Why Your Home Wi-Fi Is Lousy

If you think your home Wi-Fi is annoying now—flaky, slow, riddled with dead zones—just wait until your streaming 4K TVs are battling phones, laptops, game systems and connected gadgets for the available bandwidth. The future depends on your home network, but even today’s best home networks aren’t ready.

I call this problem the home-spectrum crunch, and it’s a relatively new phenomenon. It’s a product of a 100-fold increase in demand for wireless bandwidth on home Wi-Fi networks in just the past five or so years.

In place of Web browsing on one or two devices—requiring less than 5 megabits per second—we now have streaming video and multiple Internet-connected devices consuming more than 100 megabits per second. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2013 estimated that the average household with two teenagers had 10 Internet-connected devices. By 2017, the OECD projected the number would be 17; by 2022, it would climb to 50.

To grasp the problem, think of each Wi-Fi router as a stereo system. When there were fewer Wi-Fi hot spots and fewer gadgets connecting to them, the ambient noise was bearable. But if you’ve opened your laptop and lately seen dozens of Wi-Fi networks, you understand our modern conundrum: All those networks are essentially trying to shout over one another to be “heard” by connected devices.

Trond Wuellner, product manager for Google’s OnHub Wi-Fi router, says the average OnHub router can “hear” 16 other hot spots; one of every 20 OnHubs can hear 50 other hot spots.

The upshot: the more Wi-Fi hot spots, the worse the overall Wi-Fi experience for everyone. This is the reverse of what should be and the opposite of what happens in an office, where all the Wi-Fi hot spots are made to play nice with each other by expensive equipment from the likes of Cisco Systems.

Having a good home Wi-Fi network has become something of an arms race: Buy a newer, more powerful router and your service could improve, but at the expense of your neighbors.

The fact that nearly everyone who makes Wi-Fi routers is trying to tackle this problem, along with Google, your cable company and a raft of startups, demonstrates how in-home Wi-Fi connections have become a serious bottleneck.

One such player is Eero. Wall Street Journal personal-tech columnist Geoff Fowler found that Eero’s multi-node “mesh networking” solution works well even in challenging environments.

But a stock Eero setup might not be adequate in a future when homes routinely have gigabit connections, a 10-fold increase over what’s widely available today. That’s because, as Eero CEO Nick Weaver explains, when you’re at the edge of a mesh network, your connection is only as fast as the slowest link back to the base station.

One solution would be to add more antennas, or nodes, throughout your home. Unfortunately, Eero’s units currently cost $200 a pop.

A new competitor announcing itself on Monday, called Plume, has gathered wireless-industry veterans to create what it claims is a new kind of Wi-Fi, protected by 14 patents. The company calls it “adaptive Wi-Fi.”

Fahri Diner, CEO of Plume and a veteran executive of Siemens and Qtera, says Plume’s system will consist of many cheap, “dumb” antennas, enough for every room of a house, for a total cost of about $100.

If Plume can do that, it would be enough to make a wireless-networking geek swoon. But we won’t know for a while, because the company doesn’t plan to unveil its product or partners until the third quarter of this year.

Essentially, Plume and most of its rivals aim to take the technology behind expensive, enterprise-grade Wi-Fi systems for offices and make it cheap enough to use in your home.

Others are tackling the problem with wires, paradoxically. Comcast, the nation’s largest cable-TV provider, has quietly been testing systems that rely on the networks of coaxial cables spread across newer U.S. homes. The systems put multiple routers in different parts of a home to create a single seamless wireless network, says a company spokesman.

The biggest competitor of all in this space could soon be Alphabet’s Google. Mr. Diner said he believes Google is working on a mesh solution similar to Plume’s. Mr. Wuellner declined to comment on Google’s plans for future iterations of OnHub. But he said most industry players are moving from a single hub, like Google’s current offering, toward systems with multiple nodes.

Taken together, this means that the future of Wi-Fi in your home looks a lot like the present of Wi-Fi in your office. There will be antennas everywhere, possibly in every room. It will be insanely fast. It will be cheap, though you might have a new monthly bill, to pay Plume, Google, your cable provider or some other company for the cloud services required to manage your home network.

© Emily Prapuolenis/The Wall Street Journal

Given our increasing dependence on ever more wireless bandwidth, these companies are betting we’ll be happy to pay for the privilege.

Write to Christopher Mims at christopher.mims@wsj.com

Article by: The Wall Street Journal

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