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10 June 2021

European operators seek to eradicate WiFi APs, Airties gulps

WiFi 6 was described as “the genius WiFi service” at Anga Com Digital 2021 – in which the word service is probably more poignant than genius.

Had there been an opportunity for a live Q&A during this pre-recorded session featuring WiFi specialist speakers from Airties, AVM and Icotera, Faultline would have fueled a fire that was just beginning to spark about the future of WiFi APs and extenders. Airties’ CTO Metin Taskin naturally argues that APs are here to stay and will not become obsolete as a result of more technologically advanced WiFi router generations.

Meanwhile, Icotera’s Volker Bendzuweit, a GM at the Danish gateway manufacturer, took great pleasure in pointing to results of a recent business case with Telenor in Sweden based on the concept of reducing the proportion of customer installations using APs from 50% to 20%, which he all-but confirmed had been successfully achieved.

Taskin took a coincidentally timed swig of water at the very moment it was revealed that a prominent European telco is actively looking to eliminate APs and repeaters from the field.

Bendzuweit’s point is that so-called premium routers being offered on the market today are not really what he would consider premium, as many of these are 4×4 routers (mostly WiFi 5 devices), while Icotera’s message is that anything premium has to be an 8×8 device – giving a greater chance that a single router covers the majority of a home without requiring additional APs. He sees a clear trend with European operators going in the direction of 8×8, particularly in Scandinavia, citing Deutsche Telekom, Sunrise, Telenor, and Telefonica as a few tier 1s offering 8×8 routers today.

However, a notable downside that went unmentioned by Icotera’s Bendzuweit is the power guzzling nature of 8×8 configurations.

What he did present gleefully was how Quantenna – the exclusive chipset supplier to Icotera – has shown the world’s fastest WiFi speeds topping out at a whopping 9.6 Gbps using an 8×8 router. Unfortunately, to the dismay of the industry, service providers have apparently been using this theoretical maximum throughput value to promote their own WiFi services, which is more than a little disingenuous. You can probably get 1 Gbps speeds over WiFi if you are situated directly next to a router, but certainly nothing close to 9.6 Gbps over WiFi.

Bendzuweit also pointed to beamforming as one of the important factors in improving WiFi performance when using eight antennas. “If you have a good CPU and a strong WiFi chipset, you can create a strong algorithm to build a strong connection,” he said.

Something unique to Icotera is the WiFi Acceptance Factor (WAF) – a term coined by a colleague of Bendzuweit’s which means, in layman’s terms, that no client is really happy if you have to install ethernet cables in the home or plug-in additional devices in each and every room. “The fewer devices you use, the better it is at end of the day,” he added.

Could the so-called WAF be a future thorn in the side of companies like Airties which benefit from a proliferation of APs and extenders?

Perhaps. However, while Airties is very much still a hardware company, Taskin’s message during the only Anga Com conference session dedicated to WiFi differed from his neighboring pure hardware panelists, as he presented the case for how deploying managed WiFi is a major differentiation factor for broadband operators.

The Airties CTO explained how WiFi is not there only for WiFi anyone. The wireless technology has evolved into a platform for delivering new services such as network security, motion detection, and convergence of mobile networks and WiFi networks.

Taskin brought up results from a survey of over 1000 US consumers, showing that 89% of consumers prefer their broadband operator to provide WiFi equipment, instead of buying from retail. The advantage of so-called premium WiFi was also emphasized by results showing that 66% of consumers would upgrade their broadband package for a bundle with premium WiFi. However, we believe Airties and Icotera have different definitions of premium WiFi.

Premium WiFi in the modern Airties dictionary is all about deploying managed WiFi services so operators can differentiate in the market. Taskin cited data insights and analytics as crucial to operator investment plans, such as where to install devices in the home, usage patterns of subscribers and on what devices.

“Almost every operator monitors MPS scores, which increases dramatically with managed WiFi. Now broadband operators have a platform to deploy new technologies,” added Taskin.

Managed WiFi also matters in the context of WiFi 6, of which a projected 56% of all new devices will support by 2022. But even with the increase in WiFi 6 usage, some 40% of devices are still running 802.11n (WiFi 4) and 47% 802.11ac (WiFi 5), according to Taskin, so this mix of WiFi technologies makes a compelling argument for deploying a managed WiFi system.

“Optimizing WiFi 6 and 6E in the home network requires network analysis to understand device capabilities and adjust network parameters accordingly so the network provides the best service for every device based on capabilities,” Taskin explained.

Taskin signed off his Anga pitch with a message to operators about discouraging subscribers from buying WiFi equipment direct from retail, as these unmanaged devices can cause problems for service providers. Unmanaged WiFi makes it difficult to troubleshoot problems and therefore translates to dissatisfaction for the end user which ultimately points the finger of blame at the operator.

A deeper dive into WiFi 6 was provided by Dr. Gerd Thiedemann, Director of Product Management at German consumer electronics manufacturer AVM. The most intriguing part of his presentation came in the form of a heatmap of downtown San Francisco, displaying the density of WiFi APs at certain locations. Very few white (0-1 APs) and blue (2 APs) spots are visible in the image below, while orange zones are rife showing 11 to 50 APs, and also significant red coverage where more than 50 APs are active at certain locations, which poses a major challenge for operators.

Thiedemann, like many of his peers, is enthused by how WiFi 6 might make this heatmap look less alarming to the WiFi industry, with the standard addressing congestion issues via new technologies, one of which is called Basic Service Set (BSS) coloring. BSS Coloring helps multi-AP environments to use wireless spectrum at the same time, by color coding shared frequencies – allowing APs to decide if simultaneous spectrum use is permissible which helps mitigate overlapping BSS. The result of BSS coloring is more effective concurrent data transmission to multiple devices in congested areas.

Then with the 6GHz spectrum available in WiFi 6E, Europe will experience a doubling in the available amount of spectrum for WiFi over the next year by opening up half of the band. In the US, of course, this is even better, with 6GHz already made available in its entirety by the FCC. Thiedemann is hopeful that the second half of this band will be opened up in the near future as European regulators embrace the importance of WiFi.