opinion


Is the ‘smart router’ smart enough for the smart home?

Intelligence quotient. Word IQ on blue wooden background

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Todd Mersch, EVP of Sales & Marketing at XCellAir, has a look at whether WiFi is actually becoming ‘smarter’ or if it is just another shallow buzzword.

It’s tough for internet service providers to differentiate their offerings. Comparison websites rank their speeds, the cost, and any additional benefits, making it a simple choice for consumers. Most will choose the cheapest available, or perhaps upgrade if they want to spend a little more for a faster service.

Speed remains a popular way to tempt customers, as does attaching increasingly hysterical prefixes – superfast, ultrafast, hyperfast. Recently, strength has gained on speed, referring to the strength of the WiFi signal and promising connectivity around the home. But one new adjective that’s entering this race and is gaining ground is ‘smart’. ‘Smart scans’ and ‘smart hubs’ are just two ways that providers are selling their WiFi as better than the competition.

But are these offerings actually smart, or is it just a new buzzword?

One smart router, offered by a service provider, promises to give you a reliable WiFi connection around your home. But the actual “smart features” it offers aren’t quite as smart as a customer might want.

The router boasts multiple antennae, dual bands and ‘next-generation’ WiFi, and the website touts its speed and power. While it is great to see operators paying increased attention to WiFi and these enhancements are valuable to a consumer, they are about increasing performance and not adding intelligence. In fact, there is only one feature that can be described as smart – the router will monitor the internet connection, and if it can, it will reboot and make a fresh connection. Self-healing a connection like this is a useful first step, but describing it as ‘smart’ is a stretch. It may fix many connection problems using the tried and tested Level 1 IT support method of switching it off and on again – but this is only helpful if something has gone wrong with the connection between the router and the ISP, and not the connection between the router and the device.

Other ‘smart routers’ boast features that certainly provide value but fall short of being truly smart, such as parental controls and making connecting new devices simple. The truth is that when it comes to smart routers, ‘smart’ is often meaningless. Unlike ‘fast’ and ‘strong’, however, it’s tough to measure and difficult for rivals to refute.

So, we’re likely to see ‘smart’ gain currency with those promoting the provision of customer WiFi, but not only because it’s trickier to make a direct comparison. ‘Smart’ will resonate with consumers that are buying into the idea of a smart home, installing smart thermostats, smart security systems, smart lighting, and smart appliances and controlling everything with a device such as Amazon’s Echo or a Google Hub. WiFi, being so integral to the home, surely deserves to be smart too. But consumers will be disappointed when all these routers offer is automatic rebooting when it goes wrong, and not much more – making them the dumbest part of the smart home.

So what technology can ISPs look to adopt that will make their routers genuinely smart?

We know from research that WiFi use is incredibly inefficient, making poor use of the capacity available. In an average built-up area, these inefficiencies, if dealt with, would free up enough capacity to stream another 25 high-definition videos. Automated and intelligent – aka truly ‘smart’ – use of WiFi spectrum would give users access to the full potential of WiFi spectrum and deliver better, more reliable performance. Making intelligent use of the spectrum available for the devices connected to a network in a way that avoids interference is a much smarter approach than simply relying on having the strongest signal.

As well as ensuring that devices can connect easily, a truly smart router would also ensure that devices are connected to the best possible radio, based on their distance from the access point, the type of device and how it’s being used, and the congestion on the radio. 5GHz is not always better than 2.4GHz for every device. A smart router would also connect devices to the best access point in a multi-AP system – vital when devices will be moving around with people.

In addition to this intelligent management of WiFi, the router is an opportunity for ISPs to offer a user-friendly approach to home device management. With PCs, laptops, tablets, phones, games consoles, cameras, smart meters, cameras and an increasing number of smart home devices connecting to WiFi, ‘smart’ could also mean giving users an easy way to navigate what to many will be an impenetrable mess of MAC numbers and IP addresses.

No one wants to be the dumbest person in the room – ISPs should avoid using ‘smart’ as a meaningless buzzword and rescue the router from this ignominy.

Todd MerschTodd Mersch, EVP of Sales & Marketing at XCellAir. As Co-Founder and EVP, Sales & Marketing at XCellAir, Todd is responsible for worldwide sales, product management and marketing. Prior to founding XCellAir, he spent nine years leading the Trillium software business at both Continuous Computing and Radisys.

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