Consumer Wi-Fi: Faster, smarter and near-impossible to replace

Executive Briefing Service, (Re)Connecting with Consumers, Network Futures

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While 5G continues to occupy 90% of the industry’s focus, Wi-Fi is quietly entrenching its role for consumers, especially in the home. It is central to media consumption and domestic IoT. In its 20th anniversary year, how will the new WiFi6 - along with whole-home meshes - make it even harder to displace? And how should telcos and others play?

Introduction

This briefing, part of the Network Futures and (Re-)Connecting with Consumers research streams examines the connectivity and network options for the home – especially looking at the role of Wi-Fi (and its newest evolution, Wi-Fi 6) within the home and other consumer spaces, as a platform for connecting smartphones, PCs, IoT devices, and entertainment/media systems.

It build on the report exploring how telcos could play a coordination role in the smart home market in January 2019 (Can telcos create a compelling smart home?) with a focus on security and remote-management of assets in the home.

This report focuses primarily on developed markets (and China) in which most homes have a fixed-line connection. In developing countries where fixed-lines are scarce, Wi-Fi also plays an important background role, albeit within the constraints imposed by the more limited bandwidth available via cellular or fixed wireless connections to the Internet.

In developed markets, homes now commonly have between five and 20 Wi-Fi enabled endpoints.

NB If you’re interested in domestic consumers and wifi use, register now for our smart home webinar and Q&A on 30 April 2019 which will give more food for thought. 

Wi-Fi is a core consumer service

As discussed in this report, STL does not believe that 5G poses any general threat to the dominant use of Wi-Fi in homes. This document does not look in depth at trends in either enterprise Wi-Fi, or public hotspots – although in the latter case, cellular substitution is more of a genuine issue.

For the residential consumer market, readers should first be aware that Wi-Fi remains incredibly important even for “non-smart” homes. It is important to look at this space through the lens of normal broadband and ISP service delivery, even without connecting new consumer products and services. A sizeable part of both broadband customer satisfaction, and complaints/support issues stems from the quality and manageability of residential Wi-Fi.

This year is the 20th anniversary of consumer Wi-Fi, kickstarted by Apple’s introduction of the AirPort access-point (AP) in 1999. Since then, Wi-Fi has grown to encompass over 30 billion cumulative shipped devices, notably including virtually every PC and phone in use today. Over four billion Wi-Fi products are shipped annually, with over 13 billion in regular use.[1] It has evolved in speed, features and maturity – and is often seen by consumers as being synonymous with Internet connectivity itself.

It’s also about to evolve, encompassing a set of changes into a new packaged specification named ‘Wi-Fi 6’.

While a large part of Wi-Fi’s early success can be attributed to its use in enterprises, or through “hotspots” in public spaces like cafes and hotels, the real core of its adoption has been for residential use. The bulk of Internet access delivered in-home travels its last few metres over Wi-Fi – even for products like televisions. Many notebook PCs no longer have an Ethernet port for a wired connection.

Wi-Fi has a huge economic impact for users, SPs and industry

Chart showing the global value of Wi-Fi at the advent of Wi-Fi 6
The global value of Wi-Fi at the advent of Wi-Fi 6

Source: Wi-Fi Alliance, ValueOfWiFi.com

Telcos and Wi-Fi

While telcos have always been wary of Wi-Fi’s substitutional role vs. cellular in public spaces, within the home the majority of operators view it as a huge positive – and even a source of new revenue and differentiation.

All fixed/cable operators are advocates of home Wi-Fi, as it allows more data usage, from more devices, increasing the value of both Internet connectivity and “on-network” services such as IPTV and IP-based PSTN telephony. As this report discusses, Wi-Fi (sometimes combined with Bluetooth or other short-range wireless technologies) can help telcos connect new IoT systems and participate in their ecosystems, such as eHealth, smart metering, security and more. Some operators are directly monetising “premium Wi-Fi” products or using them to encourage customers to upgrade to higher-ARPU bundles.

