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14 January 2021

Plume snags Atlantic Broadband and Virgin, AirTies heads to Malta

Plume started this week with two new customer deals, signing Cogeco subsidiary Atlantic Broadband in the USA and Virgin Media in the UK, and now claiming to support over 21 million homes globally. Thankfully, Plume does appear to have eased off on its smart home claims, and is building up a head of steam to try and close the gap on rival AirTies.

The latter claims to support over 30 million homes, with AT&T and Sky being its flagship customers. Sky’s proximity to Plume’s own flagship, Comcast, is cause for concern, should leadership try a shiny consolidation efficiency drive, but AirTies added Go Malta this week, via consulting from Divitel. Maltese homes are often stone-built and span over four floors, making mesh WiFi rather necessary.

As for the aforementioned 20 million smart homes, Faultline has repeatedly pressed for the definition that Plume is using, only to have been met with wriggling. We are similarly irked by claims from many market research outlets, which seem to focus only on ‘connected’ devices, and not ‘smart’ environments or use cases.

To that end, we expect a tiny sliver of Plume’s claim to actually meet the criteria that we would hold for a proper ‘smart’ home – one in which some level of automation actually happens, with little to no input from the occupants.

A single Nest thermostat does not a smart home make, nor a doorbell, nor a security system. There has to be some level of smarts in play. Plume should soon have more momentum here, as it signed a very interesting deal with Adtran back in April, concerning WiFi-based motion tracking, but the fruits of that partnership will not be ready yet.

On that note, the Virgin Media announcement appears to just be a follow-up to the February 2020 announcement that Liberty Global had picked Plume to power its European operations. Liberty Global Ventures was an early investor in Plume, and this interest seems to have culminated in that deal.

Back then, the talk was 11 million mesh WiFi homes, and a couple of months later, with the Adtran deal, the number of homes was 16 million. As far as we can surmise, Plume has just decided that any home that uses its mesh WiFi system should be called a smart home, and for that, it deserves a pummeling.

If our thesis is correct, the number of ‘smart’ homes will quickly reach 26 million, on the back of July’s win with J:Com in Japan, then pass the 31 million mark easily on the back of the Virgin Media deal, and likely touch 35 million once the rest of Liberty’s footprint is online. This would bring it past AirTies’ current standing, but AirTies has talked of hitting 50 million homes in the next few years.

But there might be changes afoot. Plume does seem to have dialed back the onus on the ‘smart’ home in its claims. When covering Plume’s acquisition of Walleye Networks, in December, we had a good moan about how the Smart Home as a Service (SHaaS) opportunity had essentially passed operators by. We had also recently challenged Plume’s claim of 50 connected devices per home, and it clarified via statement that this included temporary and guest devices – somewhat inflating the number.

Well, when you head to the Plume website, there is an important detail to note. The claim is now “21,628,444 smarter homes and counting” – as of writing – even though the linked press release states “Smart Home Leader Plume Reaches 20 Million Active Households.” Sure, the cop-out is that Plume doesn’t mean ‘smart homes’ here, but if that’s the case, that’s still a misleading headline. The latest press release puts a lot more distance between the “21 million active households” and any claims of smarts too.

So, has Plume weaseled its way out, in a bit of mild de-escalation? Maybe, but good luck getting the firm to cop to it. It would be nice if it would also tone down the number of connected devices claimed, to something more in line with reality too. Transient smartphones should absolutely not be implied to be smart home devices, and doing so is misleading the industry.

In the Atlantic Broadband announcement, the focus is on the cableco’s new WiFi Your Way service, which is powered by Plume’s HomePass offering. The new app is meant to guide customers through the installation of the SuperPods, the nodes that expand the reach of the original WiFi footprint. Atlantic Broadband uses TiVo set tops, much like Virgin Media, and seems to have switched from Arris gear to the Hitron 4589 WiFi hardware.

“Home WiFi is the way customers most commonly experience our internet service, so it must be the best it can be,” said Heather McCallion, Vice President of Products and Programming for Atlantic Broadband. “As in-home WiFi becomes increasingly important to our customers, their in-home networks must be reliable, fast and deliver the connectivity they need to work and learn from home. Now, through our partnership with Plume, Atlantic Broadband’s high-capacity, fiber-rich network will be joined with a powerful in-home network to deliver a phenomenal WiFi experience with wall-to-wall coverage, personalized controls and superfast speeds up to 1 Gig.”