With the prospects of working and learning at home now extending well into the future, the importance of high-quality home WiFi has never been more apparent. We’ve all become incredibly dependent on it, not only for work and school, but for entertainment, information, and connections to the outside world.
Not surprisingly, because of that growing dependence, as well as increased usage levels and a growing variety of devices that leverage WiFi connections, some cracks have started to show. Many consumers are finding that the WiFi networks they had previously set up can’t easily handle the amount of traffic that their households are now placing on them. Additionally, with more people at home, the need to have reliable connections that extend to every corner of the house has quickly evolved from a nice-to-have capability to an essential requirement.
Thankfully, there are some important WiFi innovations that can help ease the congestion on crowded home networks, while simultaneously extending their range and increasing the speed at which connections occur. The first of these, WiFi mesh, came into existence several years ago. A mesh network uses multiple WiFi router-like devices (called nodes in a mesh network) that work together, not only to extend the WiFi signal across a wider area (or, say, multiple floors) in a house, but also to intelligently and efficiently route data packets from various connected devices out to the internet and back again. Thanks to some clever software, as well as a dedicated channel for sending data between the different nodes on a mesh network, these systems offer a very powerful, yet very simple way to improve the quality and speed of any home WiFi network.
The other big WiFi innovations are the new WiFi 6 and WiFi 6E standards (discussed in more detail in “New WiFi 6E Standard Brings 5G-Related Technologies To Local Area Wireless”). These new additions bring support for more efficient use of existing 2.4 and 5GHz WiFi transmission standards with larger numbers of devices—in the case of WiFi 6—and the addition of a staggering 1.2 GHz of new radio spectrum at 6 GHz for WiFi 6E (in the US, at least). Put simply, it’s next generation WiFi and the biggest and most important jump that’s been introduced to the standard since its origination.
Given these developments, it’s not hard to see that it would be great to combine WiFi 6/6E support with next-generation WiFi mesh standards, which is exactly what wireless chipmaker Qualcomm has done with its new Immersive Home Platform line of WiFi chips. Consisting of four different options that support different combinations of these new technologies, the 214 and 216 (which support four and six streams of WiFi 6, respectively) and the 316 and 318 (both of which add support for WiFi 6E, plus support six and eight streams respectively), open up a range of different options for WiFi mesh system makers such as Netgear, Linksys, TP-Link, Google, Amazon, Samsung, and others to build a new line of advanced WiFi mesh systems that will likely come to market in early 2021.
What’s particularly nice about these new chips is that they can help address some of the limitations of earlier WiFi mesh systems, while adding support for the latest industry standards. First, as powerful as WiFi mesh technology can be, earlier implementations were both expensive and bulky. By definition, mesh systems require at least two WiFi router/gateway devices (and many systems come bundled with three or more), so the costs associated with multiple devices can quickly add up.
In addition, as with many technologies, early iterations of WiFi mesh nodes didn’t always have the most space-efficient designs. Thanks to dramatic improvements in power efficiency and overall integration, the price points for systems powered by these chips can be much lower than first-generation systems. Also, the physical designs can be reduced to modules that are no larger than simple plug-in night lights.
One other concern of the first-generation systems was that they tended to be proprietary to the company that made them. So, for example, if you bought a system from Vendor A and decided you wanted to add an additional node or replace a faulty one, you had to purchase it from the same vendor. Thanks to support for the WiFi Alliance’s EasyMesh protocol, devices built with Qualcomm’s Immersive Home Platform chips could allow easy mixing and matching of different vendors’ products should you choose to expand your initial system.
More importantly, for broadband carriers that provide the current WiFi routers that power a large percentage of home WiFi networks, support for EasyMesh makes it easier for them to potentially work with multiple hardware and silicon partners. That, in turn, should encourage more of them to offer WiFi mesh systems as part of their broadband offerings, which will bring the technology to a much broader set of consumers.
Speaking of technology, integrating support for WiFi 6 should improve the overall efficiency of existing WiFi networks, plus it enables native support for the WiFi 6-capable devices that have started to come to market. WiFi 6E support in the 300 line extends that concept even further, by offering future-proofing for when WiFi 6E-powered client devices become available and adding the unique capability of moving all the node-to-node backhaul communications to the 6 GHz band.
As mentioned earlier, all WiFi mesh networks use a form of what’s called backhaul to communicate between nodes and guarantee connectivity across the entire network. This means you can get immediate benefits from the 6GHz WiFi 6E support (even before you eventually start to add 6E-capable devices), because it removes any potential traffic congestion from the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, keeping them free for device-to-internet connections.
Given the tremendous demands for improved WiFi downlink and uplink speeds, with the ongoing reality of videoconferencing-based calls, as well as the clear need for better in-home coverage and reliability, thanks to our growing usage of wireless technologies, there’s no question that WiFi mesh is the right answer for virtually every connected home. It offers better, faster, more reliable wireless connections than a standalone WiFi router, and as we’ve all learned, the importance of those connections has never been more apparent (nor is it ever likely to go away—even when the pandemic finally does fade from our day-to-day lives).
Of course, even within those basic needs, it’s still fair to recognize that not every household has the same needs as every other. Depending on the number of people, the number of devices, the number of services, and the overall varying levels of usage that households have, it makes sense that Qualcomm’s new Immersive Home Platform offers different levels of capabilities and different types of price points. Ultimately, this will help raise the overall bar for what a connected home can and should be, while still accommodating consumers’ current and future needs and budget.