Connectivity is a crucial component of the modern age, and three types of connectivity dominate the consumer landscape: cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. In the home, Wi-Fi is the predominant form of connectivity. Over the years, Wi-Fi networks have become increasingly more intelligent and aware of the devices connected to them. Some of these intelligent capabilities come from cellular technologies, such as OFDMA in Wi-Fi 6, while others are due to mesh networking. With more people than ever working and going to school remotely due to the global pandemic, the importance of a quality connection and Wi-Fi network has never been greater. This week, Qualcomm, a company that’s almost synonomous with connectivity, released several new immersive home Wi-Fi platforms that leverage mesh networking and Wi-Fi 6E. Let’s take a closer look at the announcement and some background behind it.
Wi-Fi 6 and mesh takeover
The latest version of the Wi-Fi standard, Wi-Fi 6E, takes the technical capabilities of the IEEE 802.11ax standard further into the 6 GHz band, where virtually no devices inside the home operate. Having free and clear spectrum at 6 GHz translates to much faster in-home Wi-Fi speeds and lower latency, and overall a much better Wi-Fi experience.
Mesh networking represents the other biggest Wi-Fi development in recent years. Mesh networking allows for the connection of multiple Wi-Fi nodes to create a more uniform whole-home Wi-Fi coverage that requires minimal user configuration. Mesh networking has also brought with it an added level of reliability and stability that previous generations of Wi-Fi didn’t have due to new software architectures.
While integrating Wi-Fi 6E into a Wi-Fi mesh chipset was historically not possible, Qualcomm, not so surprisingly, was the company that figured it out. Earlier this year Qualcomm launched its Networking Pro 810 and 610 Platforms, but like many mesh solutions, these products targeted a more high-end price category. As a global pandemic rages outside, many people continue to struggle at home with poor internet connectivity, or worse—no job at all. Many are scraping by day-to-day and likely cannot afford the more expensive Wi-Fi 6 mesh solutions .
As the leader and pioneer in Wi-Fi mesh technology, Qualcomm has been instrumental in driving the technology’s adoption in the home. While Qualcomm was already a leader in Wi-Fi, the company understands that mesh’s simplified configuration, improved coverage and better firmware management represents the future of in-home Wi-Fi. As a proof point, during this pandemic, router sales have skyrocketed (according to NPD). Mesh routers have seen an increase of 73%, and Qualcomm has been #1 in mesh for years. So, it makes sense that Qualcomm would bring mesh and Wi-Fi 6E into a more affordable price category.
Bringing Wi-Fi 6 and mesh mainstream
Which brings us to the news—today, Qualcomm announced four new Immersive Home Platforms that leverage Wi-Fi 6 and built for home networks that enable mesh at more affordable price points. These new platforms utilize a distinctly modular approach with a custom-built SoC designed to increase accessibility. The first two products are the Qualcomm Immersive Home 318 and 316 Platforms, which both feature tri-band Wi-Fi 6. Having a true tri-band router means that users can put IoT devices on 2.4 GHz, multi-media devices on 5 GHz and save 6 GHz for mesh backhaul and future devices like VR or AR headsets as well as smartphones and other devices. The big difference between the 318 and 316 platforms is the 318 supports 4×4 in the 6 GHz band, while the 316 supports 2×2 across all three bands. This difference translates to a peak throughput of 7.8 Gbps total available throughput on the 318 versus 5.4 Gbps on the 316. Both routers support 160 MHz channel widths in the 5 GHz and 6 GHz bands and support Wi-Fi 6E, but at different performance levels. I would expect these routers to cost around what most people pay for Wi-Fi 6 dual-band routers today, but with the added benefit of having Wi-Fi 6E and tri-band capability.
Along with the Immersive Home Platform 310 series, Qualcomm also announced the Immersive Home 210 series. The 210 series, which includes the 214 and 216 platforms, features dual-band Wi-Fi 6 capabilities. The 210 series removes 6 GHz and by default Wi-Fi 6E support, but still offers many of the other size, performance and cost benefits of the new platform. The Qualcomm Immersive Home 216 and 214 platforms support 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, with the 216 supporting 4×4 in the 5 GHz band and the 214 supporting 2×2 in both bands. This difference in antennas translates to a potential peak throughput of 5.4 Gbps for the 216 and 3.0 Gbps for the 214, respectively.
A 4×4 antenna configuration usually translates to a better range and faster connectivity, but ultimately both solutions are geared towards enabling a more affordable category of mesh routers with Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 6 doesn’t only improve performance in 5 GHz either, 2.4 GHz benefits from the transition as well. Wi-Fi 6 brings added security, device management and faster speeds to all bands that utilize it, and the more devices on a Wi-Fi 6 network transition to Wi-Fi 6, the faster it gets. Additionally, many devices utilizing these new dual-band platforms will come in smaller hockey-puck-like form factors, which means home networking becomes less obnoxious and intrusive. This smaller form factor also translates to being cheaper which can translate to more nodes for the same cost to the consumer as the previous generation.
I expect that devices utilizing these new platforms will be of great value and should enable many people to improve their home network experience significantly. Don’t just take my word for it; router manufacturers like Plume, Belkin, Xiami, and TP-Link are already on record wanting to adopt these new platforms. Their attitude can be summed up pretty well by this quote from TP-Link’s Pingji Li, general manager of TP-Link Consumer and Enterprise:
“We’re excited about Qualcomm Technologies’ announcement of the Qualcomm Immersive Home Platforms and recognize how it will further promote the adoption of Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E. TP-Link customers will experience more diversified mesh networking devices, offering ultra-fast, reliable Wi-Fi, and robust security. Thanks to our collaboration with Qualcomm Technologies, everyone can embrace the trend of connecting everything.”
I believe that Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, when paired with mesh technology, are the way forward for the industry. Qualcomm is helping make that future a reality with these new platforms. The expectation is that many products based on the new platforms are anticipated to launch in the CES 2021 timeframe (January 2021) and should be in the hands of consumers shortly after that. Wi-Fi 6E will finally give us the connectivity we had hoped for with the original Wi-Fi 6 launch, but didn’t get due to channel crowding from legacy 5 GHz devices. Bringing mesh and Wi-Fi 6E to a more accessible price point and category will also hasten adoption and cleanup the airwaves in congested apartment environments. While mesh can translate to better whole-home coverage, it also improves the overall experience, and I cannot wait to get my hands on it soon.