WiFi mesh patents will gain in value as operators race to multi-AP homes

A patents battle may be brewing in WiFi mesh software, which is in the limelight as operators around the world move to support multiple WiFi access points in each home, potentially doubling or even trebling the number of devices involved in next generation WiFi.

A side-effect of this is likely to be more robust in-home WiFi, a dramatic reduction in sales of retail WiFi devices (improving operator control), and a reducing need for wired backhaul in most homes. And it all comes down to technical improvements which have been building up over the past 6-7 years.

Eight months ago, Comcast came out with a surprise announcement at the CES show, saying that by the end of 2017 it would offer software to all its 15m Xfinity customers, which would allow both the consumer and a remote helpdesk to control how WiFi is operating. In May, it followed this up by saying it had signed a deal with US firm Plume (née Wildfire.Exchange), and had taken a shareholding in the company.

Irvind Ghai, VP of product management for WiFi mesh at Qualcomm Atheros, told analysts at our sister service, Faultline Online Reporter, that all those Plume devices can have Atheros chips inside them (though officially Plume is hardware agnostic), and more importantly, they will work with a Comcast X3 router which also has an Atheros chip inside it. So all those chips at Comcast Xfinity could come out of Atheros – at 15m homes, and three APs per home, that would be some 45m chips in a year. In a country where there are only 118m homes, that’s a lot of chips.

Ghai also said that he has two more Tier 1 accounts which will show their hands this year on mesh, and we have already seen Broadcom and Quantenna licensing software very akin to Plume mesh software from Turkish firm AirTies, possibly to retain supply deals with a large operator (perhaps AT&T?). AirTies has already licensed its mesh technology to Sky in the UK, Germany and Italy. This even allows for powerline as an alternative backhaul, where 5 GHz WiFi signals are not clear enough. AirTies has already landed three Tier 2 deals in the US and Israeli rival Celeno has also claimed that it has a Tier 1 account coming in the US.

So four of the US majors are probably about to go to market with very aggressive and very similar services covering as many as 74m homes over the next few years, at three APs per home. Potentially this will also improve performance for any homespot-based WiFi network, like the one that Comcast will use to support its new Xfinity mobile service.

Fundamentally this next generation of home WiFi relies on mesh, and the key ingredient is that each AP knows what is going on with the other APs in the mesh. They know if they change channel and have access to channel state information stored for neighboring channels, in case they have to jump to a spare channel, which is less congested. For instance they know if they have a neighboring AP from next door interfering and reducing their performance level even if they cannot witness that directly, but get it from another mesh node.

Until now most retail products have focused on selling extender products to improve full home WiFi performance. These work in the same way, except that they do not share information, they merely pass on the signal. This makes the WiFi vulnerable to local interference and unable to offer client steering and band steering features.

The emergence of Plume as a retail product is meant to do away with this. It is a genuine mesh product which has controlling software in the cloud, which takes all of this information that the mesh has, and takes clever policy decisions on how the WiFi should work. It uses client steering, which is where the network decides which AP is best for a particular client, and band steering, where it decides whether 2.4 GH or 5 MHz is best for that client.

It is tough to work out how much of this is native on the Qualcomm chips and how much is managed by the Plume software. But Plume has the job of integrating its tiny devices. These are little more than electrical plugs with radios and antennas attached, which take an existing WiFi signal and spread it around the home in an intelligent mesh. With the Comcast service they have to get the existing router to become part of the mesh, and this can then report back to a cloud server with all the home network’s data.

This is a fantastic improvement for an operator’s helpdesk, which can avoid a huge percentage of truck rolls, because it knows, by using that cloud data, what is going on with the home WiFi network. It can then use client steering and other facilities like cutting off a troublesome device or putting one device WiFi to sleep, to stop whatever is wrong with the network.

The next step is to anticipate these changes and do them automatically and also to put them in the hands of the customer, who can control things through an app, such as putting their children’s devices’ WiFi connections to sleep, when they the child is supposed to sleep. Add facilities like a cloud-based parental control and there are many reasons to take WiFi from the operator, not from retail.

Ghai commented: “The retail supply chain knows it has to innovate and get to 802.11ax early, and bring in things like voice integration to stay ahead of operators.”

With all this race to innovate in home WiFi, it will be interesting to see who seeks to exploit the patents which must be held by the likes of Plume and AirTies – whether in litigation, expanded licensing agreements or to secure an acquisition.