Nokia joins the multi-AP WiFi world with design win in Thailand

Better late than never at all, Nokia has entered the multi-AP WiFi market, with a design win at AIS Fibre, a broadband challenger brand in Thailand, where it goes up against True, ToT (Telephone Organization of Thailand) and 3BB, who between them have around 8 million broadband lines.

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

Unium has been around since 2002 and is not a name we knew before Nokia took it over – it claims to offer an intelligent mesh network, and 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 ethernet backhauled using 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz WiFi.

It looks very like the early implementations of AirTies mesh, and it says that 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.

It’s hard to be sure, because the WiFi standards of AsiaPac countries, especially those outside China, can be misleading. Reading through AIS Fibre customer forums suggests that the actual broadband speeds are no higher than 50 Mbps, and having great WiFi at that speed, is less important.

To us this looks like Nokia running this client as a testbed to see what the product can achieve, before it tries to enter the tougher 1 Gbps markets of the USA, Canada, Western Europe and China.

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 Access Points to distinguish them from the router).

Saran Phaloprakarn, Head of Fixed Broadband, 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 in 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.