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3 December 2020

Plume stakes smart home security on Walleye Networks acquisition

Plume has acquired Canada’s Walleye Networks, snapping up its security offerings to augment the WiFi-focused services that Plume slings to the operator crowd. There’s a sign that Plume might actually start living up to the smart home billing it is so keen on pushing, as Walleye seems particularly focused on managing the interface between the home environment and the rest of the world.

Plume came to the fore in a blockbuster deal with Comcast, which saw Plume’s mesh WiFi expertise deployed alongside the Xfinity ecosystem. Essentially, Plume was offering a way to extend the reach of the home WiFi, via Puck devices that acted as mesh nodes, as well as a suite of network analytics and optimization tools that would try to ensure network problems were fixed before they upset customers.

However, we had already seen AirTies beat Plume to the punch, and in our dealing with Plume, the firm has been rather defensive. As it stands, AirTies serves some 9 million more homes than Plume, around 25 million, and Plume has been shifting its marketing spiel – to stress that Plume is now a Consumer Experience Management Platform provider, rather than the mesh WiFi vendor of a few years ago.

A few weeks ago, to this end, Plume emailed us a statement that clarified a claim we challenged. Initially, Plume said it had connected 800 million devices across 16 million homes, which would average out at 50 devices per home. This, Plume expanded, included both home devices and the guest devices that were only temporary residents on the networks.

At this point, those in the smart home game will have felt their ears prick up, as demarcating the boundary between the home network and guest access rights has proven to be a much harder and more persistent problem than most thought it ever could be.

Initial designs for smart home devices tended to assume that anyone on the network should be able to control devices on that same network. However, whether it was mischievous friends or misbehaving kids, having someone able to screw with lightbulbs or crank HVAC settings simply by downloading an app and being trusted by default is not a good design.

Similarly, the laughably poor security of many early smart home devices meant that it wasn’t just local users you had to be worried about. Hard-coded default credentials meant that the Mirai botnet could rack up millions of nodes in a trivial fashion, just by targeting a few ports on a router and then brute-forcing its way in.

So this is where Walleye Networks comes in, for an undisclosed price, as Plume wants to ensure that its operator customers are not on the hook when the next IoT device botnet causes havoc – knocking a hospital offline, causing power outages, or installing ransomware in places you definitely don’t want ransomware installed.

Walleye specializes in DNS infrastructure, DDoS detection, Network Behavior Anomaly Detection (NBAD), Application Performance Management (APM), and privacy analytics and management. This is being billed as providing Plume with an unparalleled level of insight, which it can use to augment its current offerings.

Notably, Walleye built its portfolio to run on the OpenSync framework, an open source project that originated inside Plume in 2015, as PML, and which was eventually integrated into the RDK project in 2018. OpenSync currently claims to connect around a billion devices across 19 million locations, and one does have to wonder how many of those are accounted for by Plume’s 800 million devices and 16 million homes claim.

A few months ago, Plume and Technicolor announced a partnership, with Technicolor paying for the Consumer Experience Management Platform and getting access to pre-integration of OpenSync for Technicolor’s upcoming WiFi 6 CPE. Reading between the lines, this likely suggests that Technicolor is readying a stronger RDK push – building on the RDK-B assets it acquired from Cisco back in 2015 and the experience working with the technology since.

So, while we have been consistently unimpressed by Technicolor’s smart home efforts, that OpenSync ecosystem does seem to have enough clout to start moving the needle. However, this is at odds with the usual smart home enthusiasm we have observed among operators.

Essentially, we have almost given up hope that the operators are going to launch Smart Home as a Service (SHaaS) devices or bundles. While there was a huge opportunity for them before Amazon and Google fortified their duopoly position, it seems that the only role left for operators to play with any gusto is as home network specialists – providing the WiFi backbone that ensures any smart home device a customer brings into their home will work as intended, and then differentiating themselves from their broadband competitors by the security elements they can add on top.

By making promises about the security of their broadband, the quality of their WiFi, and the safety of your DIY smart home when run on this offering, the operators become partners of sorts. Some might give a fully-fledged SHaaS offering a punt, but most are going to remain focused on their core business.

To this end, Walleye is a way to make Plume WiFi customers happier. It effectively lets Plume upsell, building first on WiFi, and then the Customer Experience elements, and now a platform on which to build this smart home focused security offering.