It is rare that two sworn WiFi technology enemies, such as Broadcom and Quantenna go ahead and license the same technology, but this week Quantenna put out a release which read pretty much the same as one Broadcom put out a few months back, namely that it has licensed the AirTies mesh for operators.
It seems a small enough announcement, but what lurks behind this is a fundamental change to the way WiFi is being installed in homes by broadband operators, and at the heart of that change is likely to be a contract at one of the largest US operators or even more than one.
The answer is not in the current customer list of AirTies – which in the US includes only Atlantic Broadband, Frontier and Midco – substantial enough but not big enough to force to rival WiFi firms to adopt external software.
The first time we heard the expression that “hardware has gone as far as it can in WiFi” and that it was time for software to take over, was about 4 years ago. We think its time has come. Operators can no longer just put a very powerful, very clever chip in a home gateway and expect WiFi to be available all around the home and it needs several key pieces of software and a commitment to work with more than one Access Point to get good in-house wireless coverage.
The key pieces of AirTies software control a number of aspects of WiFi, including the frequent use of DFS (dynamic frequency selection), rather than just once at start up, so that it always has the best channel for a given video stream; the software to achieve “one button push” set up of a home mesh, and to extend it every time a new AP is added; plus the meshing calculations which provide the “best” route for packets based on the combined home networking environment.
But there is also something called client steering – making the device select the right node of a mesh to attach through, and band steering, whether to attach to a 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz signal – these both protect against a sticky client or a bad apple – infamous problems that beamforming hardware just make worse. And finally the software to report back and allow a help-desk to diagnose and fix problems on a remote AP from a call center.
AirTies says that an operator can now use the incredibly powerful Quantenna, 8 x 8 APs in a home gateway or one of the slightly less powerful 4 x 4, or even an 8 x 8 plus a 4 x 4 dual mode MIMO system and pair it with less developed, cheaper Broadcom chips. That way they can get the best of both worlds and run the software base mesh across all of a home’s APs. AirTies software can currently support up to 6 Aps in a single mesh in the home.
Even with a single node the operator gets full visibility into the home network with the AirTies cloud based analytics. Mesh nodes can be added later.
So out there somewhere, possibly at an operator as large as AT&T, is an operator driving this close partnership between software and hardware on WiFi, because it needs to get the most out of its WiFi. We suspect it is a telco because at present telco broadband is not quite as good as cable. The shift will be a simple proposition, taking a home gateway, then adding not an extender, but a mesh AP, the difference being that the two together can work cooperatively, rather than separately, solving the whole home WiFi issues. An extender does not know what is going on in the remainder of a WiFi deployment, whereas a meshed AP does.
Now if we worked at Qualcomm Atheros and saw this licensing deal, we would probably be knocking on the door to take our own license, same for Ralink or Marvell, – even Israel’s Celeno (although it has demonstrated some similar software). Between that list, they are all the companies providing operator class Wifi for home gateways that we can think of.
That will immediately make AirTies into a different business. Yes it still has incumbent home gateway and set top customers – for instance inside the Sky Q box in Europe (actually built by someone else and licensed to Sky) and also at Swisscom. In fact the Sky Q offers a multi-mode mesh, using 5GHz WiFi for a backhaul, and an alternate HomePlug backhaul, if the 5GHz is put out of kilter for a while. So slowly AirTies is becoming a software company, with IPR assets, based on software licensing revenues, and should not have to build set tops and gateways for much longer.
At the same time, companies like Arris are also likely to have to license this technology or at least use the chips that use this software, in their box designs. It would be better for AirTies not to compete with its biggest customers, and we could see it selling off its manufacturing business, and its direct client relationships in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe, and becoming entirely a WiFi licensing business – of course that depends on how profitable that business is.
In future WiFi built this way can obviate the need for any other home network and technologies like MoCA, may come under threat, as today it is often sold as a home backbone for multiple WiFi networks. MoCA could also provide a second backhaul feature which is far superior to HomePlug, in homes that have installed Coax – like most of America.
“AirTies and Quantenna have been successfully working together to deliver best in class video and mesh solutions for years. This partnership is the next step in our business relationship,” said Philippe Alcaras, AirTies CEO. “AirTies mesh software can leverage Quantenna’s large footprint in high performance WiFi deployments with service providers around the globe.”