Home Wi-Fi Evolves: Consumer Needs and Expectations

Would you take a huge V8 engine, made for a truck the size of a small building hurtling down the motorway at high speed, and strap it to your bicycle?

YouTube-worthy outcomes notwithstanding, it would be pointless. Something with that amount of power and capability being hamstrung by the vehicle it’s attached to seems like such a waste, doesn’t it?

Well, this is what we as an industry have been doing for years now with Wi-Fi routers, primarily those for the home. You can now go out and easily buy routers from any major electronics outlet capable of, when counting all their myriad radio interfaces, multiple gigabits of data throughput per second, all wirelessly. Then take it home and connect it to a broadband connection usually slower than 50 Mbps.

A mismatch as puzzling, if not as amusing, as the V8 strapped to a bicycle.

Yet, the industry shows no sign of slowing down in this regard. CES 2017 saw many networking equipment vendors showing off their newest, biggest and fastest home Wi-Fi routers, some with enough antennas protruding from the angular black casing to resemble a particularly large spider adorned with blinking lights and logos.

Are bigger and faster home Wi-Fi routers actually meeting the consumer’s needs? It could be argued that the mass market buys either the cheapest box or the one recommended or provided by their internet service provider, and so these high-end home Wi-Fi routers are the domain of the enthusiast or power user who appreciates the extra bells and whistles, even if they know the majority of the speed is wasted due to their uplink connection speed.

But look at it from the perspective of an average consumer. Walk into any big-box electronics store today or browse Amazon with little background knowledge, and it’s difficult to understand that the ‘fastest Wi-Fi’ doesn’t necessarily mean the best user experience for you, in your home. The natural choice is to gravitate to the ‘fastest’ option, as that intuitively should be the ‘best’.

Large internet service providers such as BT have been playing this game for a while. By blurring the lines between the Wi-Fi router they offer to their customers and the actual internet service speed they are providing, they can market against their competition more effectively with ‘the fastest Wi-Fi’ being equated by many to mean ‘the fastest internet service’.

A benefit for them, to be sure; but it also serves to confuse the average consumer further.

The majority of issues with Wi-Fi user experience in the home aren’t to do with the processor in the router, the different classification and customisation features it has or even the number of antennas the router itself has. The core problem experienced by most people is coverage; a single Wi-Fi router, no matter how big and impressive it is, is failing to cover the expanse of people’s homes with the myriad obstructions and difficulty penetrating multiple floors and walls of differing materials and densities.

Spending more money on that single world’s-fastest Wi-Fi router isn’t solving this problem.

Fortunately, there are Wi-Fi solutions attempting to address this challenge in different and innovative ways. Numerous mesh or semi-mesh Wi-Fi systems with a slick consumer-grade level of polish have emerged recently, complete with app-based control and configuration, one-touch setup and all the other niceties that not only look good on the specification sheet but also actually improve the user experience.

By splitting a traditional Wi-Fi single router deployment in the home into several (typically 3), these systems are taking what we see happening in enterprise Wi-Fi in recent years and also in cellular networks and applying it to the home – they are enabling network densification, but unlike the enterprise or cellular networks, it serves just as much to improve coverage as it does capacity.

These systems also seek to make features like parental controls, buried impenetrably to the average user in most home Wi-Fi products, easy to use and operate. Apple have shown that slick integration and a feeling that it ‘just works’ is worth serious money, and is likely to get products recommended by word of mouth as well. A satisfying user experience from setup to day-to-day operation will beat one that excels at network performance, but trips up when it comes to user interaction with the system.

Is one type of system better than another? In Wi-Fi, as in all things, this heavily depends on the user’s needs, which only they themselves can truly define. However, I believe that as more light is shed for the general public on coverage rather than capacity being the biggest impediment to their home Wi-Fi experience, these multi-unit packaged Wi-Fi systems, despite their higher price than a single router in many cases, will see widespread consumer adoption, and provide widespread consumer benefits.

Cost may not be an argument against these systems for very long either, as prices begin to fall and consumers see real benefits. This combination should worry Wi-Fi vendors with an eye on the huge home market that do not consider development of these types of systems a priority – without them, they risk being left behind when compared to the substantial user experience benefits offered by a well-integrated, multi-unit Wi-Fi system.

Ultimately, it is consumers, not equipment vendors, who decide which equipment best meets their needs, and as with Apple they have shown that price is not the only consideration, and nor is pure specification sheet one-upmanship.

The home Wi-Fi market is learning these lessons as we speak, and the repercussions for those equipment vendors who do not pay close attention will be severe.