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The Wi-Fi industry wants to bring you better, cheaper gear–maybe

A new mesh Wi-Fi standard promises lower prices and greater interoperability, but the industry isn’t exactly rushing to support it.

The Wi-Fi industry wants to bring you better, cheaper gear–maybe

While mesh Wi-Fi systems like Eero, Netgear’s Orbi, and Google Wi-Fi can saturate every corner of your home in speedy wireless coverage, they’re also expensive and mostly proprietary. Prices for these systems start at around $250–more than three times what the average consumer spends on a wireless router, according to the NPD Group–and if you want to switch to another router maker’s software and services, you have to replace the entire system.

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Last week, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced a wireless standard called EasyMesh that’s supposed to solve these problems. By allowing component vendors to create hardware around one mesh standard, the Alliance hopes the resulting economies of scale will help bring prices down. The standard could also allow consumers to mix and match router pods from different vendors, so they’re no longer locked into to one high-priced system.

“Standardized approaches can create markets,” says Kevin Robinson, the Wi-Fi Alliance’s vice president of marketing. “That is exactly what the Wi-Fi Alliance expects the Wi-Fi EasyMesh program to do, is help create new markets, and ultimately that benefits the consumers, service providers, and others who rely on Wi-Fi for so much in their lives.”

Not everyone is so optimistic. Several router makers tell Fast Company that they’re not rushing on interoperability, and an executive at Qualcomm expressed skepticism that the current standard will bring prices down or allow competing systems to work together. These skeptics include Wi-Fi Alliance member companies which were involved in defining the new standard.

Still, EasyMesh will have some practical benefits, especially for internet service providers who want to offer mesh Wi-Fi to customers without getting locked into a single vendor. But if you’re looking to buy a mesh system on your own, don’t expect big changes in the market anytime soon.

Standard intelligence

Unlike conventional Wi-Fi networking gear which connects your devices through a single router, mesh provides stronger coverage through multiple access points throughout the house. These access points all use the same network name and password, and they talk among themselves to figure out how to best connect with all the phones, computers, and other devices on the network. For instance, if one access point is overloaded with demand or is seeing a spike in interference from a neighbor’s Wi-Fi network, it should be able to offload some of the connections to another access point.

By certifying EasyMesh products, the Wi-Fi Alliance hopes to standardize the way mesh networks wrangle those connections. Router makers can still differentiate their products by customizing certain hardware components, such as the number of wireless bands used to communicate across the network and the ability to have wired connections between access points. But on the whole, component makers can create similar products on a much larger scale, potentially bringing costs down.

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“You can imagine, when the industry is shipping a billion units of a standardized solution, that is much more efficient than shipping a million each of 10 or 20 different types of solutions,” Robinson says.

Access points that use EasyMesh are also supposed to work together, regardless of who made them. The standard calls for one device to act as the “controller,” which handles device setup, manages the network, and perhaps offers additional services such as smart home controls or malware protection. The other access points that extend the network are known as “agents.” The idea is that users could purchase more agents to improve their coverage, or swap out the controller to get new features.

“The other benefit with Wi-Fi EasyMesh is in terms of scalability,” Robinson says. “The consumer can easily add an additional access point, and those access points don’t have to all be from the same vendor, so it’s giving you more and more choice in the market.”

Just the first step

Those benefits only apply, however, if router makers embrace the standard. For now, they have plenty of reasons to stick with proprietary solutions.

Mark Merrill, the CTO of Wi-Fi Alliance member company Netgear, says EasyMesh doesn’t offer the kinds of advanced network management features that Netgear has already built into its Orbi systems. For instance, it doesn’t define the exact moment that a network should hand a device off from one access point to another, which means router makers must handle that intelligence themselves. A future version of EasyMesh could define that behavior, but with so many parties now contributing to the standard, Merrill says improvements could take a long time to emerge.

“We’re in the 50th lap of an Indy 500, and it’s going to take a little while now to solidify what the next priorities are,” Merrill says.

