Best practices in WiFi management

July 14, 2021
The best way to ensure the best WiFi performance for customers, and the best overall broadband experience across the whole customer base, is with a managed WiFi service.

Communications service providers (CSPs) deliver brilliant broadband to homes and businesses using various access technologies like fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), copper VDSL2, or fixed wireless access (FWA). In many countries, residential customers can even subscribe to 1-Gbps broadband access services.

However, the broadband experience is only ever as good as the in-home WiFi. If the WiFi network performs below par, the whole experience is bad, regardless of how fast the service to the home is. Of course, the customer doesn’t know or care whether the problem is with their WiFi or their broadband; their CSP will get the blame either way.

WiFi coverage is an important parameter in the broadband experience, especially as family members are often spread out around the home, all needing a fast broadband connection at the same time. So, high-performing, whole-home WiFi has become essential for CSPs to be successful in offering broadband services (especially higher-tier services). But there are two more challenges for CSPs to consider:

  1. Most customers don’t know how to get the best performance from their WiFi, let alone how to tweak all the WiFi parameters.
  2. Most homes still have WiFi access points (APs) that support older WiFi technologies, like WiFi 5 or even WiFi 4. If the broadband experience were improved for these customers, CSPs could prolong the life of these APs, avoiding a sudden peak in investment to upgrade them to the latest WiFi 6.

CSPs get a lot of WiFi-related calls at their helpdesks; we estimate that about 60% of all helpdesk calls are WiFi related. Helpdesk agents have to follow a trial-and-error method to solve issues as they have no visibility into individual networks. This leads to long helpdesk calls (20-30 minutes each), and then 10% of those calls typically end up with a technician having to go on-site. All of this adds up to a significant operational expense.

The best way to ensure the best WiFi performance for customers, and the best overall broadband experience across the whole customer base, is with a managed WiFi service. The simpler, better user experience results in the number of helpdesk calls and truck rolls being reduced by an estimated 30%; the net promotor score (NPS, indicative of customer satisfaction) increases 10 to 40 percentage points; and the number of premium customers increases by 30-45%.

Service provider managed WiFi

The objective of a “service provider managed WiFi” solution is to help customers get the most from their WiFi. The majority of WiFi households have a single access point, likely integrated into their residential gateway or tethered to their broadband modem via Ethernet. A single AP home may benefit from the latest WiFi technology, such as WiFi 6, which would require new hardware deployment, or it can be optimized with a managed WiFi service or extended with a second access point, commonly known as mesh WiFi or whole-home WiFi. Mesh WiFi helps to improve WiFi coverage and the quality of the customer experience. But the need for managed WiFi grows exponentially with mesh WiFi (multiple mesh APs) because it adds another layer of complexity that requires management and optimization of the mesh backhaul between two mesh access points.

A service provider managed WiFi solution ensures the best possible broadband experience by:

  • Automating the WiFi optimization process as much as possible, resulting in a self-optimizing network.
  • Dynamically adjusting WiFi settings to mitigate any potential issues and provide the highest throughput to all devices.
  • Giving CSPs the tools to effectively manage WiFi-related problems when they occur.

This requires two levels of WiFi optimization: local optimization in the in-home WiFi network and remote, cloud-based optimization.

Local WiFi optimization

WiFi is a dynamic medium. The wireless environment constantly changes – think of neighboring WiFi interference; household appliances being switched on and off that can also interfere with WiFi (microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, baby monitors); users moving around; and so on. A lesser-known issue is with radar. If, for example, weather radars start scanning, regulations in many countries state that WiFi access points in the neighborhood need to back off from those frequencies (Dynamic Frequency Selection or DFS channels).

WiFi APs need embedded algorithms to detect and mitigate issues like these in real-time. In the case of interference, a different channel needs to be selected. But think also of band steering and client steering that need to happen in real-time. This is what we refer to as real-time, reactive WiFi optimization or “self-optimizing” WiFi.

