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18 October 2019

SoftAtHome’s sneaky mobile entrance opens gateway to huge Qualcomm deal

Some SoftAtHome feathers were ruffled over the summer when Faultline suggested rival WiFi software specialist AirTies was nudging into the French firm’s Swiss stronghold. SoftAtHome’s response has been pretty significant, porting its software on the Qualcomm Networking Pro 1200 platform in a deal designed to lay the foundations for ISPs to pair WiFi 6 and 5G networking capabilities in a single home gateway.

While we heralded the arrival of Qualcomm’s Networking Pro Series platforms in August as a milestone moment for WiFi 6 (802.11ax), the emphasis of this week’s announcement on 5G was inadvertently SoftAtHome’s way of getting back at us. We continue to highlight how WiFi and 5G are capable of operating in shared spectrum, and any argument otherwise is old hat, but it’s still true that many operators remain frustratingly behind the curve in broadband, let alone cellular.

Given that so many CSPs have missed the ball on adopting churn-reducing SHaaS packages, it seems unlikely that they are going to become bleeding-edge adopters of 5G-based services – especially ones that become willing to partner with MNOs that in many cases are competitors for their quad-play mobile offerings.

It’s worth noting that this time last year SoftAtHome struck a deal with another silicon giant, partnering with Dutch semiconductor company NXP on a project to bring edge computing to home gateways. SoftAtHome combined its Connect’ON modular service with NXP’s Layerscape multi-score processors, to be deployed on-the-fly along with NXP’s EdgeScale technology for security. Take a connected video doorbell for example, running facial recognition in the cloud which then downloads the inference model to the home gateway at set intervals. This is all done without camera data requiring continuous streaming to the cloud and therefore the application can continue to work when an internet connection is lost.

But with the NXP deal now long-forgotten, realistically how long will it be before SoftAtHome actually becomes the service platform of the future ready for 5G? The company assured us there are trials ongoing on but is not in a position to disclose any names at this stage. Our money’s on Orange.

“We make the home gateway the service platform of the future ready for 5G,” reads a big claim from SoftAtHome CEO David Viret-Lange. This is a company expert in the intricacies of video delivery and WiFi connectivity within the home – not a vendor associated with the cellular market. But that all changed in September last year, when SoftAtHome acquired V3D – a telecom data analytics specialist said to collect millions of KPIs for fixed and mobile operator clients. We got in touch with SoftAtHome and a company representative explained that, one year on, V3D has shifted focus from mobile to monitoring in-home consumer behavior data, while V3D’s cellular roots has enabled the SoftAtHome Eyes’ON WiFi analytics software to also work with 5G capable devices.

At Broadband World Forum (BBWF) last year, we observed the V3D-equipped Eyes’ON product showing how important it is for an operator to have eyes on (hence the name) the broadband speed going into a home gateway and the WiFi speed coming out. Both were compared side by side in a demo to ensure that broadband problems were not mistaken with WiFi problems and vice versa. Now 5G is being thrown into the equation and we hope to have our own eyes on a speed comparison demo soon.

Referring to a separate press release issued a day prior to SoftAtHome’s celebration provides some additional answers, occurring at this week’s BBWF event. Qualcomm has just released a new reference design for 5G-based fixed wireless access (FWA) home gateways, combining its WiFi 6-enabling Networking Pro 1200 platform with the Snapdragon X55 5G Modem-RF system.

In short, this marriage of Qualcomm products and home gateway features enables ISPs and OEMs to develop and deploy 5G and WiFi 6 together in a so-called “all-wireless” environment. It means mobile operators making substantial investments in 5G networks can bring FWA to home users, which is perhaps where SoftAtHome is in a unique position over rival vendors with its close ties to major European MNOs like Orange, O2 and TDC. “Consumers can truly cut the cord,” promises Qualcomm, once the first products hit the market sometime in the first half of 2020.

Back to the original SoftAtHome news now. Purpose-built for WiFi 6, the next-generation wireless standard which has just commenced certification, Qualcomm’s Networking Pro 1200 technology is a beast of a platform – enabling 12 WiFi 6 streams using a powerful computing architecture to deliver WiFi in tricky-to-navigate environments.

SoftAtHome brings its suite of connected home software to the party, covering Connect’ON (connectivity), WiFi’ON (optimization), Secure’ON (monitoring and analysis) and Eyes’ON (evaluation).

Together, these make up a smart WiFi package, adding crucial network analytics processes to prominent features of the new line of Networking Pro Series platforms. These include support for the WiFi 6 modulation 1024QAM which enables up to 38% higher raw throughput against WiFi 5. They also include Qualcomm’s multi-use scheduling algorithms which the company claims represents a distinctly differentiated form of traffic management for WiFi.

Building on two technologies fundamental to WiFi 6 – MU-MIMO and OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access) – Qualcomm says networks built on the new roster of platforms (of which there are four) can set a new benchmark for prioritizing network access for large numbers of connected clients.

It means Qualcomm Networking Pro Series Platforms support MU-MIMO in the uplink and downlink across all bands, ensuring up to 12 independent chains of WiFi to simultaneously connect MU-MIMO capable clients. OFDMA is supported in the uplink and downlink across all bands capable of 37 users per 5 GHz channel used.

The Pro Series Platforms portfolio includes the 1200, 800, 600 and 400, named as such to represent the number of spatial streams of WiFi 6 connectivity supported (where the 1200 supports 12 streams, 800 supports 8, etc.). All are powered by a Quad-core A53 processor ranging from 1 GHz to 2.2 GHz.

Also new at the SoftAtHome BBWF booth were demos of an Application Store downloading specific applications in a home gateway container on-demand. This includes traffic identification which it says is an instrumental feature in building advanced operator services such as parental control, QoS enforcement or security. Voice functionality has recently been added to the SoftAtHome gateway experience and last week the vendor was handed an upgrade at Orange for the new Livebox 5 home gateway.