Wi-Fi troubles? New tech can give family their own personal network

Mike Feibus, Special to USA TODAY
Published 9:57 a.m. ET Oct. 29, 2020 | Updated 3:30 p.m. ET Oct. 29, 2020


 (Photo: Getty Images)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When your children’s online schooling starts bogging down your Zoom presentation, wouldn’t it be great if you could just send their electronics to their room? 

That won’t work, of course. At least not today. Because the laptops and tablets the kids are using make just as much conversation-snuffing chatter on the network when they’re out of sight. If their rooms are farther away from your router, it could even make things worse.

But a new mesh Wi-Fi technology Qualcomm announced Tuesday could soon change that. The technology, called Qualcomm Immersive Home, is designed to conquer the battle of the bits by covering the house with little network zones, each with their own small wireless satellite. So when you send a child into another room for virtual class, it not only would quiet the room, but also improve performance for your virtual meeting.

If you’ve ever checked to see other family members’ calendars before scheduling your own virtual meeting, then you know how big a breakthrough that could be. The high concentration of two-way video since the first lockdowns in March have stressed home networks like never before. And with both work from home and virtual learning expected to extend well beyond the pandemic, any technology that can get all the two-way video operating at once would be positively heaven sent.

Router systems with Immersive Home built-in are expected to start coming available early next year.

Video killed the internet bars

Videoconferencing wouldn’t be so hard on our home Wi-Fi networks were it not for one simple fact: two-way meeting apps like Cisco’s Webex, Microsoft Teams and Zoom depend as much on the pace of information leaving the house – that is, upload internet speeds – as what’s coming in, or download data rates. 

For most broadband connections, upload speeds are typically a fraction of download rates. The national average last month, according to Ookla, was 161Mbps download and 60.26Mbps upload. My connection here is significantly faster – and slower – with 300Mbps down but just 30Mbps up.  

The slower upload speeds didn’t matter so much before the pandemic, because our internet diet of streaming movies, comedy specials and cat videos depended mostly on download data rates. But videoconferencing demands upload performance in order to transmit our part of the conversation. Upstream traffic is now three times pre-pandemic levels, according to Open Fiber, an internet wholesaler. That means most of us don’t have enough to waste on network congestion.

Get your own network

Qualcomm’s Immersive Home technology takes mesh Wi-Fi to the next level. If you’re not familiar, mesh splits Wi-Fi routers into two or more pieces, with satellites positioned to extend wireless connectivity to every corner of the house. The pieces are all connected by a slice of spectrum reserved for router-to-router communications, called backhaul.

Mesh filled a crying need for whole-home connectivity and quickly caught on, mushrooming in less than five years from nothing to nearly two-thirds of all Wi-Fi sold through retail, according to NPD. 

In that time, the number of connected devices has swelled, often with sharply diverging demands. We’re using personal devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones for more real-time applications like social media surfing and video streaming. At the same time, connected devices like smart TVs, thermostats and security cams are bogging down home networks with older Wi-Fi tech that doesn’t play well with others.

Got to keep them separated

The idea behind Qualcomm Immersive Home is this: If you break up the home network into chunks, each with its own small Wi-Fi satellite connected to the main router, then traffic will be faster and smoother. That’s because on any given satellite, only a few devices will be contending for the spectrum. And they will be closer to the Wi-Fi source, which means faster speeds.

The success of a technology like Immersive Home hinges on its ability to keep traffic on the various Wi-Fi satellites from bothering each other. And, of course, it also requires a next-generation backhaul technology that can orchestrate all the traffic so that it all works better. The high-speed management features in Wi-Fi 6 will help a lot. But it will take more than that.

So we’ll have to wait and see if Qualcomm Immersive Home turns out to be as good as it sounds. But if it works as advertised, and we can quiet our work space and steady the home network by plugging an air freshener-like Wi-Fi satellite into an outlet in the kids’ room, then that could be freeing for millions of us who are balancing work and parenting in the same household.

That means both you and your network can enjoy the quiet.

USA TODAY columnist Mike Feibus is president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.

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