Why the smart home still has a Wi-Fi problem
How many times have you connected a device to your home Wi-Fi network and after a few hours — or days — realized it wasn’t working correctly? Maybe it drops offline or sucks battery like a frat boy doing a keg stand. Perhaps it doesn’t get online at all, and during a support call you discover the problem is the fancy mesh Wi-Fi system you’ve bought.
Despite all the attention paid to improving Wi-Fi for the internet of things, some devices still struggle. This is a known problem. Google, for example, notes that its Wi-Fi system doesn’t work with certain video doorbells. In other examples, owners of Eero devices have complained about the WeMo gear hopping on or off the network. In several cases, both Kevin and I have experienced trouble with a device on our own mesh networks.
After my own recent challenges getting a connected mirror onto my network for review purposes, I decided to dig into the problem in order to understand what on earth is happening.
Basically, consumers and device companies are currently in the middle of a big shift in how Wi-Fi works. In the last couple of years, the makers of Wi-Fi chips, seeing the need for more robust networks, started pushing more intelligence to the access points.
This happened in enterprise Wi-Fi a while back, and now it’s happening in the consumer world. Where once the devices themselves had the intelligence for and job of managing their own connections to a single dumb access point, now there are too many potential end points in a home network for those connections to be seamlessly made. Rather than letting them fight it out, however, instead the routers will decide.
But even as the home world transitions to smarter routers, older connected devices are still out there trying to play by the rules of the past. Gopi Sirineni, vice president, product management, at Qualcomm, calls these devices rogue clients. Currently there are three ways those so-called rogue clients can experience connectivity troubles.
If the rogue client is smart enough to try to manage its connection for itself, it spends much of its time in conflict with the router’s instructions, much like a teenager might fight with their parent. In other cases, a rogue client isn’t smart; in fact, it’s so dumb that today’s smarter routers can’t really communicate with it. In that circumstance a dumb client device might try to repeatedly connect in a band that’s already congested. Because the router can’t communicate with the device to tell it to hop over to another band, it has to simply dump it off the congested band. The dumb client will try to get on its preferred band until it figures out it needs to switch to a new one. These successive tries and failures lead to intermittent connectivity.
And finally, there’s an associated challenge: when rogue clients require too much attention from the router.
In that case, what likely happens is the rogue client is experiencing a loss of signal strength that the smart router will try to address by telling the rogue client to hop to another access point in the mesh. But since the rogue client can’t really communicate with the router, it keeps trying. That subsequent cycle of trying to communicate with something that effectively can’t listen takes up too much time, so eventually the router just ignores that client’s requests.
From the user perspective, this rogue client/device (often one that roams around the home) just stays offline. Sirineni notes that in this final case, if the device is stationary (like a thermostat or doorbell), eventually the network will assign it to the closest access point and the problem should be solved. But during setup this can be annoying because the device can’t get and stay online.
So that’s what’s going on in the home. And a solution to many of these issues will come in a Wi-Fi Alliance specification called AP SIG. Kevin Robinson, the Wi-Fi Alliance’s VP of marketing, says the org hasn’t publicized these efforts, but that they should be finalized later this year. Until then, he tells people they should buy Wi Fi CERTIFIED devices.
I’m not sure that will always solve the problem. One of the challenges associated with connected devices, especially newer ones that early adopters might try, are that the first production runs of a device might use older, cheap modules that may have been certified several years ago, but aren’t up to current standards.
In the case of older modules, they may not even get software updates to improve their functioning, because they don’t have the memory on board the chip to handle newer skills like communicating with smarter access points. These modules typically use older versions of the 802.11 radio standard and work on the 2.4 GHz band. Wi-Fi radios can use two different spectrum bands: 2.4 GHz, which allows data to travel greater distances and through walls, but is heavily congested, and 5GHz, which is less congested and thus used for big bandwidth needs, but can’t travel as far.
Thus, 2.4 GHz radios have gotten a bad rap. Companies try to tell consumers that their 2.4 GHz devices won’t work on a multiband network such as those used by modern routers. They claim the solution is to create a separate, 2.4 GHZ-only network for those devices. But if that’s the case, all 2.4 GHz devices should be affected, and they are not. Nick Weaver, the CEO of Eero, which admittedly has a dog in this hunt with routers that hide the two bands from devices, says that 2.4 GHz devices can’t see the 5 GHz band, so they are effectively on their own network.
From his point of view, modern 2.4 GHz-only radios shouldn’t have a problem meeting the demands of today’s smarter routers. His advice to consumers is to buy brand-name products from the top vendors because those tend to offer the most support and use the right Wi-Fi modules. In cases where there are problems and the device has a large audience, Eero works with the device maker to solve any issues the device may be having on an Eero network.
But all of this knowledge offers little consolation after you’ve splurged on a $ 200 thermostat and just want to get it to work. Unfortunately, we’re still in a time of change, and customers may encounter the occasional device that won’t get on or stay on their network. For device makers, this period of adjustment means they have to spend more time testing their products on different types of networks and with different configurations.
This is the approach taken by connected camera and security system maker Canary. “The way we think and approach [mesh Wi-Fi routers] at Canary is very similar to our approach to Android devices. While iPhones are generally one-size-fits-all when it comes to app development, Android phones each have unique standards and features which can pose a challenge for implementing a consistent consumer experience,” says Canary CEO Adam Sager. “New and constantly updated Wi-Fi networks are similar in this way — and if you recognize this early by constant testing and retesting, like we do at Canary, these challenges can be addressed quickly to avoid device interoperability issues and deliver consistent experiences for consumers.”