Solving the WiFi coverage conundrum – and the role of Wi-Fi EasyMesh

Simplicity has been WiFi’s second name, from its early days. You get a WiFi router, plug it in, connect it to your broadband outlet, power it on, configure some simple settings – and it’s running, without much fuss. The story often doesn’t end there though.

You’re working on your laptop close enough to the router, and all is good. But then you take your laptop downstairs to the family room, and you notice a drop in performance. Why? Because you’re further away from the router, multiple walls are now present between your device and the router, and your device is seeing a significantly weakened signal. Your web pages are taking longer to load, and your video session blips out every now and then. You realize that your house has good spots and bad areas – and you start to base yourself in parts of the house where you appear to be getting good service.

WiFi coverage is the culprit here. Service providers are moving towards a multi-router strategy for homes, especially in single-family homes with bigger floor space and multiple levels. Expect in the near future to see home deployment configurations where a gateway router provides broadband connectivity, and one or more extender routers are deployed to provide consistent coverage across the home. The primary router connects to the broadband modem, and the extenders connect to the primary router (wirelessly or via wired means) and rely on it for the broadband connection.

At the same time, WiFi optimization solutions have emerged that enable easy, plug-and-play deployment of multi-router solutions in homes, enterprises, and venues. These software solutions also referred to as WiFi SON (Self-Organizing Networks), optimize WiFi quality by connecting devices to the best router in the home, and by seamlessly moving devices between routers to optimize coverage and performance. SON also mitigates other performance-degrading issues such as WiFi channel congestion and interference, especially in dense WiFi deployment scenarios.

The Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) has stepped into this space, to try and provide a standardized architecture and communication mechanism to facilitate multi-router deployment. Wi-Fi EasyMesh, WFA’s branded standard, and certification program, defines an architecture with a controller and thin agents running on access points – working together to enable easy multi-router setup and mobility within a multi-router deployment. The controller can run on one of the access points or in the cloud and talks to the agents on the access points to commandeer multi-router operation.

The goal here is to encourage multi-vendor interoperability, i.e. enable routers from different vendors to work cohesively in a multi-router deployment. EasyMesh’s underlying technical basis is the WFA’s Multi-AP specification; the first release of the spec is ready, and Release 2 is in the works.

It’s important to note that Wi-Fi EasyMesh does not imply an actual “mesh network” – the standard strictly refers to a multi-router system, connected typically in a tree hierarchy or star configuration – via WiFi or wired methods. EasyMesh defines communication schemes that access points can use to discover and connect to each other, report key performance KPIs, and facilitate device mobility between connected access points.

The standard doesn’t define the smarts (the algorithms) that determine, for example, when to steer a device, or how to allocate the best WiFi channels to routers. These aspects are the domain of WiFi SON solutions, and the standard leaves room for SON vendors to innovate and add value here. If the WiFi network provides the road system, EasyMesh provides the traffic rules, and SON provides the navigation system that places a vehicle on the right road at the right time.

How useful is the standard likely to be? Much of the functionality we are talking about is done today by proprietary SON solutions. Fontech’s WFi SON solution accomplishes much of this without requiring the exchange of information between access points. At Fontech, we think the standard can add value in cases where exchange of information between routers is necessary. A case in point is fast device mobility between access points with caching of security keys – this type of feature needs security information to be transferred in a format that different router products understand, and a standard can really help here.

But at the end of the day, the success of Wi-Fi EasyMesh will be dictated by the level of adoption of the standard by solution vendors. If a critical mass of router and SON solution vendors comply with EasyMesh, the standard will become influential. At Fontech, we will keep a close eye on how the standard shapes up, and we expect to make contributions to the Release 2 version. But the functionality defined in EasyMesh will need to be complemented by centralized, vendor-agnostic SON capabilities that provide intelligence to resolve coverage, coverage, interference and faults automatically.

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