Factors affecting home WiFi performance and what operators are doing about it

Aug. 28, 2018
Throughout the course of the research "From Managed Home Wi-Fi to Enabling the Secure Smart Home 2018-2023," we interviewed a large number of individuals from both the service provider and vendor communities. One of the first questions we asked was what top three factors were affecting WiFi performance. In what follows, these three factors are presented and discussed in further detail.

With the proliferation of devices, the home is rapidly becoming a dense communications environment requiring a new level of WiFi performance and coverage. The wireless footprint of these devices varies considerably and, unless some order is established, is a sure way towards an inconsistent WiFi experience. WiFi performance, and by extension the user experience, will suffer due to many environmental factors, such as congestion, noise and interference. Typically, users are unable to differentiate between problems caused by WiFi and other problems in the access network or in the underlying applications. Top factors affecting WiFi performance include poor customer premises equipment (CPE) placement, neighbor interference, dead zones due to the layout of the home and presence of too many legacy devices operating exclusively at 2.4 GHz.

Many residential subscribers are tackling the aforementioned problems in their own way (and at their own risk) by purchasing third-party hardware in retail stores. However, at the end, if they fail to fix their WiFi issues, they will blame their service providers for them, resulting in higher service calls, churn and operational expenses (opex) for the carriers.

Throughout the course of the research "From Managed Home Wi-Fi to Enabling the Secure Smart Home 2018-2023," we interviewed a large number of individuals from both the service provider and vendor communities. One of the first questions we asked was what top three factors were affecting WiFi performance. In what follows, these three factors are presented and discussed in further detail.

Poor access point placement

According to our interviews, poor access point (AP) placement is the No. 1 cause of WiFi related service calls. While there are many factors that can affect home WiFi operation, the placement of wireless APs can be one of the most significant factors in performance. Good AP placement must provide not only adequate coverage for all clients on a network, but also provide adequate throughput, good connectivity and minimal interference.

With the increase in low-power devices, such as tablets and cell phones, and the increasing need for roaming service over nomadic use, efficient AP placement is critical to an operating wireless network. Poor placement of access points will result in numerous issues, including but not limited to low data rates, signal bleeding, bad roaming coverage and even overspending on additional APs.

Better-informed customers along with more beautiful designs for access points can definitely contribute to curbing the customer tendency to hide access points in the closet or behind the TV set.

Dead zones

To achieve a good connection, WiFi has to overcome barriers and obstacles, some of which, such as dead zones, cannot be eliminated by simply purchasing a new wireless router. While a dead zone can be a result of poor AP placement, it is generally due to the size of the home, the walls or the materials that block signals. These factors can require multi-access points to address, either in the form of extenders or repeaters that can be backhauled with a dedicated wireless link or with wireline.

Neighbor interference

WiFi networks interfere with each other. Older WiFi standards are even worse in this respect, so old WiFi hardware is not just hurting one’s network—it is also interfering with neighbors. When multiple WiFi networks are close to each other, especially in the multiple dwelling unit (MDU) environment, they should ideally be on different channels to reduce interference.

Therefore, modern routers often try to automatically choose the best WiFi channel for the least interference. Older 802.11b/g/n networks use the 2.4 GHz range. While commonly used, these networks are not ideal for avoiding WiFi channel interference. Given that there are 14 different available wireless channels designated for use in this range, there is a considerable overlap between them. Specifically, channels 1, 6 and 11 are the most frequently used, so WiFi networks on adjacent channels do not interfere with each other. When there are more than three wireless networks in the area, they are just interfering with each other.

Modern WiFi standards operate on 5 GHz instead of 2.4 GHz. 802.11ac operates only on 5 GHz. 802.11n routers can operate on either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz, but not both — and they are typically set up to operate on 2.4 GHz.

Other factors

Other factors that negatively affect WiFi performance, according to our interviewees, are as follows:

  • Latency, which could be either WiFi or Layer 3 network related
  • Poor implementations of airtime fairness and the ability to identify and remedy “airtime hogs”
  • Legacy clients, such as 2.4 GHz-only devices, causing congestion and interference
  • Legacy gateways not supporting band steering
  • Diverse housing stock with thick walls (in Europe)
  • Complicated network and device onboarding.

There are four categories of devices in the home (see Figure 1). Each category has its own latency, throughput, level of mobility and quality of service requirements that must be managed dynamically by a smart gateway.

Figure 1. Categories of home applications. Single-radio 802.11n routers can only operate on the 5 GHz or 2.4 GHz range. However, there are multiple-radio 802.11n and 802.11ac routers that can create both 2.4 GHz interfaces for older devices and 5 GHz ones for newer ones. (Source: ARRIS)

Overall, providing proper coverage and performance in the home is more complicated than it appears to be. In most cases, throwing more RF energy at the problem will result only in aggravation of the same issues, such as a far legacy sticky client connecting to the right access points.

Service providers’ strategies

As a result, service providers are now increasingly taking ownership of the WiFi experience and are on a mission to educate their customers and manage their WiFi experience for them. To this end, while some carriers sell home WiFi as a service, others include it as part of their normal broadband service at no additional cost.

However, how do we define managed home WiFi? In essence, the carrier takes over control of the home WiFi experience by taking control of the equipment and gaining visibility of what is happening inside the home all the way to the client device.

Managing home WiFi is more complex than it appears from the outsider perspective. In fact, it involves many aspects, and the corresponding technology on the market reflects this complexity. There is no single approach to solve all coverage and performance problems. Consequently, service providers can opt for various approaches to resolve fronthaul and backhaul issues. Some operators we spoke to, e.g., Comcast or Bell Canada, are in favor of a multi-AP strategy where a 4X4 radio is complemented with a number of extenders backhauled wirelessly with a dedicated channel. By contrast, European service providers have traditionally opted for wireline backhaul and a limited number of access points.

Towards the smart home

In recent years, the connected “smart” home has become the battleground for device manufacturers, network suppliers and service providers, all wanting a piece of the action. In the traditionally controlled home space, service providers are under attack by the entry of over-the-top (OTT) suppliers such as Google, Amazon and Apple, and they need to react or otherwise be forced to remain dumb pipe providers.

For operators, adaptive WiFi is the first step towards converting the connected home into a smart-home. Adaptive WiFi offers a modern service delivery platform that is cloud-based, highly scalable, cognitive and enables operators to leverage actionable data and create new applications and services sufficiently well and quickly to outpace Amazon, Google and Apple.

Along with the service delivery platform, cognitive WiFi will enable operators to onboard, configure and secure Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as cameras, in millions of homes with common middleware. However, a number of challenges remain in ensuring interoperability and compliance between radios and communication protocols.

Forecasts 2018-2023

Managed WiFi is a fast-growing market. We forecast that, by 2023, over 140 million broadband lines in the top 34 countries worldwide will have service provider managed WiFi (see Figure 2). This represents a 14% penetration of the total broadband lines in service in 2023.

Figure 2. The number of home broadband lines with managed WiFI is expected to increase rapidly. (Source: "From Managed Home WiFi to Enabling the Secure Smart Home 2018-2023")

Adlane Fellah is the founder and senior analyst at Maravedis LLC, a boutique wireless infrastructure firm since 2002. He authored various reports on WiFi, LTE, 4G and technology trends in various industries including retail, restaurant and hospitality. He is regularly asked to speak at wireless and marketing events and to contribute to various portals and magazines such as RCR Wireless, 4G 360, Rethink Wireless, The Mobile Network and Telecom Reseller, to name a few. He is a Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) and Certified Wireless Technology Specialist (CWTS).

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