Going too fast?
The broadband industry has dug a hole for itself. Access speeds to the home have accelerated rapidly in recent years, with gigabit – or even multi-gigabit – connections now commonplace. What’s the problem? Wi-Fi is struggling to keep up.
“Gigabit is commonplace in parts of the world, and everyone familiar with the industry knows that your chances of getting gigabit over Wi-Fi – even over the very latest Wi-Fi technologies – is vanishingly small, unless you’re in the same room or just a few feet away from the wireless router,” said SamKnows founder and chief technology officer, Sam Crawford.
That becomes an issue for broadband providers when consumers are upgraded to these ultrafast connections and find they can’t hit those top speeds all around their homes. “It’s very difficult for an ISP to sell a broadband product that’s advertised at one gigabit, for example, when the first thing a consumer will do is plug it in, fire up their phone, run a speed test and discover it gets four or five hundred megabits,” said Sam. “The first thing that consumer is going to do is complain.”
And complain they do. Wi-Fi is the cause of more than half of the complaints that broadband providers deal with in their call centres. Are consumers chasing the impossible dream, expecting that every device in their home will receive the full speed of their internet connection? How can SamKnows help broadband providers better educate their customers on the speeds they can expect over Wi-Fi? And is new technology riding to the rescue, with the recently launched Wi-Fi 7 promising improved bandwidth and greater reliability? We’ll explore the answers to all these questions.
The Wi-Fi gap
The gap between the speed coming into the home and the speeds consumers receive on their devices is sizeable, according to exclusive SamKnows data.
That speed loss is even more apparent on mobile devices, where the average speed loss is measured at 40%, compared to an average loss of 27% on PCs and laptops. What’s also clear from the SamKnows data is that speed loss is more noticeable on those ultrafast connections.
“If you’re on a connection of more than a couple of hundred megabits, your chances of getting that couple of hundred megabits all over your home is very small,” said Sam Crawford, “unless you’re kitted out with an expensive mesh Wi-Fi solution bought from a third party. Even then, your chances of getting more than four or five hundred megabits all around your home is still very, very small.”
The speed drop-off isn’t normally a reflection of faulty or substandard Wi-Fi router equipment; it’s simply the nature of wireless radio technology. The further you are from the router, and the more obstacles between a device and the router, the greater the drop-off in speed will be. That’s particularly the case with the higher frequency bands – 5GHz on most routers, and 6GHz on more recent models – where the bandwidth on offer is greater, but the signal finds it harder to permeate obstacles in its path.
Until recently, broadband providers haven’t done a great job of educating customers about this drop-off. Even SamKnows’ own design guru, Simon Cook, couldn’t understand the reasons he was struggling to get a Wi-Fi signal in the upper floors of his house.
How Wi-Fi saps speed
As you can see from the SamKnows RealSpeed measurements recorded below, the faster an internet connection, the bigger the drop-off in Wi-Fi performance (doesn’t include Wi-Fi 7 devices).
“SamKnows had just developed its RealSpeed test, and I had just bought my new house,” said Cook. “I was excited to use the new test to evaluate the performance of my Wi-Fi, and knew already before using it that I had problems because it’s a three-storey house. The router was on the ground floor, and when I was working in the loft, sometimes you could get Wi-Fi and sometimes you couldn’t. So, I tested it using RealSpeed and found that in virtually every room, other than right next to the router, I was losing about 90% of my broadband performance.”
According to Cookie, the results he collected “seemed almost random”. “Sometimes they were quite good, sometimes they were terrible, and I couldn’t really make sense of the data. So, I took my results to someone who is more of an expert at SamKnows; he thought the Wi-Fi band might be causing the variation.”
That was indeed the case, and Cookie was soon on the path to solving his problem with an eero mesh router system and lashings of Ethernet cable.
Getting the RealSpeed
Of course, it isn’t only SamKnows employees who can benefit from the insights delivered by RealSpeed. It’s freely available from the SamKnows website and is increasingly being used by broadband providers themselves when dealing with customers who think they might have connection problems.
Sam Crawford explains how it works. “RealSpeed lets you run two speed tests. One is from your router to the internet. That measures the speed, latency and packet loss of your internet connection between the point of termination to your home. That gives you the ‘clean view’ of just your internet connection.”
“And then it runs a second test, which is from your device – be it your phone, laptop or whatever,” said Sam. “You get back two sets of results: two download speeds, two upload speeds, two latency measurements, two packet-loss measurements. A customer can do this with a single click, by the way; there’s no login required. Just fire it up and you get back those two sets of numbers. And what this tells the consumer is whether they’re getting the performance that they’re paying for, delivered to their home, plus the figure they’re getting to that device?”
