I’m writing this article on the roof deck of my house two stories up from my modem. If I had a traditional Wi-Fi network, attempting to do much while so far from the router would result in pathetic connectivity. (And I certainly wouldn’t be streaming a Beyoncé video in the background.)
But thanks to a slew of new products and services, Wi-Fi is finally getting the attention it deserves as more and more people rely on the internet to deliver entertainment and service everywhere.
As connected televisions and mobile phones proliferated, faster connection speeds mattered in more parts of the home. Tracking speed became essential. For a while, people were willing to move to a better location in the home to stream their TV shows on a laptop or tablet.
But now we’re putting connected sprinklers in our garages, video doorbells on a front door and circling our properties in HD video cameras. Many homes now need both speed and coverage, and both in and outside of the home.
Wi-Fi has become so important that the Wi-Fi Alliance recently created a certification program for builders to help them build homes that are ready for Wi-Fi and wired for multiple access points in the home. The idea has been a long time coming.
Roughly five years ago I started talking to companies that were thinking about how to make Wi-Fi better, not just in terms of coverage, but also in terms of the services.
Taking a page from enterprise Wi-Fi networks, which have long had to accommodate many devices with different needs, companies like Qualcomm (which bought Atheros and Killer Networking) and Comcast (which bought PowerCloud Networks) join startups that are rolling out products and services that make Wi-Fi better.
These changes are happening on two fronts. The first is better coverage through mesh networks or easier-to-add access points. The second is by offering network based services such as security or parental controls through Wi-Fi routers. For example, the new Eero routers offer both better coverage through a mesh network as well as an optional $10-a-month-service that adds granular parental controls like ensuring Google Safe Search is on for a subset of devices and a new device security plan.
I think there is another shift coming. Instead of buying access points or fancy routers, we’re going to see Wi-Fi and services embedded in more things. Your connected television or a personal assistant might have a Wi-Fi extender built in. I’ve already talked to a big-name vendor that is exploring this idea and there’s a light switch company called Nuro Technologies that has embedded a Wi-Fi repeater into every one of its switches to ensure the best coverage.
So while today we’re buying stand-alone boxes that provide a mesh network, we’re already seeing the size of those boxes shrink and come out of the typical modem closet. Eero’s new systems offer a $149 product called a beacon that plugs into an outlet and can double as a nightlight. Plume, which recently signed a deal with Comcast, makes a “pod” that plugs into the wall to extend coverage.
Such devices are easy for an unsophisticated consumer to add to the network. Comcast says it plans to sell Plume pods to customers who complain of poor Wi-Fi. Then, the next evolution in routers will be for them to disappear entirely into devices. For that to work, customers are going to have to go all-in on a vendor, or the big Wi-Fi companies will have to work hard on the integration between devices.
Yet, I think that may happen, especially as ISPs and other big brands pursue services revenue associated with the smart home.