Earlier this week, I was running some tests on my home Wi-Fi gateway/router in support of one the projects we’re working on here at Cirrent to improve Wi-Fi onboarding for connected products. For the test, I needed to find an ethernet cable to plug my MacBook Air directly into the Wi-Fi gateway. So there I was, in the corner of my living room, sitting on the floor, tethered to my Wi-Fi router, when my daughter walked by and shot me the most puzzling “what-in-the-heavens-are-you-doing” look that only a teenager can muster.
While the notion of being physically tethered by a wire was perhaps a distant memory to me, it was by no means a foreign one. However, wires are not at all a part of the world my daughter grew up in. In her world, almost everything is wireless. If it weren’t for the fact that she needs to charge her cell phone every now and then, she may not recognize a wire at all!
Wi-Fi is the main reason that ethernet cables are becoming a distant memory to almost all of us. Its evolution from a niche technology (that was at first difficult to use with only mediocre performance) to one that we are increasingly relying on to meet almost all the connectivity needs in our homes, in such a short time, is a really amazing phenomenon. Wi-Fi has gone from being the equivalent of cooking over a campfire to cooking with gas on a modern high-end kitchen range, and believe it or not, it’s about to get even better. Especially inside our homes.
A combination of market trends and technology trends are likely to propel Wi-Fi to an even more prominent role in how we consume and use broadband services in our homes.
The emergence of the cloud as a viable way to build and manage services is pushing Wi-Fi further and further away from its roots as an inherently LAN technology towards being the de facto demarcation point between the ISP’s network and our home private network. The emergence of the cloud is enabling many ISPs to move the intelligence that once sat inside the router into the cloud. What this means is that these ISPs should be able to quickly add new features to their broadband service without having to ship out new hardware every time they add significant new features.
Cloud control is also enabling the emergence of in-home mesh Wi-Fi solutions from companies like eero and Luma. These in-home mesh Wi-Fi solutions are typically comprised of multiple wireless access points that work together to provide better coverage in a home without having to be physically connected to one another. These mesh networks are also typically managed by a cloud platform that collects data on how the unlicensed spectrum inside the home is being used, the performance of each access point, and the devices that connect to these access points, in order to optimize the coverage and performance of the Wi-Fi network in each home.
More unlicensed spectrum in the 5GHz and 60Ghz bands and new Wi-Fi standards such as 802.11ad and 802.11ax will combine to increase the data transmission speeds and total capacity of our private in-home Wi-Fi networks to the point that we will be able to distribute high definition audio and video throughout our homes over our Wi-Fi networks. This means that it will be easier to add boxes or dongles that connect our Wi-Fi networks to TVs around the house so all are connected to the same content delivery services that our DVRs and set top boxes rely on today. This is something we couldn't do even a year ago.
We’re already seeing companies like Sonos, Martin Logan, and Polk Audio leveraging some of these advancements in Wi-Fi technology in their wireless multi-room speaker systems to enable distribution of High-resolution or lossless audio formats such as HFPA (High Fidelity Pure Audio) available from online services such as Pono and Tidal thoughout the home. This is something previous generations of Wi-Fi technology didn't handle well. It is very likely that we will see this approach extended to the distribution of HD/4K video content in our homes.
The shift towards our mobile phone becoming our primary communication device, even in our homes, has created some problems for mobile carriers. Currently spectrum shortages and lack of indoor coverage are driving mobile operators to enable their phones to use Wi-Fi networks to transmit our voice calls (typically referred to as Voice over Wi-Fi or VoWiFi). As such, these carriers have an incentive to improve the performance, and in some cases, their control of the Wi-Fi networks in the home to ensure that these don’t have a negative impact on the mobile services they offer to their subscribers. We’ve seen mobile operators here in the US and in Europe take different approaches. T-Mobile in the US is offering Cellspot Wi-Fi routers to their customers that prioritize the VoWiFi traffic over other traffic to ensure its quality.
The emergence of homespots points to another set of efforts that carriers, such as Comcast’s xfinitywifi, Orange France’s Livebox and BT’s Smart Hub wifi services, have been investing in for over a decade. While this was initially a service that was only available in a few markets, it has gained popularity worldwide with almost every carrier planning to introduce some form of a carrier controlled Wi-Fi network in their subscriber’s homes. These homespots, which numbered a few million at the beginning of this decade, have grown to 57 million worldwide by the end of 2015 and are forecast to grow to 423 million by 2020. This represents a head-spinning 7x growth rate between now and 2020.
Another key trend is the steady stream of new connected smart devices being introduced into the market. It seems like a new connected device is launched each week, whether it’s a connected TV, soundbar, refrigerator, light bulb, smoke detector, thermostat, camera or other household appliance. While not all of these new devices are likely to make it big, some have already done so. The industry is already shipping around 1 billion of these connected devices a year and that number is likely to grow to 3 billion devices per year by 2020.
What does this all mean?
As Wi-Fi becomes a bigger part of our daily lives, expect that our broadband ISPs will likely move to extend their demarcation point (demarc for short). This demarc will quickly shift away from where it resides today, on the cable modem or DSL router, to the air interface on the Wi-Fi access points in our home. Carriers have already been using Wi-Fi enabled cable modems and DSL routers for some years now. However, with the advances I’ve mentioned, I expect to see almost every broadband ISP offer an in-home Wi-Fi mesh solution as a standard part of their broadband service over the next two to three years.
The main motivation for the ISPs is to quickly get to a point where they can offer their users a high quality, secure Wi-Fi network that provides improved coverage throughout the whole home. These carrier-controlled Wi-Fi mesh networks will allow us to still have our private networks running alongside their networks and both will run on the same equipment. The upshot is that we won’t have to buy our own Wi-Fi mesh solutions and will be able to use those provided by our ISPs, like the vast majority of us already do today.
Having a high quality Wi-Fi network that provides improved coverage throughout the home positions ISPs to play a larger role in meeting their customers’ smart home needs by connecting all of these new smart devices to the Internet (where Cirrent is positioned to play a central enabling role). ISPs will also leverage this network to distribute their HD/4K video services throughout the home across Wi-Fi, to reduce their customer acquisition costs by avoiding truck rolls and to enhance their customer’s ability to self-install new equipment such as access points, DVRs/set top boxes, or home monitoring/security products.
At the rate we’re going, the only wires we’ll all have to worry about in the future are the power cords. Everything else will connect to and rely on our Wi-Fi network. I can’t wait!