Unlike other speed tests, which simply reveal what the consumer is getting on the device, failing to take into account any loss of performance over the in-home Wi-Fi or the capabilities of the client device, RealSpeed shows the difference between the connection speed into the home and what the device is receiving. Customers can clearly see the difference for themselves, and that can be of enormous benefit to the broadband provider. “Our ISP customers really like this because it helps educate their customers,” said Sam. “Sometimes, it saves customer support calls.”
Our ISP customers really like RealSpeed because it helps educate their customers.
SamKnows has also introduced a second product, fitted into the latest generation of the company’s Whiteboxes, which is further helping to shine a light on in-home performance problems. The new Whiteboxes are fitted with external antennas, specifically to collect more data on the performance of Wi-Fi devices in the home. This helps the device gather data on the generation of Wi-Fi technology a device is using, the channel it’s on, plus the channel width – all of which can make a significant difference to performance.
However, the “really interesting” metric, according to Sam Crawford, is the channel occupancy – “how much other noise and other background activity is there on the Wi-Fi channel, which obviously can really impair performance”.
The Whiteboxes run some simple active measurements (latency, packet loss) to the devices as well, all of which helps to build a picture of the Wi-Fi performance across the home and the capabilities of different devices.
With this level of data, it shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone - either consumer or broadband provider – as to the reasons devices are struggling to get decent connection speeds across the home.
Enter Wi-Fi 7
As we’ve discussed, the older Wi-Fi standards are struggling to keep pace in the gigabit era. But there is hope that the new generation of Wi-Fi 7 equipment that’s emerging on to the market in 2023 will significantly close that gap between the speed coming into the router and the speed reaching wireless devices in the home.
In 2021, the arrival of Wi-Fi 6E equipment allowed routers to access a new allocation of spectrum in the 6GHz band. Qualcomm makes the chipsets for several of the world’s leading Wi-Fi router manufacturers, and the company’s senior director of technology planning, Andy Davidson, explains what that meant in terms of bandwidth. “Wi-Fi built its initial success with just three 20MHz channels at 2.4GHz,” said Andy. “With 5GHz, there was enough extra spectrum added that you could get at least three 80MHz channels everywhere, and that gave four times the speed. And then in some regions, such as the US, you had enough for three 160MHz channels, doubling the speed again.”
The availability of the 6GHz band has given speeds a further boost. “With 6GHz, we get enough for three 160MHz channels in every region that supports it, and then in the US, enough for three 320MHz channels.
Wi-Fi 7 is the first generation specifically designed to take advantage of 6GHz and that extra spectrum, so it includes those 320MHz channels.”
Fatter channels aren’t the only performance advantage being delivered with Wi-Fi 7. “There’s advanced coding techniques to also improve the speed,” said Andy. “There are adaptive connections – they can work around interference and congestion, so you get that high throughput under all conditions, regardless of where you are.”
They can work around interference and congestion, so you get that high throughput under all conditions.
“But, in my opinion, the biggest innovation is multiple connections,” said Andy. “Since Wi-Fi 4, many APs [access points] have supported operation in two bands, typically 2.4GHz and 5GHz. With the addition of 6GHz, we’ll increasingly see router support in three, four or even more channels spread across two or three bands.
“Until Wi-Fi 7, the client had to choose one of the channels in which to connect. Changing channel, even within a single AP, was as complicated as roaming between two different APs. A Wi-Fi 7 client can create multiple connections to an AP, easily switching between them as it needs.”
This should mean that Wi-Fi 7 equipment is more adept at dodging interference, which, as Sam explained earlier, can have a hugely detrimental effect on performance. Wi-Fi 7 “supports alternating between channels quickly to avoid congestion and lower latency, or even aggregating the traffic across two channels, so you still get that lower latency, but you also get higher speed,” said Andy.
“For example, if a router offers 160MHz channels in 5GHz and 6GHz, a client can connect to them both and get speeds equivalent to 320MHz. A mesh router can aggregate channels for an extremely high throughput backhaul. We call this High Band Simultaneous Multi-Link.”
The advancements offered by Wi-Fi 7 could be significant, and even though Wi-Fi 7 chips inside laptops, smartphones and other devices are still just emerging at the time of writing in spring 2023, consumers can still feel the benefit. For example, mesh router systems will still see increased performance because they’re able to use the 6GHz band for backhaul communications.
However, it will take a while before broadband providers are shipping Wi-Fi 7 routers to their customers. Many have only embraced Wi-Fi 6 in the past year or two, and it’s unlikely we’ll see Wi-Fi 7 in ISPs’ own equipment before 2024. Even then, router refresh cycles are relatively sluggish, so it could well be 2025 or beyond before most customers are starting to feel the benefit of Wi-Fi 7 technology in their homes.
All of which means broadband providers and their customers will be relying on the insights that SamKnows products, such as RealSpeed, can deliver about their in-home Wi-Fi performance for some time yet!