inferior technology, in part because it operates in unlicensed spectrum. But when the iPhone wreaked havoc on AT&T’s network with unexpected traffic demands, it became a godsend. AT&T was able to offload a lot of its traffic onto Wi-F to alleviate the strains on its own network.

Nowadays, Verizon is advertising its 5G services like crazy, and there are places, such as sports stadiums, where 5G at higher frequencies does a great job. Verizon also touts advances in its 5G Home service, and that still relies on Wi-Fi within the home.

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Wi-Fi 6 offers blazing fast speeds, and with Wi-Fi 6E devices coming online for the newly released 6 GHz band, it’s only getting better. The fact is, Wi-Fi remains at the core of many types of smart home connections.

“I don’t believe 5G will ever replace Wi-Fi,” said Mike Talbert, associate fellow of Device Technology at Verizon. “I think what needs to happen is there needs to be that synergistic approach to where 5G is used where 5G is most effective and Wi-Fi is used where Wi-Fi is most effective.”

Customers aren’t network engineers and they just want it all to work, whether it’s Wi-Fi, cable or wireless. Verizon can provide assistance when it’s Verizon equipment that’s being used, but as people bring in third-party products, it gets much more complex.

“You need to be able to meet or exceed the expectations” of the customer, he said. That’s really what Verizon as well as other service providers need to do. When you ask people today if they have a problem, they’ll typically say “the internet isn’t working.”  

But it shouldn’t have to be on the customer to fix it. “It’s really upon the jobs of the service providers and the vendor community” to solve those problems so that people can focus on their daily lives rather than having to figure out their Wi-Fi, Talbert said.

Smart lights

GE Lighting, a Savant company, offers a full line of smart lights, from the classic light bulb to switches and dimmers. This year, it’s also expanding into the safety and security market with a Wi-Fi camera. Its light bulbs have both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in them; Wi-Fi is important to provide that connection to the cloud.

GE Lighting is trying to remove some of the complexities for the consumer. For example, some manufactures offer light bulb solutions and others offer switch solutions, “but nobody has really brought them both together. The value of solving that is important because if you look at a regular home, it’s a combination that’s needed,” said Paul Williams, GM Product Management & Growth at GE Lighting. “The value that we believe we’re bringing is in that combined solution.”

The great thing about color bulbs or any smart bulb for that matter is you can control them with an app, your voice or through motion sensing. However, as soon as somebody turns the light switch off that controls that device, “it is now the dumbest possible product on the face of the planet,” because there’s no way to communicate with it until the switch gets turned back on, he said. GE designed its products to avoid that problem.

When it comes to Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, it will be moving up there but there’s a bit of a cost curve. “You’ll see us ride that probably late in the wave,” when the pricing gets lower.