SmallNetBuilder’s CES 2016 Wrap Up

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Tim Higgins

CES has produced a few surprises in the past couple of years, with the introduction of 4×4 MU-MIMO routers at CES 2014 and Broadcom’s 1024-QAM curveball thrown in with the introduction of its MU-MIMO chipset at CES 2015.

I’ve had time to digest the announcements and private chats during my week in Sin City and some major themes have emerged.

More 5 GHz Channels

The brave new world of 802.11ac Wi-Fi works its magic in the 5 GHz band. The good news is 5 GHz has 8 / 9 non-overlapping 20 MHz wide channels vs. the three in the 2.4 GHz band. The bad news is those eight channels are effectively reduced to two by 802.11ac’s need for 80 MHz wide channels to produce its Gigabit+ link rates.

The 5 GHz band actually has 25 channels, but 16 of them, commonly referred to as DFS (Dynamic Frequency Selection) channels, are shared by military and weather radar. Because of this sharing, access points and routers that want to access DFS channels must periodically scan for radar activity and immediately move to another channel if activity is detected.

DFS channels

DFS channels

DFS scanning adds more overhead to a router’s processor already busy with many other tasks. It also requires connections be dropped when scanning and when radar is detected, making for a unhappy users. So consumer wireless router makers generally don’t implement DFS or make it available only in certain regions outside the U.S.

Startup Ignition Design Labs (IDL) came out of stealth at CES to reveal its Ignition technology aimed at enabling easy access to DFS channels. The startup of ~ 30 employees led by former Qualcomm Atheros (QCA) engineers is spread among Seattle, California and Taiwan. What they’ve produced is a small module and companion cloud service that can be designed into any standard router architecture.

The module is a dedicated radio and processor that continuously scans for and logs activity (or lack thereof) in DFS channels. Because scanning is continuous, Ignition-equipped routers will be able to use DFS channels just like non-DFS channels, adding four more 80 MHz wide channels (IDL calls these "FastLanes"). More channels provide more options for maintaining high bandwidth in multi-AP / "mesh" networks and keeping individual networks in high-density environments out of each other’s hair.

IDL isn’t waiting for traditional router makers to get with the program, however. It has baked Ignition into its Portal router that it plans to launch on Kickstarter in February. IDL hasn’t firmed up pricing yet, but other reports peg it at around $150.

Portal is a QCA-based AC2350 / 2400 class router with working MU-MIMO plus the Ignition module for DFS channel scanning. It also includes Bluetooth LE for management via companion iOS and Android apps, Gigabit WAN and LAN ports and a USB 2.0 port for storage sharing. Portal will also will include "OnRamp" technology that provides simple secure setup and guest access, fast roaming and remote cloud management.

Ignition Design Labs Portal router

Ignition Design Labs Portal router

IDL is hoping its Kickstarter campaign gets people so excited about Ignition that they’ll refuse to buy a router without it. Or at least that’s the plan. I’ll be getting a Portal when they start to ship and will see if it delivers what it promises.

IDL isn’t the only company seeing gold in those relatively idle DFS channels. Celeno Communications has built its Argus DSP-based spectrum analyzer and intelligence engine right into its CL2440 4×4 "Wave 2" 802.11ac radio SoC, announced at CES 2015. The spectrum analyzer can detect both long and short pulse radar in parallel with normal operation. So it can also provide access to DFS channels.

The CL2440 uses a software defined radio (SDR), which will let it tune its MU-MIMO and 160 MHz bandwidth features without having to spin new silicon, as more field experience is logged with these new-to-Wi-Fi technologies.

Celeno CL2440 architecture

Celeno CL2440 architecture

It’s unlikely you’ll be seeing Celeno in any consumer routers, however. The company’s business is primarily with set-top box makers and dedicated gateways for large service providers. But if Celeno were to get interested in consumer routers, it could put a damper on IDL’s plans.

Self-Driving Networks

Self-driving cars are coming. And so are self-driving networks. Because, face it, our home Wi-Fi networks have outgrown our ability to handle them. Sure, we buy more expensive routers with bigger numbers on the box, hoping that it will be "the one". And when that doesn’t work, we add wireless extenders, or maybe access points and then pull our hair out when devices don’t seamlessly connect where they get the best bandwidth.

QCA’s announcement of Qualcomm Wi-Fi SON came in below the radar of most tech press. But it could mark the start of a real change in how we deal with the whole mess of putting together reliable home Wi-Fi networks—by taking the job away.

Doing More With Less

Routers makers may be able to get away with cramming more antennas on their boxes and charging more than anyone (or at least I) thought rational consumers would pay. But mobile device makers don’t have that luxury. Although larger phones are now in fashion, there are lots of things competing for space and power in those relatively small packages.

Although the some of the early MU-MIMO devices were 2×2, I’m told 1×1 radios are going to be more the norm as MU support becomes more mainstream.

This is why the introduction of 160 MHz bandwidth for 802.11ac isn’t focused on pushing link rates higher than the 1733 Mbps supported by standard 4×4 11ac (or 2165 Mbps for 1024-QAM enabled products). Instead, routers based on QCA’s new 160 MHz capable platform like NETGEAR’s R7800 Nighthawk X4S will only let 1×1 and 2×2 devices double their maximum link rates.

160 MHz and MU-MIMO aren’t mutually exclusive. But both require support on both the router and device. Once again router makers are in the lead, with devices to follow who-knows-when. The key takeaway here is that with MU-MIMO and 160 MHz bandwidth on both ends, you won’t have to be embarrased about having a single stream radio anymore.

Devices Makers Aren’t Helping

Which brings me to my final theme, which is more of a rant. Router makers have no problem naming the technologies crammed into their routers, putting many of them on the front of the box. So why can’t tablet and smartphone makers do the same? Trying to find information on whether a phone even supports 802.11ac, let alone MU-MIMO, is much harder than it should be.

Now that U.S. cell companies have joined the rest of the world in unbundling devices and service, consumers are free to upgrade devices as soon as their devices are paid for. So why not help them spend their money?

What’s so damed difficult about spelling out the Wi-Fi features of smartphones, tablets and even notebooks? Don’t phone makers and mobile service providers want to sell new stuff? Don’t people buying these crazy-expensive new routers realize they’re wasting money and slowing down their networks by not having devices that match?

Or maybe they just don’t want us to know how behind-the-curve mobile device Wi-Fi is.

P.S. ASUS Announced Stuff Too

ASUS didn’t bother to send their CES announcements and I didn’t catch them during the show. The announcements of interest were the ASUS Router mobile app, CM-32_AC2600 all-in-one cable modem router, USB-AC68 Wi-Fi adapter, XG-D2008 10-Gigabit network switch, and RP-AC68U Wi-Fi repeater. Prices and availability weren’t given for anything.

Just check the press release for more details.

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