ISPs should prepare to fight to own home Wi-Fi services

For many consumers, a Wi-Fi router is no more than an ugly but necessary evil to ensure they have untethered access to the internet on all of their devices, says XCellAir co-founder Todd Mersch.

For that reason, the majority – at least 60% according to an IHS Report – are more than happy to let service providers bundle a router with their service. It means one less trip to an overcrowded electronics store to buy an alien-looking, antennae-laden device, boasting baffling features such as “Turbo QAM”.

Have you been to a Currys lately? There are huge displays right as you walk in the door of – drum roll – Wi-Fi routers. These used to be tucked away on some back corner shelf, next to the cables and PC components. So what’s going on?

Consumers are getting smarter. They have realised Wi-Fi is the performance driver for their home network – a network that increasingly must cope with not only multiple devices per resident, but also video streaming and Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

This, combined with a largely unmanaged, inconsistent and therefore frustrating Wi-Fi service from their operator, has them looking elsewhere for a better experience – and potentially switching internet service providers as evidenced in a recent Consumer Reports survey.

In turn, this burgeoning demand means there are growing numbers of new entrants providing direct-to-consumer smart Wi-Fi equipment. Companies like Eero and Luma have been launched with that very aim of fixing Wi-Fi in the home. Most of them focus on covering the whole home (in Eero’s case this comes with a $500 price tag), but when combined with cloud-based management tools consumers are now empowered to manage their own network.

Todd Mersch XCellAir

Service providers can go from zero to hero by offering a managed, consistent, and high performance home Wi-Fi service, says Mersch.

Good for consumers?

Sounds cool – right? As a consumer you look like a tech savvy wireless guru and as a service provider your customers stop calling when their Wi-Fi does not work.

But this is a short-sighted view. For the individual it’s great if you know anything about Wi-Fi, want to own service problems and are happy to shell out a lot of money for the right to do it.

However the service provider quietly forfeits the most critical component of the customer relationship and guarantees its relegation to bit-pipe status.

On the flip side, operators have an opportunity to not only save this relationship but deepen it by offering a managed, consistent, and high performance home Wi-Fi service.

To understand how an operator can move from zero to hero, you first have to have a picture of what drives the erratic and frustrating performance of today’s status quo. Wi-Fi issues can be put into a few categories.

Wi-Fi interference, congestion and coverage

First off is interference and congestion. This is where too many devices and routers are trying to use the same Wi-Fi spectrum at the same time. That challenge is exacerbated by consumers buying a more powerful router or adding unmanaged extenders.

It becomes a bit like shouting above the noise scenario – all it encourages is for everyone to raise their voices, and once everyone is shouting, no one is any better off. A whole bunch of unmanaged APs near each other means that channels are used inefficiently. Research we carried out last year found that in an average area, capacity unavailable thanks to inefficiencies was enough to stream another 25 high-definition videos.

Through intelligent and automated use of unlicensed spectrum, the operator can tap into the latent capacity and deliver better, more reliable performance. And this won’t be possible if consumers are using their own router.

The second big problem is coverage. In many larger homes, it is increasingly difficult to deliver whole home coverage with one router. Additionally, the actual placement of the Wi-Fi access point (AP) is often not ideal.

This does not mean every home needs multiple access points. The key is for the service provider to be able to identify what is driving the coverage issue – placement or the size of the area the AP is trying to cover – and proactively solve the problem. This can happen at installation as well as during operation.

Finally, there is the inherent fragility of the Wi-Fi hardware itself. In most cases, these products are mass produced at low-cost and are not designed to take the punishment we dole out. An operator has a unique skill set developed over decades of delivering highly-reliable service. By automating basic fault avoidance techniques – like resetting the router before your service is impacted – they can provide reliability not currently available.

By delivering reliable, high-performance, broad coverage and, importantly, a managed service – service providers can actively monetise Wi-Fi with services such as Wi-Fi calling, wireless video distribution and in-home IoT.

But if they do not deliver, this new breed of provider will take over the customer relationship, and rob the service provider of this opportunity.

Todd Mersh is co-founder and EVP of sales and marketing at California-based XCellAir