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19 December 2019

CenturyLink adds WiFi 6 gateway to enviable network empire

Among countless disruptive changes in the Faultline ecosystem this year, 2019 will be remembered as the year US telco CenturyLink pieced together a network delivery technology stack capable of challenging the country’s incumbents in wireless, broadband and video.

The latest piece of the puzzle is CenturyLink’s new WiFi 6 gateway, powered by Intel’s WiFi 6 Gig+ chipset. This appears to be targeted primarily at online gamers, as well as businesses heavily reliant on WiFi, given that Gig+ works best with PCs pre-installed with Intel’s WiFi Gig+ technology.

The promises, as we have come to associate with WiFi 6 rollouts, include 75% lower latency, a connectivity speed increase of almost 3x, up to 4x greater data capacity over standard 2×2 WiFi 5 gateways, and extended device battery life. An Intel WiFi 6 Gig+ powered gateway is capable of maximum wireless throughput of 1.7 Gbps.

Let’s not forget that CenturyLink gobbled up CDN company Level3 in 2016, followed by the surprise acquisition of peer to peer expert Streamroot for an undisclosed sum in September. CenturyLink has cited Streamroot’s data-driven approach to improving the user experience, particularly during peak internet traffic hours. Streamroot can complete P2P integrations rapidly in around 5 minutes thanks to some new algorithms capable of changing the P2P architecture, for example disabling upload when a user is connected to a cellular network in order to alleviate bandwidth.

Streamroot’s core technology works by offloading most of the central management resources and workload to the end user, replacing it with a relatively small list of files and associated users. Once Streamroot’s distributed network architecture (DNA) has a list of peers, a pair of video viewers can exchange address information within a secure relay system, from where a direct WebRTC connection can be exchanged to offload video files. This is especially useful and effective in handling adaptive bit rate.

For the serious gamers, Intel is marketing a separate WiFi 6 module from River Networks, the Killer AX1650, built on Intel’s WiFi 6 Giga+ silicon. River Networks’ Killer AX1650 claims to be the world’s first WiFi 6 module tailor-made for gameplay and video streaming – enabling a max theoretical network throughput of 2.4 Gbps using a number of neat technologies.

These include automatically detecting, classifying and prioritizing network traffic to ensure that the most important data is delivered over less important traffic, as well as automatic network optimization capabilities.

Intel is shipping a number of WiFi 6 capable laptops starting at around $1,000.

Importantly, during the summer, CenturyLink switched on more than 100 initial edge compute locations around the country for managed services, including a 5ms transport time from existing locations to the edge which it highlights as ideal for low latency use cases including VR, AR and machine learning-based services.

But then a little spice was added to the mix. Speaking at a Cowen and Company event, CenturyLink CTO Andrew Dugan was visibly miffed about AT&T’s strategy and provided some insight into the comparative strategies. “I’d like to figure out what AT&T means by 75% virtualization. I don’t get it. The concept of virtualizing the core router or an optical platform, that’s a lot of cost of your network to provide services. We’re not working on virtualizing that stuff,” said Dugan.

Building on its edge market activity, CenturyLink recently used the AWS re:Invent show to extend its services with a managed storage offering called CenturyLink Network Storage.

This is built on a software-defined storage technology devised by NetApp, and the new enterprise offering is the biggest concrete result so far of the operator’s “several hundred million dollar” investment in edge computing infrastructure and services, announced in August as a way to monetize its sites in various regions of the US and carve out a niche in the edge cloud market.

The service allows companies to locate storage where it is most useful, and supports the fastest response times, by being close to where data is created and consumed.

The fact that CenturyLink made its announcement at re:Invent suggests that it does not want to be competitive with the cloud giant. In fact, the telco offers managed AWS services to its customers already, and is now looking to add new edge-based capabilities to enhance the value to enterprises – but also to enhance its value to the AWS partnership, by bringing its edge locations and micro-data centers to the party.

The plan will not be confined to the US, if the business model proves workable. CenturyLink has a global network of 450,000 route miles of fiber, connecting over 2,200 public and private data centers and over 150,000 on-net enterprise buildings; and it is extending network colocation deals in many markets to increase access to infrastructure and allow customers to run distributed cloud workloads close to the edge of the network.

January will mark a significant step for WiFi 6, however, with a standoff between the communications and energy sectors looming. The FCC looks likely to approve a spectrum-sharing proposal for WiFi in the 6 GHz band, although the expansion of spectrum to additional wireless devices faces opposition from utilities with the backing of the US Department of Energy.

WiFi chip makers believe the decision will lead to improved quality and capacity by avoiding interference from legacy devices, while the utilities players argue that sliding in WiFi alongside critical energy use cases will disrupt communications. However, the proposal will allow only devices supporting the latest WiFi 6 standard (802.11ax) to operate in 6 GHz, therefore removing any potential disruption from legacy devices operating in 802.11ac/n/g/a/b.