Everybody hates Wi-Fi. The boxes are ugly, and it never seems to work when you need it. But just when you thought wireless internet was unfixable, the most boring and hated appliance in your house may be on the verge of actually, um, working.
Many of today’s devices are overcoming the design and technological flaws that marred the industry throughout its existence. The latest gadgets boast more effective antennas and do a better job cutting through radio interference. Some just look nicer than the hideous routers of yesteryear, with their thicket of wires, blinking lights and plastic parts akimbo.
A review of four newly released devices that employ the latest home-wireless technologies showed impressive results. In Bloomberg’s tests, the wireless routers were dramatically more reliable than their predecessors and attractive enough to earn a place on the mantle.
Looks matter more than you might think. Most people tuck routers under a desk or behind a cabinet to hide their unsightly fixtures. This would be OK, if not for the laws of physics. Every wall, desk or dresser that stands between the router and whatever gadget is trying to connect to it degrades the signal. Ideal placement is in the middle of a room, with no obstructions to allow wireless signals to move freely.
Electronics makers hope that if they design a prettier piece of equipment, people won’t be so ashamed of making it a centerpiece in their living rooms. The new design philosophy is an important element of what the industry calls “whole-home Wi-Fi,” a buzzword describing today’s more efficient network architecture.
“Networking design prior to whole-home Wi-Fi was about aggressiveness: big, gnarly antennas to deliberately make the router seem more powerful,” said Justin Doucette, a senior director at router maker Belkin International Inc.’s Linksys. “What resulted was what I call the wife factor: The wife comes home and sees this big, black, gnarly thing on the cabinet in the living room and says, ‘There’s no way in hell.’”
Designs for the latest generation of routers seem to be taken from the pages of a Sharper Image catalog. Netgear Inc.’s Orbi looks like an air purifier. Ubiquiti Networks Inc.’s AmpliFi resembles the sort of ultramodern digital clock you’d find in a boutique hotel. And Linksys’s Velop is like a rectangular Amazon Echo.
Fixing Wi-Fi has taken on increased urgency as the industry pushes for a world where everything from fridges to light bulbs are connected to the internet. Ericsson AB, a Swedish network equipment maker, estimates there will be about 29 billion connected devices worldwide by 2022, up from 16 billion last year. Almost all of that growth will come from things that aren’t phones or computers.
Wi-Fi routers are an essential, but unloved, piece of the equation. Most people stick with whatever their internet provider gives them, and it’s usually not very good. Subpar equipment contributes to customers’ dissatisfaction with internet companies, said John Kendall, an analyst for market researcher IHS Markit Ltd. “If your Netflix isn’t working, you’re not calling Netflix,” he said. “You’re calling your service provider.”
Comcast Corp., the largest U.S. cable company, accepts part of the blame. “The internet doesn’t stop at the wall; it stops at your device,” said Chris Satchell, executive vice president and chief product officer at Comcast Cable. “As an industry, we’re sort of failing the customer.”
When a customer calls Comcast or another provider, usually the first thing they’ll be told to do is to unplug the router and plug it back in. The reason they do this is because restarting the machine forces connected devices to look for open lanes. Routers compete for airwaves with cordless phones, baby monitors and nearby Wi-Fi signals. When a neighbor moves in, changes a setting or downloads a movie, it can interfere. A network can also get overwhelmed by the addition of new devices and create the equivalent of rush hour on a Los Angeles freeway.
But it’s pretty stupid that a mini computer can’t figure out there’s a problem until it’s unplugged. Comcast thinks so, too. The company will start offering customers a new router by the end of March called the Advanced Wireless Gateway, which will monitor what’s connected, analyze some data in the cloud and fine-tune the network to keep data flowing efficiently. Comcast said it will also roll out a software update to older equipment for as many as 10 million customers with some of these features.
Later this year, Comcast will also offer wireless extenders, small gizmos that can plug into the wall and automatically relay the signal to faraway rooms in the house to minimize disruption. While extenders have been around for a while, they remain fairly uncommon. However, they’re a key part of the industry’s vision for better home Wi-Fi. “You could turn off my water, and it would take me longer to notice than turning off my internet,” said Satchell. “It's vital.”
Plume Design Inc., a Silicon Valley startup, takes Comcast’s networking concept to an extreme. Its Wi-Fi routers, which resemble a makeup compact, are plugged into wall outlets around the house and report device data to computers in the cloud. The system monitors traffic and decides which devices get priority on the fly. For example, a video conference will take precedent over another device surfing the web, ensuring a smooth picture throughout the call, said Fahri Diner, Plume’s chief executive officer.
There’s another aspect of Wi-Fi that makes little sense: Most older routers can’t technically send and receive data at the same time. Let’s say you’re posting photos to Facebook while watching YouTube. The router is actually alternating every fraction of a second between uploading the images and downloading video. Although imperceptible to the user, those milliseconds can add up. Ubiquiti designed a new type of antenna that can do both simultaneously. The result is AmpliFi, the one that looks like a bedside clock.
For one of these new rigs, the bare minimum typically starts at about $150. But if you want the full coverage these systems are designed for, expect to pay $350 or more. Wi-Fi bliss comes at a cost.