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20 December 2022

WiFi 6E rescues fixed broadband operators with improved last hop

Domestic WiFi has long been a bugbear for home broadband services delivered over wireline or fixed wireless access (FWA) connections. As WiFi became widely used as the last hop in the home for connecting laptops, tablets, gaming consoles and other devices to the Internet, consumers became more demanding of performance.

Often problems with the WiFi itself overshadowed improvements in the fixed broadband, with variable coverage around the home and users tending to blame their provider for problems beyond their reach. This in turn led to various tools being developed by WiFi equipment and technology vendors, designed to give operators some visibility over the WiFi network beyond their gateway or router, which previously they regarded as the end point of their jurisdiction.

Repeaters to regenerate the signal were increasingly deployed and supplied by operators themselves, either as part of the service or optional extras. Operators expanded their online or telephone help capabilities to support WiFi and provide troubleshooting.

But still WiFi remained a pain point for many broadband operators even as WiFi 5 came along in 2014, largely because of increasing demands from applications and expectations from consumers. Matters came to a head in many countries during the Covid-19 pandemic because the associated lockdowns led to more home working and increased demands on existing WiFi 5 networks. Problems arose when several users in the home were running demanding applications at once, such as HD video streaming, videoconferencing, gaming and file transfers. Users would start complaining when video in sessions over Zoom or Teams froze, or audio slipped out of sync.

Many of these problems are being resolved by deployment of WiFi 6E, as a number of broadband operators around the world have found over the past year. Telcos have approached this in various ways, in some cases starting by positioning WiFi 6E as an option, or for backhauling existing WiFi 5 devices on the ground that not many need the extra bandwidth directly.

Broadcom, as a major provider of WiFi chips that has a much smaller presence in 5G, has naturally been keen to trumpet early successes of 6E improving home broadband connectivity and reducing the burden of supporting consumer customers in particular.

The first step came with WiFi 6, according to Broadcom, with the ability to schedule bandwidth to devices according to their requirements, as well as reduce impact on performance of multiple users sharing the network, depending on what they are doing. As Broadcom has admitted at various times, opening up the 6 GHz band for unlicensed WiFi operation with WiFi 6E has improved that capacity for multiple users much further, and crucially for operators, enables them to meet the aspirations and demands of their users.

Broadcom does concede though that WiFi 7 will be needed to finish that job by making full use of the 6 GHz band with the help of Multi Link Operation (MLO – see separate item on WiFi testing).

A number of telcos that provide fixed broadband have already offered WiFi 6E to their subscribers in some form. Verizon in the USA was one of the first, unveiling a triband WiFi 6E router spanning the three WiFi bands in December 2021. This was rolled out through 2022 with the interesting twist that it was the first WiFi router aimed at both wired broadband (Verizon’s Fios FTTx service in this case) and 5G FWA. Verizon suggested this was part of a trend towards convergence of home broadband across wireline and fixed wireless.

AT&T was rather more ambivalent about WiFi 6E, as it has been about FWA, talking about it as a possible backhaul technology in the first instance, interconnecting existing WiFi 5 access points in perhaps a resilient mesh. The argument there is that few individual devices yet require the capacity of WiFi 6E, but the network as a whole does to enable simultaneous access at high performance to multiple users.

In Europe Swisscom has been one of the frontrunners, launching its WLAN-Box 3, triband mesh repeater and access point based on Wi-Fi 6E in September 2022. This is based on software called Wifi’ON from French vendor SoftAtHome, which enables automatic triband steering between the 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and 6 GHz bands to spread traffic efficiently between them and make optimum use of the aggregate capacity.

It also assists operation of repeaters to boost signals in larger homes especially, by automatically selecting the best WiFi channel for each home AP. It helps devices roam to the AP and WiFi band best placed to meet their connectivity requirements at a given time. In this way it reduces the support burden for operators as the network is more likely to satisfy user requirements.

French telco Orange also went to SoftAtHome for the guts of its WiFi 6E operator box launched earlier in April 2022. Called Livebox 6, this is also supporting automatic triband steering, but in addition incorporates SoftAtHome’s Eyes’ON to give end users some self-diagnostic capacities based on real-time analytics, for example to help place repeaters within the home optimally.

This again reduces the support burden, although it is still not entirely clear how actively consumers employ these capabilities in situations where for various reasons their home RF environment changes. Nevertheless, through the evolving standards coupled with capabilities provided by third party vendors, WiFi is becoming more manageable and better placed to support multiple users and simultaneous running of demanding applications.