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In the meantime, silicon vendors such as Wi-Fi Alliance member Qualcomm will likely offer additional features that aren’t part of the standard. Gopi Sirineni, the vice president of product management for Qualcomm’s Atheros networking subsidiary, says Qualcomm’s networking chips collect a superset of performance data for router makers to use, and have their own way of handling devices that are moving around the house, beyond what the standard offers.

“With EasyMesh, we’ll do basic functionality of handover to mesh. It makes the ecosystem work better, for sure. But we provide lots more,” Sirineni says.

Despite the name, EasyMesh also doesn’t allow for true mesh networking, which would allow multiple access points to connect back to the internet modem in any order, Merrill says. Instead, the network must follow either a “star” pattern (in which one router serves as the hub for multiple spokes) or “daisy chain” pattern (in which access points can only link sequentially). A real mesh network can be faster and more reliable, which may explain why Eero–whose Wi-Fi system does operate in true mesh fashion–isn’t getting behind EasyMesh at the moment.

“We will continue to follow the draft development of the Wi-Fi Alliance’s EasyMesh,” Eero said in a statement. “For now, we’re fully devoted to TrueMesh, the most reliable and secure mesh available to consumers today.”

Some router makers are more enthusiastic. Derrick Wang, a director of product management for Wi-Fi Alliance member TP-Link, said via email that TP-Link will be “one of the first companies to support EasyMesh when it becomes available.” D-Link also said in a statement that it “[looks] forward to adopting Wi-Fi EasyMesh for our future products.”

Sandeep Harpalani, a senior product line manager for Netgear, says the company may even incorporate some elements of EasyMesh into its Nighthawk Mesh line, which brings some mesh-like features (such as a common network name and password) to traditional Wi-Fi range extenders. Currently, Netgear builds all the network intelligence into the extenders so they can work with any router. With EasyMesh, the router itself could have its own intelligence, which would allow for better coordination between with Netgear’s extenders.

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Still, that’s not quite the same as being able to pick up any mesh access point and know that it works with others.

“There’s still some more effort required before a customer could pick up one solution, then pick up a second solution and make them work together, but I think very much it’s a step in the right direction in terms of finalizing or basically standardizing certain demands for communication,” Harpalani says.

All about business

Even if some router makers do embrace the standard, it’s unclear if that support will translate to lower prices and full interoperability, especially when hardware makers are able to turn a nice profit on the high-end proprietary mesh systems they already offer.

According The NPD Group, U.S. retail sales of mesh systems were up 116% year-over-year last quarter, while non-mesh system sales declined by 15%. Dollars spent on mesh systems were also up 85%, making up a fifth of all router spending despite representing only a tenth of unit sales. And while the average price of these systems did fall over the last year, from $325 to $279, that’s still a massive premium over the $81 people spend for routers on average.

“Most of the retailers and manufacturers believe they’re still harvesting the early adopters,” says NPD analyst Stephen Baker. “I also think that the value proposition is pretty high for these products.”

Qualcomm’s Gopi Sirineni is also skeptical that EasyMesh will have much impact on average selling prices for the same reasons. And even if interoperability becomes technically possible, he doesn’t believe router makers will emphasize it as a selling point for their products.

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“There’s no incentive for Google to say, ‘You know what? My boxes will work with Netgear boxes,’ ” he says. “That’s not worth it for them.”

What will EasyMesh accomplish, then? The biggest benefactors could be internet service providers such as Comcast or Charter. For them, better Wi-Fi means fewer costly customer service calls, and having a standard means they can work with multiple vendors to get the best deal. In other words, they’ll have the buying power that consumers still lack.

“It’s more for the service providers to make sure they’re not tied to one vendor,” Sirineni says. “They’re tied to protocols that enable them to be agnostic to the silicon vendor.”

In the long term, that could still be an important development for consumers, the majority of whom, according to Baker, still lease their routers from the company that delivers their internet access. As more internet providers lease or sell mesh routers to their customers, we may see some router makers sell interoperable access points as add-ons, or lower their prices to avoid losing business to companies like Comcast.

In that sense, the Wi-Fi Alliance is right that EasyMesh could create new markets that ultimately benefit everyone. But as is often the case with standards, it’s anyone’s guess when that’s actually going to happen.

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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