Nokia gets into the multi-AP WiFi game, BT launches WiFi extenders

Multi-access point and mesh networks are the driving force behind the home WiFi business this year, and in the past week, Nokia has got into the game, while UK telco BT has taken an unconventional approach to its latest launch.

Nokia has entered the multi-AP market, with a design win at AIS Fibre, a broadband challenger brand in Thailand, which goes up against True, ToT and 3BB, which between them have around 8m broadband lines.

The deal is the first to use the technology which Nokia acquired from US mesh specialist Unium in February this year. It first showed the product at Mobile World Congress, adding features such as analytics to report to the cloud system and to a smartphone app. The philosophy at AIS seems to be to let users install and manage a multi-AP network using their phones – not a popular choice in the west.

Unium has been around since 2002 and now claims to offer an intelligent mesh network. It uses band and AP steering, and band re-selection, including a fast roaming feature to move a client from one AP to another in under 100 MS. It can be self-backhauled or backhauled with Ethernet, using 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum for access.

It looks very like the early implementations of WiFi vendor AirTies’ mesh – Unium’s software learns the specific capabilities and performance of each device which connects to it, so it can optimize each connection. The announcement suggests it can enable gigabit-plus capacity throughout a home.

The new analytics functions suggest that insights from the WiFi are moved to the cloud where they can be used to develop self-healing strategies for a home network. The system includes a WiFi heat map to help consumers locate dead zones and position new access points.

AIS Fibre customers pay a little extra to get a duo-pack of Nokia WiFi Beacons when they subscribe to a residential broadband package (it calls them Beacons as opposed to APs to distinguish them from the router).

Saran Phaloprakarn, head of fixed broadband at AIS said: “AIS Fibre is proud to be the first in Thailand to offer fiber access services and dual-band WiFi. We are now excited to become the first operator in the world to commercially launch Nokia’s innovative mesh WiFi.”

Many Asia-Pacific operators have weak offerings in WiFi home routers, and some 60% or more of their customers buy retail mesh and extender products to augment their home network. It is because the average broadband price per month is low that there is not enough cash in the package to upgrade routers to mesh networks or to attach extenders.

We saw Hong Kong provider PCCW last year adopt one such retail product, Google WiFi, as its in-house system, but even so it still sells the product, and does not give it away in a broadband package.

Nokia will have to go up against dominant multi-AP players AirTies, Plume, SoftAtHome and others to make a dent in the richer WiFi networks in the west, a fight we will watch with interest.

In the UK, BT claimed a unique new WiFi system called BT Plus with Complete WiFi, based on a strange disc-shaped UFO-like repeater, which is understood to use the MediaTek Adaptive Network extender technology.

Upon first inspection, the new offering seemed to lack most of the features of its competitor launches, such as a powerful chipset with Multiuser-MIMO, mesh capabilities, or intelligent cloud-based analytics with automation features. It does work with a BT smartphone app, but only appears to reach speeds of 100Mbps, not Gbps.

A BT spokesperson shone some light on the situation. “We do have advanced mesh set-up/management technology that’s built into the My BT app to guide the customer through the optimum set-up of Complete WiFi, and our customer service teams have access to those same diagnostics. If we still can’t cover the entire house after the hub plus three discs, and support over video call or in person, then a customer will receive a £20 refund and they can decide to keep the Complete WiFi set-up or return it all and go back to their previous broadband package,” he said.

He added:  “Yes, there are other extenders and mesh products on the market, but none that is seamlessly integrated with the router, and none that is sold with the broadband product and a complete coverage guarantee” (though the Sky Q set-top does this too, though not from a home gateway).

Importantly though, what was not underlined in the press release was reference to the longer term plan for BT Plus, which the operator first revealed in May when Marc Allera, CEO of the consumer division, described it as a product destined to “change the face of networks in the UK”.

BT Plus is designed to be a new converged consumer experience, bundling together residential broadband with 4G and WiFi, and that would be a UK market first – though we have seen it in about four other European countries to date. It aims to deliver new services with a lower cost base – hoping to achieve many of the goals which are touted for 5G but without a radio upgrade.

BT’s unconventional WiFi Discs consist of four simultaneous dual-band antennas, with 2.4GHz 4×4 MIMO 11n and 5GHz 4×4 MIMO 11ac, while the Broadcom-based 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, allowing consumers to ensure the strongest possible signal. Perhaps the neatest feature of the app is mapping 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 and this has been addressed in the second version.

Allera said on the launch, “Whether it’s converting the attic into an online gaming room for the kids or making a spare room into a home gym where you can stream music or work out videos, our unique Complete WiFi opens up a world of possibilities for our customers.”

Diving deeper into BT’s network plans, in recent months we have learned of it running trials of chips from Netcomm Wireless, as well as plastic optical fiber products from Spanish firm KDPOF.

Another Spanish company, homespot pioneer FON, supplies BT with a white label version of its cloud-based platform for monitoring and managing WiFi APs, and potentially cellular too. It claims to slash truck rolls by a third and customer care calls by 50%, harnessing a mixture of mesh, band steering and other WiFi technologies to boost signal reliability, while tracking and resolving network and site level issues. FON’s acquisition of XCellAir earlier this year, the former InterDigital project, will further enhance its WiFi optimization value.

Interestingly, BT is contributing to the prpl mesh project, the recently inked 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, hoping to create a shortcut of sorts for product development.

Also this week, BT’s Openreach division promised to deliver to an additional 1m homes in 81 areas by next summer.

Rivals Vodafone and Virgin Media are preparing new hub launches while TalkTalk recently launched its Sagemcom-made Hub 4.0.