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19 March 2020

BT’s WiFi faux pas comes back to haunt it

It only took the UK advertising watchdog the best part of 18 months to take notice of something Faultline pointed out upon launch – that BT’s WiFi Discs are duds.

This is a classic schoolboy error from BT. The UK telco should have deployed a proven mesh WiFi architecture from one of the many specialist software vendors we cover on a regular basis, rather than ploughing ahead blindfolded and straight into trouble. BT has guarded the innards of its mesh management technology that comes built into the My BT app – although Faultline did manage to find out that none of BT’s mesh extenders are seamlessly integrated with the router itself.

The ill-fated hardware was therefore destined for failure from the beginning, as highlighted in our original November 2018 coverage. But despite shooting itself in the foot, the operator could have a case for holding Mediatek accountable, with the WiFi discs powered by Mediatek 7621 chipsets and we understand the MediaTek Adaptive Network technology is part of the system.

The UK telco has been told to remove misleading claims from WiFi Disc ads claiming that “only we guarantee WiFi in every room” after criticism piled in from consumers as well as BT’s outraged operator competition. This isn’t the first patently false claim BT has made regarding its frisbee WiFi repeaters, having previously pitched itself as “the first broadband provider in the world to guarantee a reliable connection in every room”.

BT wasn’t even close to claiming first place when it pre-launched its new WiFi strategy in January 2018 ahead of the system’s commercial arrival some 10 months later, let alone now in March 2020.

Leaving BT red-faced, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has been unable to verify any of the telco’s claims. BT tested the devices in 1,000 households of varying shape and size, in which a single WiFi Disc repeater proved itself capable of full coverage in an overwhelming 96% homes. But not according to the ASA, which says BT did not test for interference, or test that adequate speeds were consistently reached in every room, including at peak times.

Cutting corners during the test phase is no way to win over customers. Someone needs to subject BT’s WiFi Discs to thorough independent testing against rival systems from Sky Q, which is an advocate of mesh WiFi software from AirTies, and Virgin Media which has opted for adaptive WiFi optimization software and Pod mesh WiFi boosters from US vendor Plume.

As well as failing on fundamental connectivity issues, the ASA has slammed BT’s disingenuous ad campaigns for showing cordless set-up, when in fact the WiFi Discs require a physical connection.

Forming part of the ‘BT Plus with Complete WiFi’ package, BT’s WiFi Discs 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 modem.

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 which – among other things – maps 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 which was addressed in the second version.

Despite its WiFi flaws, BT has been an active contributor to the prpl mesh project, the 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 to accelerate product development.

Since launch, BT has been promising to refund subscribers to the grand tune of £20 ($23.20) each in the event of failing to deliver on WiFi coverage promises – and BT proudly lauded that just one subscriber has had money knocked off their bill. This is a pointless boast from BT, because it simply brushes the issue under the carpet by delivering extra WiFi Discs to disgruntled subscribers, whether in a one bed apartment or a stately home.