Wireless Internet Infrastructure: Is it Ready for the Connected World?

A century ago, most home devices that ran on electricity—dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, even light bulbs—were rare. Sure, these electronics devices were largely new, so adoption was predictably slow. But what stalled their sales even more than their newness and strangeness was the lack of AC power infrastructure. In 1920, only around a third of American homes were electrified, mostly in urban centers. As a result, most folks didn’t own anything that needed to be plugged into an outlet or screwed into a socket. By the mid- to late-1930s, however, more than two-thirds of homes were electrified, greatly accelerating home electronics adoption.

Adoption of IoT gadgets and ecosystem is similarly predicated on constructing a universally-available infrastructure. In 2000, U.S. broadband household penetration was estimated to be just in the low single digits. Now, just 15 years later, more than 80 percent of U.S. homes enjoy broadband connectivity.

But today’s connectivity issues are less about wired broadband and more about wireless.

In 2000, cellular service was limited mostly to speeds between 40-100kbps (primarily GPRS), and both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were brand new technologies enjoyed only by early adopters. Flash forward to present day when cellular broadband can deliver 6-12mbps, and the total number of cellular, Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-enabled products having sold into the billions of units.

Impressive numbers, but we’re a long way from ubiquitous connectivity. In the quest to get there, the entire wireless connectivity ecosystem—both direct-to-the-net and device-to-device technologies—is in the midst of evolutionary, if not revolutionary, change.

R/evolutionary Wireless Changes

Wireless’ most Olympian leap is promised with the next-generation transmission standard 5G. The in-development standard promises speeds three times that of Wi-Fi and up to 100 times faster than current 4G LTE. 5G’s speeds will fundamentally alter video and digital content distribution methods and associated business models, and is probably a significant factor in AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner. Mobile service providers want to sell video services to their customers. A combination of a big distribution pipe and content ownership is the course that will likely be pursued by other mobile service companies.

Moving digital content around the home is undergoing a slightly less portentous, but nonetheless fundamental, change, thanks to mesh Wi-Fi. Because of the limited effective range of Wi-Fi, homeowners are forced to patch together a home network consisting of different networks in different sections of their abodes, with each network requiring a different password. This patched-together Wi-Fi coverage is often akin to Swiss cheese, filled with numerous dead spot holes both inside and around a home’s periphery—holes that often frustrate consumers and hold back video streaming and smart home product functionality.

Last February, a company called eero started selling an expandable mesh Wi-Fi system that amplifies the signal so that optimal data speeds can be delivered throughout a consumer’s home. The eero router/relay system daisy chains Wi-Fi to create a single giant network with no dead zones, essentially bathing the entire home in Wi-Fi. In the last couple of months, eero has been followed into the mesh market by the Amplifi from Ubiquiti Networks, the Netgear Orbi, the Ally from Amped Wireless and the Portal from Ignition Design Labs.

Equally foundational are two advances in Bluetooth technology—Bluetooth mesh and Bluetooth 5.0—with products due in mid-2017, though certain to be demo’d at the upcoming CES.

Bluetooth 5.0 will extend the Bluetooth LE (low energy) data signal range from 33 feet to nearly 100 feet, while Bluetooth mesh, like Wi-Fi mesh, can blanket a home with Bluetooth coverage via mesh repeaters. Bluetooth mesh and Bluetooth 5.0 will bring a radical change largely to non-AV smart IoT devices such as smart locks and smart bulbs, along with battery-powered smart IoT devices.

Currently, controls to data-driven devices are transmitted via Wi-Fi, which is power-hungry and introduces just enough latency to make consumers question whether their command was successfully transmitted and received. By comparison, Bluetooth LE commands consume far less and reaction is nearly instantaneous.

More importantly for the market, smart Wi-Fi products will no longer require an intervening ecosystem-specific hub, lowering product costs and increasing the ability of consumers to mix-and-match smart products.

With less power needed to control them and, therefore, longer battery life, we may even see a new generation of smart IoT devices no longer reliant on 24/7 AC connections. In two to four years, iterations of 5.x are likely to support both voice and stereo, just around the same time that 5G networks will begin to roll out.

Combined with mesh Wi-Fi, these r/evolutionary wireless connectivity infrastructure changes could make universal connectivity as normal as electricity in the home.