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29 November 2018

BT Plus falls short – but has it built own mesh WiFi?

Anyone associated with the WiFi industry may have been left feeling a little disappointed by a press release from UK telco BT this week, claiming a unique new WiFi system called BT Plus with Complete WiFi which, other than a strange disc-shaped UFO-like repeater, doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of individuality. This was originally pre-announced in January 2017, and we understand the networking is based on the MediaTek Adaptive Network extender technology.

We feel the real aim of BT Plus is to function as a testbed for the operator’s future 5G service (currently penciled in for a September 2019 launch).

This announcement gave us a real headache. Upon first inspection, the new BT offering seems to have no new powerful chipset with MU-MIMO, no mesh network capabilities, no intelligent cloud-based analytics toolkit with automation features, although it does work with a BT app on your phone, and sadly it has no promise of anything close to real speeds of 1 Gbps – more like a boost of 25% to 100 Mbps. And yet BT said “we are the first broadband provider in the world to guarantee a reliable connection in every room” – patently not true.

Eventually, a BT spokesperson shone some light on the situation for us. “We do have advanced mesh setup/management technology that’s built into the My BT app to guide the customer through the optimum setup of Complete WiFi, and our customer service teams have access to those same diagnostics. If we still can’t cover the entire house after the hub plus three discs, and support over video call or in person, then a customer will receive a £20 refund and they can decide to keep the Complete WiFi setup or return it all and go back to their previous broadband package,” we were told.

In addition, the spokesperson confirmed the discs are powered by a Mediatek 7621 chipset and the Smart Hub 2 by Broadcom’s 63138, 4366 and 43602.

“Yes, there are other extenders and mesh products on the market, but none that are seamlessly integrated with the router, and none that are sold with the broadband product and a complete coverage guarantee,” added the BT spokesperson, presumably referring to the UK market only. But even that’s not true, since the Sky Q set top does precisely this, although not from a home gateway admittedly.

Importantly though, what was not underlined in this week’s press release is an explanation for the long-term plan for BT Plus, which the operator first revealed in May when Marc Allera, CEO of the Consumer division, described it as a product destined to “change the face of networks in the UK.” BT Plus is designed to be a new converged consumer experience, bundling together residential broadband with 4G and WiFi, and that would be a UK market first – we have seen it in about 4 other European countries previously, but not the UK. It aims to deliver new services with a lower cost base – hoping to achieve many of the goals which are touted for 5G but without a radio upgrade. Strangely, BT has done precious little to reiterate this message this week, instead never mentioning 4G at all. We wonder if perhaps this is the version without an LTE chip in it?

BT’s unconventional WiFi Discs, pictured here alongside the new Smart Hub 2, each consist of four simultaneous dual-band antennas, with 2.4GHz 4×4 MIMO 11n and 5GHz 4×4 MIMO 11ac, while the SmartHub 2 is equipped with seven antennas. Previous models of BT hubs, such as the Home Hub 3A and 3B, were manufactured by Sagemcom and Huawei, powered by chipsets from Broadcom or Lantiq (now owned by Intel). The Smart Hub has also come in different flavors for subscribers in Gfast or FTTP homes, since its original 2016 launch. The Smart Hub 2 includes ADSL2+, VDSL2 and a Gfast modem.

Diving deeper into BT’s network plans, in recent months we have learned of it running trials of Gfast chips from Netcomm Wireless, as well as plastic optical fiber products from Spanish firm KDPOF.

Another Spanish company, homespot pioneer FON, supplies BT with a white label version of its cloud-based platform for monitoring and managing WiFi APs, and potentially cellular too. It claims to slash truck rolls by a third and customer care calls by 50%, harnessing a mixture of mesh, band steering and other WiFi technologies to boost signal reliability, while tracking and resolving network and site level issues. FON’s acquisition of XCellAir earlier this year, the former InterDigital project, will further enhance its WiFi optimization value.

Speaking of mesh, BT has been vague about its use this week and it remains unclear where it has sourced the software from. Interestingly though, BT is contributing to the prpl mesh project, the recently inked partnership between open source specialist the prpl Foundation and the Broadband Forum. The tie up aims to build a reference platform for manufacturers of APs and routers, hoping to create a shortcut of sorts for product development.

Additional specifications of BT Plus with Complete WiFi include smart channel selection for choosing the fastest channel and frequency available on each hub or disc, smart scan for monitoring hub and network performance including automatic reboot if a problem is found, and the WiFi app manager, allowing consumers to ensure the strongest possible signal. Perhaps the neatest feature of the app is mapping out the best location for each WiFi disc within a home. The absence of band steering was a complaint about the first BT Smart Hub and this has been addressed in the second version.


Allera said on the launch, “Whether it’s converting the attic into an online gaming room for the kids or making a spare room into a home gym where you can stream music or work out videos, our unique Complete WiFi opens up a world of possibilities for our customers.”

Also this week, BT’s Openreach division promised to deliver Gfast to an additional 1 million homes in 81 areas by next summer.

Rivals Vodafone and Virgin Media are preparing new hub launches while TalkTalk recently launched its Sagemcom-made Hub 4.0. However, the closer we get to the arrival of the new WiFi 6 specification, the harder it is to get excited about operator hub launches.