Think about it as Alexa everywhere. Except this voice assistant will control everything in your smart home—from the fridge to your blinds and entertainment system. Everything.
That’s the promise of new wireless mesh router tech from Qualcomm that puts your home’s brain in the router itself.
Qualcomm’s mesh networking system isn’t just a microchip, but a set of software features that manage the Wi-Fi connection. Router makers still determine the design and range of each pod, and can throw in extra features such as parental controls or guest access, but ultimately Qualcomm’s tech determines where users should install each pod and how traffic should flow between them.
Patrick Moorhead, the principal analyst for Moor Insights and Strategy, says Qualcomm’s integration of all the necessary radios and software should be cheaper and more power-efficient.
“I’ve been waiting for this for five years, for this one piece of silicon to come out,” Moorhead says.
Qualcomm is a kingpin of smartphone processors, but lately the chipmaker’s fingerprints have been all over the wireless router renaissance. Mesh network routers like Eero, Google Wi-Fi, and Netgear Orbi all rely on Qualcomm’s underlying technology, which chains multiple routers together to form a vast home network. These products have reversed a long race to the bottom in the price of home routers, as consumers happily pay a premium to alleviate their Wi-Fi woes.
So that’s why the company’s announcement Monday of enhanced mesh networking technology carries added heft. Qualcomm’s latest mesh network will play nicely with speakers and microphone arrays, giving router pods the same voice controls as an Amazon Echo or Google Home. Router makers can also build in support for popular smart home protocols, so users can automate their lights, door locks, and other devices without needing a separate hub or bridge.
By helping vendors add those features, Qualcomm aims to transform the router from a dumb Wi-Fi pipe into the backbone of a smarter home. But if the chipmaker is successful, router makers–and, by extension, consumers–will soon have to decide which of those smart home and voice assistant platforms to bet on.
The Router Revolution
Qualcomm’s new system extends coverage from just Wi-Fi to other smart home protocols, including Bluetooth, CSRMesh, and 802.15.4 (which forms the basis for the ZigBee spec used by products like Philips Hue lightbulbs). Typically, these protocols require a separate hub or bridge to communicate with smartphones and the internet. Qualcomm is trying to consolidate everything onto a single router system, which could support platforms like Wink or Samsung SmartThings.
“You don’t have to have these extra hubs lying around your house,” says Jesse Burke, Qualcomm’s product marketing staff manager. “You just connect everything to your router.”
The idea of a combined Wi-Fi router and smart home hub isn’t entirely new. Google’s OnHub and Wi-Fi routers both include basic ZigBee support, for instance, as do several Almond routers from Securifi.
Qualcomm is also throwing in software that can turn a router pod into a voice assistant, using systems like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant to play music, answer questions, and control smart-home devices. Router makers still have to supply the microphone array and speakers, but Qualcomm provides the voice recognition, noise cancellation, and connection to cloud services from Google, Amazon, and others. Alternatively, Qualcomm is offering a mesh router reference design that includes all the necessary hardware.
“You’ll see that in the market pretty quickly, this convergence of these voice assistant products with the mesh networks that are also out there,” Burke says. “It makes a lot of sense for those two things to converge.”
Choose Your Router Wisely
Qualcomm’s new system adds up to a vision in which the mesh router system provides everything you need to build out a smart home, from protocol support to voice controls. The hope is that once those connections are readily available, we’ll see a boom in the number of sensors and other smart devices that can interact with one another inside the home.
“There’s a lot of things that a platform can do when it’s the nervous system of the home, and that’s where we’re trying to push the industry,” Burke says.
But keep in mind that Qualcomm itself isn’t betting on any particular smart-home platform or voice assistant service. That’ll be up to the router makers, who will still have to decide between competing voice assistants (such Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and perhaps Microsoft’s Cortana) and automation platforms (such as Wink, Samsung SmartThings, Lowe’s Iris, and maybe even Apple HomeKit).”When Netgear launches a product, or any other OEM launches a product with these types of capabilities, how and which of those services are integrated into them are really up to the partnerships they can strike, or the APIs they can port in,” Burke says.
“The point we’re trying to make is that we have made it completely available and possible to do that on this platform.”
It’s not hard to imagine a land grab happening as a result. Although mesh routers are barely more than a year old, they now account for more than one fifth of all U.S. router revenues according to The NPD Group. The sudden growth, combined with Qualcomm’s new router tech, presents a chance for smart home platforms to insert themselves into the mainstream.
“in the end, these companies want everybody to support their ecosystem,” Moorhead says, “so I could see a Samsung paying somebody, or enabling a Netgear to have ‘Works with SmartThings.'”
After all, consumers tend not to replace their routers more than once every three to five years, and are likely to see pricey mesh systems as a long-term investment. With Qualcomm making home automation and voice commands easier and cheaper to include, better Wi-Fi may soon come with a side of platform lock-in. As if deciding which router to buy wasn’t agonizing enough already.