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6 January 2022

Comcast first to benefit from Technicolor’s 6E ruse

Just as we were shutting down for the holiday period, Technicolor seemed in no rush to release any WiFi 6 CPE. Our conversation with the usually pioneering CPE vendor was largely focused on WiFi 6 outside of the 6 GHz band, leaving us somewhat disappointed at the lack of hunger for technological innovation.

However, it appears the wool was successfully pulled over our eyes. We came back to news this week that Comcast, one of Technicolor’s flagship customers, announced its first WiFi 6E-enabled DOCSIS router this week. The new xFi Advanced Gateway, which we have covered in a separate story this week, will start rolling out over the coming months to broadband subs on 1-Gig service tiers and those who subscribe to the xFi complete service package.

The lack of vendor mention in the press release, as well as the radio silence on Technicolor’s PR side, made us fear that the company had lost out to a competitor while twiddling its thumbs, but fear not. Technicolor has exclusively confirmed to Faultline that it is indeed behind Comcast’s first 6E gateway.

Looking back at our December briefing with Technicolor’s CTO, Girish Naganthan, this comes as something of a surprise. He gave the strong impression that WiFi 6E was still very much under development in the Technicolor labs and was keen to dispel any sense of urgency in getting Technicolor’s CPE on the 6 GHz band, noting that the band is still not fully unlocked in key markets like Europe.

While most people we speak with in the WiFi world see 6E as the catalyst for accelerating CPE upgrades, Naganthan consistently argues that WiFi 6 alone promises many operators enough service improvement for most of their customers. He noted that unless there is a pressing strategy to offer WiFi 6E for premium customers, most operators will go to WiFi 6 CPE before WiFi 6E.

Even once 6E has rolled out extensively, Naganthan feels that it will still co-exist alongside WiFi 6, as operators will not want to offer ultra-gigabit services to all their customers. “It is not like WiFi 5 moving to WiFi 6 where one replaces the other,” he told us.

Naganthan teased that we can expect 6E-enabled products in the first half of this year. However, we were not expecting them quite so early. Technicolor’s 6E inventory will span gateways and extenders, with a range of premium extenders designed to provide a dedicated backhaul channel that has proved instrumental in certain use cases.

Naganthan feels that where 6E will triumph is in serving the new tier of premium work-from-home customers seeking flawless home internet in a post-pandemic world. He says operators are already planning to have an ultra-tier of customers that are willing to pay for high bandwidth and dedicated backhaul. Once these packages roll-out from one operator, Naganthan expects that any local competitors will be forced to follow suit.

Technicolor has already been shipping millions of WiFi 6 (802.11ax) devices to Comcast since it launched the WiFi 6-enabled xFi Advanced Gateway in January 2020. The company found early success with WiFi 6 in North America and now the technology is steadily trickling into Europe and Asia Pacific. In total, Technicolor has shipped around 20 million WiFi 6 gateways

Considering that Technicolor begun investing in the technology as soon as the first drafts surfaced in 2018, Naganthan was keen to not understate the technological jump that came from moving from WiFi 5 (802.11ac) to WiFi 6. However, his case was muddled, as the increased band sizes of 80 MHz and 160 MHz-wide channels that he noted were in fact an upgrade that came with WiFi 5, not WiFi 6.

Reflecting much of what Faultline has heard about the stagnant nature of Latin America’s broadband market, Naganthan notes that the region is still dominated by WiFi 5 CPE, as operators in low ARPU markets are hesitant to add a cost premium to upgrade gateways.

Interestingly, Naganthan did not agree with our suggestion that operators in less developed regions would eventually cut corners to play catch-up, leapfrogging WiFi 6 CPE and jumping straight to WiFi 6E devices once the necessary spectrum regulations were in place. Instead, he feels that these regions would follow a very similar deployment timeline to more developed areas, but simply delayed by a few years.

Naganthan was unable to tell us the cost difference between producing WiFi 6 and 6E-enabled CPE, arguing that it was far from an apples-to-apples comparison (as well as top secret proprietary information). However, he did say that it was not very significant – “there is a revolution, so you cannot be prohibitively high in price.”

When adding an additional radio, as is required for WiFi 6E to access the 6 GHz spectrum band, technologists must account the need for extra heat dissipation in their designs. More hardware means more heat.

Just like WiFi 6 CPE prices have come down over the past two to three years, he expects the same to happen with WiFi 6E CPE over the next three to five years, with the increased timespan accounting for the current silicon shortages. Naganthan says that normal roadmap predictions have gone out the window, with RF filters, chipsets and front-end modules all in short supply.

Technicolor’s preferred silicon provider for millions of its products is Broadcom, a company that has often been discussed with a pitiful tone by the WiFi industry as of late. The off-the-record interviews for Rethink TV’s most recent forecast on WiFi found that many industry stakeholders feel that the tables have turned against Broadcom in recent years, with one particular industry exec claiming that MediaTek is now “slapping it around.”

Naganthan naturally defended the company, driving home the importance of partners that keep your hardware and software “well-tuned.”