CES 2017 Wrapup: Wi-Fi At A Crossroads

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Tim Higgins

Unlike other publications, I don’t write a year-in-reflection piece. Instead, I make the rounds at CES and then offer up what I see as the themes for the coming year. So here’s what I see ahead for 2017. It ain’t pretty.

Distributed Wi-Fi Systems Take Over

2017 will be crunch time for the "mesh" Wi-Fi startups that appear to have set the tune that the major players are now dancing to. As as the elephants take the floor, some of the little guys are going to get squashed.

Let’s first get nomenclature out of the way. Manufacturers continue to use "mesh" to connote products comprised of multiple physical units, mainly because that’s what eero called its product and they were first to market. I’m adopting the more neutral "distributed Wi-Fi system" (DWS) to differentiate this category from the single point routers (SPR) that have dominated Wi-Fi marketing efforts to date.

Table 1 shows DWS introductions by year. 2016 was quite busy, with NETGEAR the first major consumer networking company to respond to eero and Luma. 2016 also saw Google launch its second Wi-Fi product, this time making its own hardware instead of using partners. Note one mesh sweepstakes entrant—Chime—has already exited the mesh system market. It pivoted from offering a hardware product to marketing its mesh OS, with Amped Wireless’ Ally the first taker.

2016 also saw previously-announced products delay first shipment until mesh capability could be added, specifically IDL’s Portal and Securifi’s Almond 3.

2015 2016 2017
Chime* Amped Wireless ALLY ASUS HiveSpot
eero Google WiFi ASUS HiveDot
Luma IDL Portal D-Link Covr
NETGEAR Orbi Linksys Velop
Plume TP-Link Deco M5
Securifi Almond 3 TP-Link Deco M5 + Powerline
Ubiquiti UniFi AC Mesh
Ubiquiti UniFi AC Mesh Pro
Ubiquiti Amplifi HD
Table 1: Distributed Wi-Fi System Announcements
* Chime switched to OEMing its mesh software

There are two main DWS design approaches, "mesh" and router + extender. "Mesh" systems are usually sold in three-packs of small identical devices. One device is connected to your internet modem and functions as a basic wireless router. This is the "root node". The others connect to it, and each other via Wi-Fi, or in some cases Ethernet or even powerline and function as additional access points.

Table 2 shows key characteristics of "mesh" systems that have been announced so far. All products use simultaneous dual-band AC class radios, with most being 2×2 (AC1200 / AC1300) designs.

Product STA Radio Backhaul Radio MU-MIMO
ASUS HiveSpot 2×2 Shared N
ASUS HiveDot 2×2 5 GHz 2×2 N
eero 2×2 Shared N
Google Wifi 2×2 Shared N
IDL Portal 4×4 Shared Y
Linksys Velop 2×2 5 GHz 2×2 Y
Luma 2×2 Shared N
Plume 2×2 Shared N
Securifi Almond 3 2×3 Shared N
TP-Link Deco M5 2×2 Shared N
TP-Link Deco M5 + Powerline 2×2 Shared N
Ubiquiti Amplifi HD 3×3 Shared N
Ubiquti UniFi AC Mesh 2×2 Shared N
Ubiquti UniFi AC Mesh Pro 3×3 Shared N
Table 2: Distributed Wi-Fi Systems – Mesh

Router + Extender (R+E) systems are more like what many of us have been doing up until now when the router that was supposed to cover our entire home didn’t; add a Wi-Fi extender. The difference is that R+E systems are designed to automatically set up and manage the connection between router and extender. They also are supposed to ensure that devices move smoothly and quickly between router and extender without disconnecting.

Table 3 shows fewer systems in this category. But it includes what I consider to be the current champion of distributed wireless systems: NETGEAR’s Orbi. Orbi’s dedicated 4×4 5 GHz backhaul radio provides a robust, high-bandwidth connection that simply can’t be matched by any other product so far.

Product Router Radio Backhaul Radio Extender Radio MU-MIMO
Amped Wireless ALLY 3×3 Shared 3×3 Y
D-Link Covr 4×4 Shared 3×3 Y
NETGEAR Orbi 2×2 5 GHz 4×4 2×2 Y
Ubiquiti Amplifi HD 3×3 Shared 3×3 N
Distributed Wi-Fi Systems – Router + Extender

In addition to standalone DWS are products that add "mesh" capability to existing Wi-Fi networks. Edimax’ RE11 was the first we’ve seen and now D-Link’s DHP-W732AV Covr Powerline Wi-Fi System introduced at CES 2017. I expect we may see more of these "mesh" extenders as smaller consumer networking players try to grab a piece of the mesh Wi-Fi pie.

