Smart WiFi keeping 10m Liberty Connect Boxes from extinction

A statement put out this week by Liberty Global, about shifting 10 million of its Connect Box devices, is somewhat perplexing. It’s a bit like saying you have just painted the George Washington Bridge – which means only that it is time to begin back at the other end and paint it again.

Liberty Global has about 15 million broadband customers – more if you count the 50%-owned Ziggo in the Netherlands – and this is tantamount to saying that it is two thirds of the way through replacing its broadband connections with a DOCSIS 3.0 router.

Now why is that significant? Others, like Comcast in the US, are going flat out replacing DOCSIS 3.0 technology and are into the emerging DOCSIS 3.1. What most people don’t realize is that the leap to DOCSIS 3.1 uses an entirely different modulation plan, OFDM instead of QAM – it potentially uses more of the spectrum on a cable (CPE permitting) and works in clusters of 3840 OFDM signals, rather than in up to 32 channels of 6MHz (8MHz in Europe) TV channels.

Put simply that means there are new chips in all DOCSIS 3.1 devices, and real-world speeds are in the 1 Gbps range rather than the 300 Mbps range. You can’t sugar coat it, over time all of those 10 million devices need replacing. Our take on the pride of Liberty Global at hitting 10 million of what seems to be a defunct device, is that it is far from defunct. Right now, the WiFi is what is making the difference.

What would you rather have – a 1 Gbps modem that delivers just 200 Mbps maximum to each WiFi connected device – or a 300 Mbps modem that delivers all 300 Mbps in WiFi power? The net result is that by focusing on an older DOCSIS technology and slowly perfecting the WiFi quality, Liberty Global believes it is making its customers happier, and delivers just as much bandwidth per connected device.

The Connect Box, we understand, is dual sourced by Arris and Compal, uses the classic Intel Puma 6 DOCSIS chipset – mature and by now cheap – with MaxLinear tuner chips with full band capture – so again, a cheap solution. Israeli-based Celeno has kept up with the move towards both cloud managed WiFi software and 4 x 4 beamforming MIMO WiFi chips, and was responsible for putting them in the Liberty Global Horizon set top, as well as in this device.

The Connect Box was built for those with a home gateway rather than a top end set top, which needed the same class of WiFi, as Horizon boasted. This is particularly critical for Liberty Global since it also wants to enter the mobile space, using WiFi offload as often as it can. In order to achieve this, it must have a robust smart WiFi design, with control over bad apples and sticky clients, using concepts such as client steering and band steering, which are now built into its OptimizAIR software. Liberty Global has promised, but not quite yet achieved, 10 million WiFi Homespots, from its home gateways across Europe to support this offload.

The Connect box also has an extender architecture, which is built around simply plugging an extender into an electricity socket in the home and using over powerline as one option for the backhaul to the main modem. The other option for backhaul is 5 GHz WiFi and this is analogous to the way in which Turkish company AirTies and other WiFi experts, such as Plume, originally solved this problem – except it’s not a mesh, but an extender architecture. Celeno is not fond of mesh.

Another added ingredient is to put IP voice in the box also, which initially means you can plug a phone into the modem, and offer a fixed line phone service, much the same as all the telco operators do in France. It’s a short step from there to have calls made over VoWiFi using a registered smartphone and leaving the device as IP voice.

The key ingredient to all that is enabling information to pass from the WiFi in the modem, to the WiFi in the extender. This is information about potential channel states and interference. This allows it to avoid interference dynamically and move the connection of devices between the extender and the initial Access Point, as well as between 2.4 GHz and 5GHz – essentially a fully figured multi-AP strategy, binding in voice. It can all be controlled by two things – an intelligent policy manager in the cloud or it can be managed by the consumer, using an app on the smartphone.

The benefits this brings, in reduction of helpdesk and field engineering manpower, are considerable, and it makes it well worth pushing back the boast of 1 Gbps broadband to later years, while it reaps these benefits. So it has deployed this architecture in a little over 3 years, much faster than previous generations of modems, and future generations won’t be installed so rapidly, at a high capex cost, because the WiFi benefits have essentially paid for the entire project.

Liberty Global has a declared strategy of benefitting slowly from a shift to a multi-AP plan, and one of the biggest ways to get those benefits is to take any problem customers and upgrade them to include one or more extenders. This in turn means the phones ring less often, because with the right cloud policy (or even an AI managed policy) the WiFi will get out of kilter far less often and be fixed before the consumer notices and with a second AP, and the tools to move WiFi connections to the AP where they will perform best, that means help desk and field service engineer savings in the order of 30% or more – quite a payback.