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CableLabs spreads wireless wings with dual channel WiFi and mmWave

CableLabs, the R&D arm of the US cable business, is becoming increasingly involved in wireless technologies. It is looking at this space from four main angles:

  • Enhancements to WiFi, which is the main wireless connectivity option for most cablecos, to give it a central role in next generation services.
  • Development of technologies to use new types of spectrum, especially those that may be within the grasp of cablecos (if they are likely to be easily shared).
  • Seeking to drive future cellular standards in a way that will support the cable industry’s priorities. This used to focus heavily on cellular implementations in shared bands such as CBRS, but interests are broadening as more cablecos look to buy their own airwaves.
  • Pushing technologies which integrate cable and wireless standards, giving the cable providers potential new revenue streams for their wires, such as for small cell backhaul.

Some recent developments reflect these interests. For instance, CableLabs has become an industrial affiliate member of NYU Wireless, New York University’s world-leading research center for millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum and even higher frequencies. It joins more classically wireless members such as AT&T, Sprint, Ericsson, Nokia and Qualcomm, though CableLabs has a long track record of collaboration with NYU Wireless founder and director Professor Ted Rappaport.

While CableLabs may be learning from NYU, in other areas it leads the research. It has launched a new open source project called Dual Channel WiFi, which will allow the allocation of dedicated channels for specific applications or traffic types that require, for instance, high bandwidth or ultra-low latencies.

The aim is to create a higher quality connection between the user and the WiFi access points within the home, depending on the application in use, according to Belal Hamzeh, CableLabs’ CTO.

The new approach sets up one or more adjacent, downstream-only channels that can be configured to support certain, defined traffic types and applications such as over-the-top video. This intelligence can be applied to the access point, which can then filter and re-route packets to secondary channels according to metrics defined by the service provider.

CableLabs believes the result will reduce congestion on WiFi channels and free up capacity for other devices. It said its tests showed Dual Channel WiFi increasing data transfer speeds by as much as 12 times, with 50% lower need for re-transmissions.

The system could also reduce service calls to the operator, said CableLabs, which calculates that at least 15% of customer calls are related to WiFi issues or perceived WiFi issues, which equates to a cost of $600mn for north American cablecos per year.

Channel allocations for downstream data can be configured to serve any WiFi-connected item, including tablets, laptops, smartphones or WiFi-connected set-top boxes and video devices, such as Comcast’s Xi5 and Xi6 video clients.

Hamzeh said 2020 would be a “reasonable timeframe” for commercial implementations of Dual Channel WiFi, and that many existing WiFi access points would be able to support the new capability with a software upgrade.

“We are opening up to the general ecosystem… cable or anybody in the WiFi ecosystem,” he said, and said CableLabs was engaging with groups such as the Wireless Broadband Alliance and The WiFi Alliance with regard to its Dual Channel work.

CableLabs has developed the Dual Channel WiFi open source code for the Reference Design Kit (RDK), the pre-integrated software stack for set-tops and gateways that is managed by a joint venture of Comcast, Liberty Global and Charter Communications. That work involves the two primary flavors of the Reference Design Kit – RDK-B (for broadband gateways) and for RDK-V (for set-top boxes and other video devices).

CableLabs is also collaborating with a startup called Edgewater Wireless to develop the Dual Channel WiFi implementation for OpenWRT platforms. Edgewater specializes in WiFi ‘spectrum slicing’, which can support the delivery of multiple concurrent channels from a single radio. This is targeted at high density environments.

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