I expect more DWS products to appear in 2017, with some shared backhaul products adding a dedicated backhaul radio and perhaps some surprises from the R+E vendors. Margins may come under pressure with added backhaul radios, since the $500 price point for some offerings (cough… eero…cough) is meeting consumer resistence.

802.11ax Is Coming

If you think Distributed Wi-Fi Systems are the last ones you’ll have to buy, you’d be wrong. The next thing coming to confuse you even more are 802.11ax products. The official name of the IEEE Task group is "High Efficiency WLAN". You should keep this in mind when vendors come at you with even higher numbers on their boxes when these things start shipping.

AX’s new technologies are designed primarily to improve network capacity in extremely dense environments like stadiums, airports, convention centers, etc., not exactly your typical home environment. Of course, 11ax provides a bigger number for vendors to slap on the box (AX10000 here we come) to suck in Wi-Fi buyers who should know better by now.

It’s too early to tell whether there will be any practical benefit for 802.11ac devices when they first say hello to the draft 11ax router some of you will be itching to bring home later this year. Although I’m told 11ac is a subset of 11ax, we know these standards leave plenty of room for interpretation, which leads to compatibility problems. 11ax will be no exception.

11ax relies on MU-MIMO to provide the 4x capacity increase Qualcomm touts in its 11ax pitch. But this will require 8×8 APs, 2×2 clients, uplink (new) and downlink MU-MIMO and long OFDM symbol use. Like previous transitions between standards, 11ax client devices will be required to take full advantage of 11ax routers. We’re still waiting for 11ac MU-MIMO devices to become commonplace, almost three years after the first MU-MIMO "ready" routers shipped. I expect a similar delay for 11ax devices, which are essential for getting any real benefit from 11ax routers.

It’s possible that the 8×8 draft 11ax routers we’ll be seeing later this year might provide a performance boost for 11ac devices, similar to what we found for N devices with AC routers. But we won’t know until we test them.

No vendor would confirm that the first AX routers would be appearing in the second half of this year. But my background sources tell me it’s likely they will. These systems will be based on a draft version of 11ax (as were 802.11n and 802.11ac before it), since a final standard isn’t expected until the end of 2018.

Wi-Fi Forecast: Dense Fog Ahead

This is going to be a confusing time for Wi-Fi buyers and Wi-Fi marketeers are not going to be much help. They’re put in the unenviable position of having to push the hell out of distributed Wi-Fi systems early this year, only to have to turn around and sing the praises of expensive single-point draft 802.11ax routers later on. They have to keep selling both types, but how will they describe the benefits of each so that buyers aren’t totally confused? (Hint: They won’t be able to.)

The other problem we all have is that the relatively neat Wi-Fi class system (N900, AC1200) is falling apart. It started with the reuse of classes to describe entirely different products. A prime example is Linksys’ WRT3200ACM "AC3200" class router. This is not a tri-radio router, but relies on 160 MHz bandwidth support to achieve the link rates that add up to the 3200 Mbps classification.

Another example is the new AD7200 class routers from TP-Link and NETGEAR. These add the link rates for 802.11ac to the link rate for 802.11ad; an entirely different 60 GHz radio technology, which very few Wi-Fi devices support.

However, the award for most egregious example of Wi-Fi class inflation / misuse goes to Linksys for the little gem shown below, which is shown on Amazon as I write this. They simply take the class for a single Velop mesh point and multiply by three, because they’re selling them as a three pack! Seriously, Linksys? This behavior is begging for the FTC to step in and make an example of someone, as it has with ASUS and now D-Link.

Shame on you, Linksys!

Shame on you, Linksys!

As a result, I’m in the process of coming up with a new classification system for our Rankers and Charts to provide a more practical guide to separating products into performance groups. Stay tuned.

So hold onto your wallets and send more power to your bullsh*t shields. There are a lot of changes coming and they’re not all going to help get you better Wi-Fi!

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