For better or for worse, I am one of those whose life at home comes to a standstill if the internet dies! I know I should probably be better spending that time with family by being digitally disconnected; but someone rightfully said – we are slaves of our habits!
The Ericsson mobility report says, in 2014, average number of connected devices per household in the US was 5.2; while another consumer poll from YouGov says that number for a British household was 7.4 as on 2015 March. If I look within my own four walls, we are two adult users of the internet – which brings two wireless connected smartphones, a wired-connected PC, two wireless connected notebooks & a wireless connected Smart TV – that is 6 devices already – while I have still managed to refrain from buying a ‘family tablet’ for my 6 year old daughter. All of this is powered by one Wi-Fi enabled modem box from my Telco/ISP. As an average internet user my typical internet usage is around browsing, watching Netflix/YouTube on TV, checking out webinars & podcasts on the phones and of course downloading content.
Connected devices have become ubiquitous and Wi-Fi is now synonymous with the internet. Consumer premise equipment (CPE) makers are well aware of this and hence are preparing to leverage these hub devices that sit in the living room either below your TV, deep inside the closest or out in the open up in our face ensuring reduced signal interference. I’ve been in conversations with a few such providers in the recent past trying new things out in this space. While at it, they’d also like to avoid commoditization of this business – and hence are exploring new revenue sources to leverage from this (more on this in a later post).
However, indoor Wi-Fi is plagued by unpleasant experiences in different parts of the user-journey. Given the extreme usage of internet at home and a near companion status that Wi-Fi has gained in the household, I have three key expectations from it.
Great out of the box experience!
Setting up routers has been considered a nightmare. What’s the SSID? Where do I plugin the cable from the wall? What’s DHCP or PPPoE? These numerous aspects of router installation intimidate the no-so-techie user. For me, doing the initial set-up of the router from my ISP was not so challenging. But it has been an uphill task trying to figure out how to make the connected hard-disk visible in the network (Despite switching on DLNA & SMB share).
Looking at Ericsson’s Consumer Lab Insights, a ‘one-click experience’ with intuitive design and interaction will go a long way in brand building & creating product promoters (Disclaimer – this research covers consumers in US & China).
It would be great to have easy set up possible either at the press of a button on the router OR use an app on the phone to gracefully take a user through the setup process (For example, the google cast phone app does a pretty neat job of setting up chrome-cast stick in your living room). Would it be a good idea to include a tiny display on the box to simplify feedback during set-up at the expense of its cost?
Power packed performance!
Next of course is performance on a daily basis. There a multiple dimensions to measuring performance of a Wi-Fi router device. Speed, number of concurrent devices connected and the physical-range signal coverage within the home are the key factors. Nobody likes their video to keep buffering? Nor do they like uneven signal coverage within their home.
Speed: Being a Product Manager for Smart TV, I brag about the fact that our TV devices have ‘Dual band Wi-Fi ac’ built into them. Wi-Fi has evolved over the years into these standards – with weird letters following 802.11… (802.11a/b/g/n/ac and there’s more to come in the future)
The standard for 802.11ac was published in Dec 2013 and the adoption is picking up (Check this out). This standard promises double the speed 802.11n could achieve – so in many cases, the only bottleneck for the Netflix stream on your 802.11ac enabled tablet would be the bandwidth from the broadband provider!
Yet another point to note is the ‘dual band’- devices can talk on either of the two frequency bands 2.4GHz or 5GHz. Traditionally most domestic access-points have been 2.4GHz single band, hence you’d find some interference in your home from your neighbours router. But at the 5GHz, for some time at least, this would still be quite low. See here a screenshot I in my home in the 2.4GHz (cluttered with tons of signals from my neighbour’s routers) and 5GHz bands (limited interference)
Number of concurrent devices: The marketing term ‘Wave 2’ for 802.11ac is the next thing to watch out for in Wi-Fi routers and Wi-Fi receiving devices. It brings in a key feature called MU-MIMO (that’s a lot of letters!!). Unpacking it – Multi User- Multiple Input Multiple Output. This gives the key benefit in the 5GHz band – but essentially it gives the router the ability to send data to multiple devices simultaneously. Effectively this opens up the available bandwidth per device in the household (useful in the gadget crowded households).
Range: 802.11ac also brings something called ‘beam-forking’. It essentially helps establish stronger, focused and more efficient bonds between sending and receiving Wi-Fi devices. It effectively helps increase the range of the access-point.
From a performance perspective, it could be handy to have some intuitive UI design which allows users to configure the best experience abstracting the technical complexities of configuration parameters (like channel number or channel width amongst many).
Self-healing! (at-least easy to fix)
(Ideally never go wrong… but then nothing is perfect)
It happens to everyone – one of those many lights on the router stops to blink completely, or turns red or perhaps even blinks like it has never blinked before. At that ‘oh no moment’ you wish its nothing major – but it is basically saying ‘your internet is dead!’
The first step then is ‘restart the modem’. ‘Power off and on’ is an amazing solution to many problems – be it a Windows PC, an Android Smartphone or a Wi-Fi router. This happened to me last week and that’s when I realized that five minutes is an excruciatingly long time! It took as much time for my ISPs internet box to power-up, get hold of the DSL signal, connect to the internet and finally show me the light with a blinking LED which says “Wi-Fi”. Phew! Never again would I want to go through that ordeal.
But on the worst of these days, it happens and I started to question – is this Wi-Fi router as complex as a PC or a Smartphone? Why does it take so long to be completely useful after power on? There is certainly something that if improved would go miles in improving my perception of product performance.
After two such occurrences and calls to service, the box is gracefully replaced – no questions asked! But then now is the painful process of pairing all those six devices to the new router with a new cryptic password! Can this be simplified?
Will I get what I am wishing for?
Thankfully, things on this are changing. Different companies take different approaches. There are several new Wi-Fi routers on the horizon that recognize user experience in the setup phase to be an important differentiator. Case in point being the device from Google (OnHub) or that from Eero & Luma (meant to increase the coverage of Wi-Fi signal in your household). All of them talk about addressing this first pain point of installation.
With regards to performance, in the current landscape of solutions there are two different kinds of approaches. The traditional big boys like the ISP providers continue selling different range-extender solutions. Apart from the simple mains-powered Wi-Fi repeater, powerline extenders (based on MoCA) are typical favourite that you’d spot in their online stores. The cowboys (like Eero & Luma) on the other hand have this mesh network solution. Multiple boxes (which don’t look unattractive) placed at different spots in your home to create a mesh. Some could potentially give a seamless handover experience from one spot in the house to another. Deutsche Telekom has also been talking about Well-Fi (a good Wi-Fi will all the right bells & whistles from a user experience perspective). Clearly the industry has taken note and is experimenting with concepts around it.
Next post… how could the traditional biggies leverage their install base of broadband users and provide them with next generation solutions? Stay tuned…