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14 February 2019

Amazon chomps down eero mesh WiFi – lines up data dessert feast

Amazon is coming for one of the most eagerly tracked industries on the Faultline Online Reporter radar, the mesh WiFi market, acquiring start-up eero in what is quickly becoming a consolidated environment. With war waging in the smart home space, where WiFi will continue to play a significant role, it begs the question of why one of the major US operators didn’t acquire mesh pioneer AirTies years back, or indeed a smaller player like eero.

Eero burst onto the scene some four years ago to flattering reviews when the idea of nodes connecting to other nodes through a mesh configuration – rather than connecting back to the home gateway – was beginning to gain serious traction, far gone from when we first covered the alien concept of mesh networking back in 2003.

The product set up is relatively simple. Eero offers multiple access points, meshing together to blanket a home in WiFi and thereby eliminating dead zones. It says set up takes less than 10 minutes using the eero app, which receives instructions and updates from the cloud and the system’s big claim is that it can self-fix and self-improve continuously. This last point signals to us what Amazon might have seen as the gold mine – data. Eero devices collect a ton of data from other devices to enable this self-improvement, whether it be a smartphone, streaming dongle or smart speaker. It will give Amazon an unprecedented insight into how competing smart home devices and services are performing in comparison to its own.

This then raises the seriously sensitive topic that Amazon could be inclined to manipulate the self-improvement mesh capabilities of eero APs to prioritize traffic for its own devices and services such as Prime Video. Perhaps Amazon’s thinking is something along the lines of “amid the unraveling of net neutrality, if the operators can get away with throttling competing services, why can’t we?” But, of course, the principle of net neutrality does not apply to Amazon and it cannot champion the retail WiFi space as well if, say, AT&T bought eero instead.

Such data will almost certainly be used by Amazon both to advertise its own products and for sale to third party agencies. Ironically, eero prides itself on its privacy policy and the promise of anonymized data has been integral to the San Francisco-based vendor’s rise through the ranks. “We don’t ever track the websites you visit or collect the content of your network traffic. We don’t sell our customer data, and we don’t sell ads based on this data,” assures the eero website.

But ultimately, the vested interests for improving in-home WiFi performance for Amazon are endless, from video streaming to Alexa voice functionality to online shopping, and the move to acquire eero is a defiant statement of intent to the ISPs and also to main smart home technology rival Google, which offers a similar suite of mesh products to eero. Google also makes an unconvincing privacy promise.

Let’s take a simple WiFi problem which people have coined the collision domain. This means that if data has to go to more than one AP, it will have to forward content it has been sent to an end device – which is said to halve the speed of the network.

There are a number of ways of addressing this – only having one hop from router to extender minimizes this. An alternative is to have a 3-way WiFi chip using one 5 GHz channel for backhaul, and another for talking to devices, which has been eero’s preferred architecture, and also with Qualcomm’s chip approach. Another idea has been to send to a second AP over 5 GHz but talk to the end device using 2.4 GHz, which means both can talk at the same time and there is no delay. AirTies uses 5 GHz for “backhaul” but has a fallback to Powerline or MoCA or Ethernet if that backhaul gets clogged up. So its devices can listen and talk at the same time.

All of these have drawbacks – if there is no mesh, and it is all wireless, there is only one route to each device and if it gets blocked with a bad apple or sticky client, it falls apart. In WiFi parlance, a bad apple is an old device running an earlier version of the IEEE 802.11 standards group which can slow down other devices on the same network. Then sticky client refers to the tendency of devices in multi-AP networks to continue connecting to the AP they originally associated with even when they moved closer to another AP. That is why eero, as well as Luma – another mesh router maker with investment from Amazon – could embed MoCA in their mesh routers, which would provide users with the sturdiness and consistency of a wired backhaul network.

Eero dismisses extenders by saying they can only stretch a signal a single hop, not multiple hops in a row. Many create an entirely separate network (SSID) so users have to manually switch from one network to the other as they move from room to room. Additionally, eero says many range extenders cut bandwidth in half because they rely on a single wireless radio to both send and receive data. Each eero has two radios – both of which communicate with your devices and sync with other eero units, which means the connection is always fast. Because there are multiple eero units on a single SSID, users can walk around the home and mobile devices will automatically connect to the nearest eero. The same is true for new stationary WiFi devices like smart TVs and IoT devices.

A flagship eero hub costs $199, promising to cover 1,500 square feet, while the eero Beacon APs costs $149 a pop. The eero Plus security tools and services package costs an extra $99 for a year’s subscription. It also recommends upgrading to an Arris Surfboard cable modem, reselling it in a bundle with an eero hub, two Beacons and two years of eero Plus for $549 all-in. Not a cheap set up by any means but a highly rated one.

A bonus is that eero already has a custom Alexa skill to find your phone, pause the internet on any device, or shut off your eero device’s lights at night. It also supports the IPv6-based low power mesh networking protocol Thread for smart home devices like thermostats. Amazon said the selling point was eero’s solid 4.6 rating on its e-commerce site – but we know it is much, much more than that.