Cloud-based WiFi optimization

Additional algorithms in the cloud can complement local optimization with a more thorough, proactive WiFi optimization through data collection and computational power. The data is collected anonymously without any correlation to personal data (GDPR compliant) and the algorithms will analyze the data and take action, changing WiFi parameters or even enforcing certain policies, and providing alerts and reports. In addition, the cloud brings visibility of neighboring WiFi APs, so that the impact of one AP on another can be taken into account.

Typical examples of that proactive WiFi optimization are transmit power control, long-term frequency planning, load balancing across channels and bands, and so on.

Managing various types and brands of AP is facilitated by the industry transition towards TR-369, also called User Services Platform (USP), as a common communication protocol between access points and the cloud platform.

WiFi management use cases

There are four main use cases for WiFi management.

Managing new deployments

CSPs always like to consider the future. Deploying devices with local intelligence combined with cloud-based optimization today avoids complex and costly updates further down the line.

For new deployments, CSPs can balance the activities that need to be done locally (reactive actions in real-time) against those that can be done proactively in the cloud. Local actions can include band steering and client steering, while cloud-based actions can include channel selection, transmit power control, and load balancing traffic across the WiFi channels.

Managing legacy deployments

The majority of WiFi APs in homes today are WiFi 5 capable. But in terms of client devices, the situation is far less predictable; most webcams today still only support WiFi 4. If a CSP can manage WiFi networks from the cloud and optimize them for the way client devices connect, then the CSP doesn’t have to immediately replace APs. Prolonging the life of those devices equates to valuable capex savings.

For legacy APs that do not have self-optimizing embedded algorithms, it is equally important to be able to manage them from the cloud, managing all the WiFi parameters of the AP. This enables CSPs to manage all WiFi APs regardless of technology or vendor.

Some of the actions that need to be taken are:

  • Enforcing use of the correct channels (e.g., only using channels 1, 6, or 11 on the 2.4 GHz band) to minimize neighboring interference.
  • Driving client devices as much as possible to the 5 GHz band.
  • Ensuring client devices use a channel width of 80 MHz (if they support it).

In addition to the two-level WiFi optimization, a cloud platform can bring two more benefits.

Give helpdesk agents real-time visibility

WiFi is intangible to both the end-user and the help desk agent. What if a managed WiFi service can help the help desk agent to assist with troubleshooting the end-user problems? That platform can then be used by help desk agents to get real-time visibility of the in-home network, giving information about the network topology, the connected devices, traffic patterns, and so on. That information would allow help desk agents to pinpoint anomalies and solve customers’ issues very quickly. This way, both the time needed to solve an issue and the number of truck rolls can be reduced.

Obtain network-wide KPI reporting to track WiFi network performance

A CSP could also obtain detailed reports about the performance of all their WiFi networks. Those reports can then also be used to detect anomalies offline and manually step in and further optimize performance.

Another useful tool is an AP ranking system that gives a list of, for example, the 100 APs that have been rebooting the most or that are most susceptible to interference, again to enable further investigation and performance optimization.

Conclusion

A service provider managed WiFi solution can optimize WiFi performance for all customers – both the ones with the latest WiFi technology (ensuring that this technology is used to the maximum effect), and those with older WiFi technology (giving these devices an improved performance and extended life). The key component of this WiFi optimization is a cloud platform from which both types of devices can be managed and optimized.

Combined with embedded algorithms in the WiFi APs, CSPs can bring the best performance to their customer base, ensuring the best overall broadband experience. The outcomes are reduced opex, reduced customer churn, and increased revenue generation by selling more higher-tier broadband and other value-add services.

Laszlo Gyalog is responsible for the marketing of the Digital Home within Nokia’s Fixed Networks Division. Once we have brought ultra-broadband to the home, the challenge is how to extend this ultra-broadband within the home. Laszlo's main topic is Nokia WiFi (meshed networking, complemented by advanced analytics). Laszlo leverages on 30 years of experience in telecommunications, with a wide variety of responsibilities, that turned out to be the perfect basis for his current role.

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