Mesh carries WiFi to the whole-home frontier, but lacks standards

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WiFi has been sweeping to power in the home, but still has one final hurdle to jump in or-der to oust wired options completely. It still cannot be relied on to deliver guaranteed whole-home connectivity for premium video across a wide range of building types and sizes. It can provide that quality within a room but, especially in large buildings or where walls are made of thick stone or contain a lot of metal, it cannot span multiple rooms with-out wired assistance. Mesh has emerged as a solution to this issue, and many vendors now have solutions but that has created a new problem, that of interoperability between many proprietary approaches.

Propelled by mesh and other enhancements, WiFi has made huge recent inroads in both Europe and North America, two regions where for different reasons it was initially held back. In North America this was because MoCA had a head start because so many buildings come ready cabled with coax, while in Europe there are a lot of buildings with thick walls and a lot of stone or brick that impede radio signal propagation between rooms.

WiFi makes home progress driven by mesh:

Given that mesh is essential for solving the WiFi QoS problem and is also complex to tune for optimal performance, capacity and resiliency, it has become a hotbed of competition and innovation drawing in at least 70 vendors, with leaders including Linksys, Netgear, Mojo Networks, Cisco, Meraki, HP’s Aruba, Zebra Technologies, Meru, Ruckus, Eero and Ubiquity, besides AirTies.

Complementary technologies have also evolved to exploit features of WiFi, notably band steering to route traffic between the two current spectral bands, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, and client steering to connect clients to the optimum AP on the basis of signal strength and current traffic load.

Some have also added high level management capabilities that optimize mesh operation, including client and band steering for the benefit of the whole wireless network rather than just individual devices. This also involves tackling the so called ‘bad apple’ problem in which one legacy device, not capable of operating at the same bit rate as newer devices, hogs network access time at the expense of others.

The need for standards:

Essentially mesh makes WiFi operate more like a fixed point-to-point network, providing a firmer foundation for end-to-end SLAs. But this proliferation of mesh vendors, while providing choice, is also a problem because none of the mesh technologies is interoperable.

It is true that most support the IEEE 802.11s standard for mesh, but this only covers link level communication within a point-to-point WiFi network so that different vendors’ de-vices can participate in a given mesh implementation. This has led to demand for higher level mesh standards and the next step is currently being plotted by several standards groups on the video side, such as CableLabs, as well as the WiFi Alliance.This is leading to-wards a standard AP Coordination Protocol, which may end up being called Multipath AP. It has been knocking around at least a decade in academic circles but has only in the last couple of years been taken up urgently by the standards bodies.

This attempts to standardize not so much the higher level mesh management but client steering. It allows APs in a home network to share the relevant information to make intelligent steering decisions, alongside some other network maintenance tasks. But the focus is still on individual APs rather than the connected whole.

This article is an abstract from the Wireless Watch service. Learn More. 




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