As mid-tier network service providers (NSPs) look for ways to reduce costs and improve customer service, in-home wireless networks in general – and Wi-Fi in particular – offer an opportunity for service providers to redefine their relationships with subscribers.
We caught up with Jim Brake -- Senior Vice President at Technicolor Connected Home responsible for small and medium sized operators in the North American region – to get his take on strategies that mid-tier NSPs are pursuing to address the challenges...and opportunities...presented by consumers growing reliance on wireless networking.
Brake: Like the larger metro areas, the expectations of the end user in the home continue to increase. Statistics from TechCrunch from August of 2016 list a 42 percent increase in data speeds in the home year-over-year.
The expectation of the customer is that their wireless experience within the home should at least mirror the data speed coming into the home via broadband connections offered by their operator. Their expectations – of seamless use of services on their smartphones, on their computers and on other wireless devices – continue to grow.
Also, there is an explosion of IoT, devices; things such as cameras and security systems, wireless thermostats, even wireless garage door openers. Then, of course, the proliferation of smartphones has created a market where most people interact with apps on their phone versus sitting down to a traditional computer.
So that means all the expectations of the customer in this small and medium market are mirroring what’s going on across the US in general. The data speeds in smaller markets sometimes are not as fast as they may be in urban areas, but the growth in the use of data and the expectations of the customer very much mirror what’s going on in larger markets.
Brake: Service providers have told me time and again that the first thing a customer will do when they sign up for a data service is to go on to one of the common websites and test their data speed. As soon as they find a difference between what they have paid for compared to what they are receiving they put in a call to customer care. Up to 30 percent of calls to customer care these days are due to customers calling with concerns about their data performance.
Likewise, there is a proliferation of truck rolls, where a technician has to be sent out to look at the wireless setup in the home. Ironically, even if the equipment is purchased by the end user – and not leased through the operator – their call still comes into customer care because the expectation by the consumer is that the operator will fix their problem.
Without a doubt, the in-home wireless expectations of the customer are often not well aligned with the operator – affecting the operator’s perceived ability to provide service and keep the customer happy. It is one of the areas driving up operational expenses for the operators.
Brake: Absolutely. There are a number of technologies I’d like to highlight. First of all, the units themselves are called gateways and they provide the Wi-Fi capabilities. They connect into the home and they provide the signal throughout the house. They are becoming more and more sophisticated.
A few years ago, dual band gateways were introduced that operate on two different Wi-Fi radio bands. They provide better signal throughout the house and higher data speeds. More recently operators have migrated those Wi-Fi units from older technologies such as 802.11n to the current standard, 801.11ac. This new generation of Wi-Fi technology provides higher data speeds to meet customers’ expectations that their wireless performance will be equivalent to wired.
Another trend that is occurring revolves around the increase in the number of antennas inside the gateway to provide more coverage throughout the home.
Often, the performances issues are not about the data speed coming into the device: it’s the fact that the radio itself can’t propagate far enough to all the corners of the house. There may be issues with how the house is constructed with brick walls, metal studs, etc.
Sometimes people want to use their Wi-Fi when they are outdoors on the lawn, out the back by the pool, or even next door at their neighbor’s house. So, these gateways are becoming more and more sophisticated in order to provide better and better coverage.
That’s part of the story, but the other part is about truly trying to understand what the user experience is all about. There are a number of migrations under way to better understand what the user experience is like, as well as to be able to correct deficiencies in that experience.
Brake: That is without a doubt the highest focus area for the service provider customers I talk to. All of them are looking at introducing the latest state-of-the art in Wi-Fi. Also, because customers expect to get a good experience no matter where they are in their home, another trend that we are seeing is for what we call extenders.
These are small devices that may sit in more remote parts of the house, or even out in adjunct areas of the property. They extend the coverage beyond the central gateway to areas that might not otherwise be served by the signal from the main gateway.
They are definitely of interest to the operators. When we speak with them it’s always about how to get better Wi-Fi. That’s the pain point for their customers and therefore that becomes a pain point for them.
Brake: Great question. The Wireless Broadband Alliance, in a December 2016 publication, said that 80 percent of the service providers that responded to its survey were planning to migrate to the next generation of Wi-Fi specifically to improve the user experience and specifically to reduce customer churn.
So, the operators are embracing the latest technologies in order to keep the customer happy, and they are doing so in a way that targets the highest data speeds to the biggest consumers.
Often what we find is that they may have a multi-tier strategy, where their higher tier data speed customers are served with the latest state-of-the-art product and their lower data speed customers are served by vanilla units or last generation units. That allows operators to better match their capital outlay for new product with the income they derive from those customers.
Brake: It absolutely is important and in fact this is a key growth area for the operators I work with. Many of them are looking at double-digit growth in their customers’ data usage. So, this has a lot of focus in small- and medium-sized markets.
Technicolor is doing a number of things to address this. First of all, we have an entire family of gateway products. Depending upon the needs of the operator we can provide them with gateways that run off cable under DOCSIS. We can provide Ethernet gateways, or even fiber to the home gateways.
So, no matter what type of technology the operator uses to provide the signal into the home, we can connect up. And, as I mentioned before, there is a proliferation of the higher capability gateways with up to eight transmit and eight receive antennas. These provide outstanding performance, cutting edge performance in the home.
We also have a family of extenders that operators can offer to their premium customers and to customers who may have unique needs to get the signal out to all the areas of their home.
Finally, one important area for us is to provide better capability for the operator to really understand the user experience.
We have capabilities called Wi-Fi Doctor and Wi-Fi Conductor. These enable a diagnosis of interference, of signal blockage, and provide information to the operator so they can understand a problem and provide remedies for the consumer, often before the end subscriber even realizes there is a problem.
With all these tools, we are making a major focus for operators to improve the user experience and help them to minimize the operational expense of ever increasing customer expectations.