While mobile operators sometimes dislike third-party Wi-Fi for its ability to “break out” data locally, rather than routing traffic through their cores (and billing engines), they nevertheless appreciate its ability to support Wi-Fi calling to extend voice telephony to rooms lacking good coverage. They also usually like the (network-driven or user-initiated) means to offload wireless data, that could be expensive to serve to users through walls from outdoor macro cell-sites. With 5G, this comes even further to the fore, as most of the early spectrum bands, such as 3.5GHz or 24-28GHz, will struggle with in-building penetration. We can also expect the majority of fixed-wireless access 5G to marry an external- (or window-) mounted antenna to an indoor Wi-Fi AP for final connection to most devices.

About half of all IP traffic across all devices is delivered via Wi-Fi

PrChart showing proportion of telecoms traffic delivered by Wi-Fi forecast 2019 to 2022
Proportion of telecoms traffic delivered by Wi-Fi forecast 2019 to 2022

*Wireless traffic includes Wi-Fi and mobile. Source: Cisco VNI Global IP Traffic Forecast, 2017-2022

In the rest of this report we discuss telcos’ love/hate relationship with Wi-Fi, including why the newest generation is a game changer for smart homes and the technology’s relationship with 4G/5G and IoT.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Part of the broader battle for home/consumer services
  • Unlicensed spectrum – why it matters
  • What’s in a name? Why WiFi 6 is important
  • Wi-Fi and telcos: A complex relationship
  • Telco residential Wi-Fi evangelists
  • Wi-Fi technology evolution
  • Whole-home Wi-Fi: A game-changer
  • New revenue for telcos?
  • Is Wi-Fi threatened by 4G/5G?
  • Wi-Fi and IoT
  • Competition vs. Bluetooth, Zigbee & Z-Wave
  • Competition vs. cellular and LPWA?
  • The vendor / internet space
  • Arrival of the major technology firms
  • Beyond connectivity: New use-cases for Wi-Fi
  • Conclusions and recommendations
  • Recommendations for fixed and cable operators / ISPs
  • Recommendations for mobile operators
  • Recommendations for regulators and policymakers

Figures:

  1. Consumer Wi-Fi is a new control-point for smart home connections
  2. Wi-Fi has a huge economic impact for users, SPs and industry
  3. About half of all IP traffic, across all devices is delivered via Wi-Fi
  4. Simpler, more consumer-friendly branding for Wi-Fi
  5. What’s new with Wi-Fi 6 / 802.11ax?
  6. Wi-Fi is a double-edged sword for telcos; better for fixed ISPs than MNOs
  7. There are multiple determinants of good home broadband experience
  8. Some broadband operators market their service based on Wi-Fi performance
  9. MU-MIMO enables gigabit speeds for Wi-Fi
  10. Wi-Fi companion apps are becoming commonplace
  11. Mesh networks can provide a connectivity backbone for smart homes
  12. In-home Wi-Fi boosters or mesh improve satisfaction significantly
  13. KPN’s Wi-Fi tuner app enables optimal coverage & performance
  14. Some telcos & ISPs are using mesh Wi-Fi to offer QoS/coverage guarantees
  15. Whole-home Wi-Fi offers better indoor awareness than cellular
  16. Huawei’s 5G home FWA blends an outdoor mmWave unit with indoor Wi-Fi
  17. Consumer Wi-Fi is a new control-point for smart home connections
  18. Wi-Fi silicon specialists sometimes work directly with telcos
  19. Software, cloud and security capabilities are likely to be exploited by CSP Wi-Fi in future
  20. Motion-detection is one of the most intriguing future Wi-Fi capabilities
  21. Wi-Fi plus voice integration will accelerate with the Amazon/eero acquisition

[1] Source: Wi-Fi Alliance

Keywords, companies and technologies referenced: Wi-Fi 6, 5G, cellular, fixed wireless access (FWA), KPN, BT,  Blutooth, Zigbee, LPWA, IoT, smart home, Amazon, Cisco, Apple.

Technologies and industry terms referenced include: , , , , , ,