French set top and home gateway software specialist SoftAtHome, told us its next platform is all about WiFi when we talked this week at TV Connect. It came as something of a surprise.
David Souhami, Director of Innovation at SoftAtHome made the point that “It’s no good trying to get 1 Gbps WiFi, if the device you want to connect to it ends up with just a 20 Mbps stream.”
Many smart players have tried to cope with this intricate problem, but rarely a company which is such a friend to the operator. Today SoftAtHome’s shareholders are Orange, Etisalat and Swisscom – three operators which have taken its standardized software stack on board. The SoftAtHome sell is that it holds equipment vendors to task, by providing a common software stack.
We reminded Souhami that he is late to the game and that rivals such as home gateway providers AirTies and Arris, each have systems which claim to control WiFi. The SoftAtHome system is subtly different and he talks about a Home Gateway consisting of two separate chips which offer dual mode in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz and coined his own term for bouncing a client out of one of these modes into the other – calling it band steering, a term the company first used when it provided software for an Orange Home Gateway in 2014, which had a Quantenna 5.0 GHz chip and a Broadcom chip for 2.4 GHz,
AirTies introduced the idea of client steering a few years ago, the idea of moving a connection from one Access Point to another to prevent sticky client and bad apple problems with WiFi. Arris has since offered its own style of providing client steering.
SoftAtHome has something like the AirTies set up, but acknowledged the issues in WiFi. The AirTies system also uses multiple frequent DFS attempts (dynamic frequency selection) which is how the Access Point finds a free channel. To do this it waits until the AP has spare time and then looks at adjacent channels and then stores the channel states and then, when it experiences interference, it jumps immediately to the nearest channel which will offer no interference. Souhami also told us that while AirTies uses a mesh network, it does not, instead using extenders, which are subtly different in how they work.
But there is the same problem that if the extender has interference, in that the home gateway still has no way of knowing about the interference because it’s radio cannot reach, and this has to be communicated back to the main AP, telling it to find a new channel for the entire network. In a mesh network, each of the nodes are separate APs but they still must talk to each other in the same channels.
“Operators do not want to get themselves locked into chipset providers and in our implementation, we are trying to make this work generically across all chip types, “said Souhami, “not just one flavour.” That makes the effort even more ambitious.
SoftAtHome got a new CEO back in January, in David Viret-Lange, who has had a career in Orange, dating right back to its first ADSL efforts, and he may have had some influence in pointing SoftAtHome in this direction, although customers like Orange are certainly hitting the limits of what WiFi can do without these types of tools.
The automatic next step from here is to model the performance of each connection throughout the network and visualize it in an app either at the help desk of the operator or on the smartphone of the customer and allow the app to invoke Band steering or Client steering, where that will fix the network and provide something closer to full WiFi speeds.
In an RFP for such a product at AT&T, its own in-house team won the contract, and it planned to roll it out during 2016, but as yet we have seen no signs of it, although we know that both Arris and AirTies bid on that contract. They may soon have another WiFi player who will join such bids in SoftAtHome.