Are we going to expect more from distributed Wi-Fi setups?

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NETGEAR Orbi distributed WiFi system press image courtesy of NETGEAR

We could be expecting more from distributed-Wi-Fi devices of the NETGEAR Orbi ilk thanks to 802.11ax Wi-Fi and the Internet of Things

Distributed Wi-Fi: How a Pod in Every Room™ Enables Connected Smart Homes | Wi-Fi Now Blog

My Comments

The Wi-Fi Now consortium wrote up a blog article where we are to expect more from a distributed Wi-Fi installation especially in the context of Internet Of Things and the smart home.

One of the key drivers for this issue will be the 802.11ax standard for Wi-Fi wireless networks. This is intended to be the successor to the current 802.11ac but also is about high throughput and the ability for multiple devices to work at once from the same network. As well, it is expected to yield high-efficiency operation with an experience similar using an Ethernet network that uses a switch like when you have devices connected to your home network’s router via its Ethernet LAN ports.

According to the article, 802.11ax with its increased throughput is pitched as being suitable for newer broadband-service technologies like fibre-to-the-premises, DOCSIS 3.1 HFC cable-modem and 5G mobile broadband. In the context of the distributed Wi-Fi network, 802.11ax will be positioned for use as a wireless backhaul between the access-points and the edge router that links to the Internet.

But the article places an expectation on these access-point pods being installed in every room due to the increased number of Wi-Fi-based network-enabled devices connected to the home network. There is also an expectation that these access points will support Bluetooth and/or Zigbee as well as Wi-Fi thus becoming a localised network bridge for smart-home and Internet-Of-Things devices based on these wireless technologies. But I would place in the same scope Z-Wave, DECT-ULE and other similar “Internet Of Things” wireless technologies.

Previously this kind of functionality was offered through separate network bridges that interlinked a Bluetooth, Zigbee or similar-technology device to your home network via Wi-Fi or Ethernet.

Such equipment was typically offered as an accessory for a smart-home device like a smart lock by the device’s manufacturer and you weren’t sure if this piece of equipment would work with other smart-home devices implementing the same wireless-link technology. Or it was offered as a “smart home hub” which worked with devices using a particular wireless technology and supporting certain function classes. But these hubs offered various smart-home controller functions including remote management as long as you were using particular apps or services.

This new approach could allow for an increased number of IoT devices in each room “talking” with the access-point pods and this data moves along the backhaul to the “edge” router for that “smart-home-as-a-service” setup. The article also sees it as allowing for an IoT device, especially one that is battery-powered, not to be part of a large Zigbee, Z-Wave or Bluetooth mesh thus leading to increased device reliability. I would also see it become relevant with setups that use technologies like DECT-ULE which use a “hub and spoke” topology.

For this concept to work properly, the network-bridge devices that interlink Zigbee or similar IoT wireless technologies to an IP-based network have to work independent of particular smart-home controller software. Then the smart-home controller software has to be able to work with any IoT-based device no matter which of these network bridges they are talking to as long as they are on the same logical network. This situation would be of concern with portable user-interface devices like remote controls that are likely to be taken around the premises.

Although this article is Wi-Fi focused, I would still see the wired network being important. For example, some house designers and builders are even wiring the homes they design with Ethernet whether as standard or as an option while the home is being built or renovated. As well, there is powerline networking based on either HomePlug AV500 or AV2 standards. Here, these wired-network technologies are still viable as a backhaul connection alternative especially if you are dealing with building materials and techniques like double-brick or sandstone construction, or foil-lined insulation that can slow down Wi-Fi wireless communications.

But could these wireless-network access-point “pods” be simply a dedicated device installed in each room? It could be feasible for a device that offers other functionality that benefits from the network to be an access point or one of these “pods” in its own right. For example, a network-capable printer or a consumer-electronics device like a home-theatre receiver could connect to an existing network’s backhaul but also be an access point in its own right.  In this context, a Smart TV installed in a lounge area further down the end of the house could become an access point or smart-home “pod” to cover that end area.

The idea has been proven in the form of the Amazon Echo Plus smart speaker which has a built-in network-bridge function for Zigbee smart-home devices. This is alongside the ability for it to be a controller for these devices in context with the Amazon Alexa ecosystem.

What is being put forward with the Wi-Fi NOW “Pod In Every Room” concept is the idea of a single logical network with a high-speed wireless data backbone and access-point devices serving all wireless networking applications for both regular data transfer and smart-home/IoT applications. As long as the approach is driven by common open standards without dependence on particular technology owned by one vendor, then there is the ability for this approach to multi-function Wi-Fi networking to work properly.

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