How intelligent Wi-Fi could be the answer to your smart home woes

Inside the fake smart home where the future of Wi-Fi is being cooked up

Intelligent Wi-Fi takes on the smart home

How many different devices does your router need to cope with? Think about it for a moment. Let’s say there are four people in a household with one phone each, maybe two tablets in total and another couple of laptops. That’s eight already and that’s before we’ve talked TVs, games consoles, smart speakers – and what about when we open the floodgates to all the little smart home devices too?

How about 15, 20 or, for those reading this, probably many more?

It’s a big number, which is why ISPs have test centres where they recreate the tricky in-home conditions their service might have to cope with. In Virgin Media’s Buckinghamshire HQ, the company has built an entire 450 square metre, three-storey house inside the building. And then another one right next to it.

Essential reading: How to build better mesh Wi-Fi for your smart home

“Over the past year, we’ve seen a double in the amount of data our users are getting through,” says Virgin Media’s Executive Director of Connectivity, Richard Sinclair, as we sit in the living room of one of the company's twin faux-homes, furnished top to bottom with sofas, books, beds, a complete kitchen set up and even a fully operational plumbing system. You could live here, but nobody’s allowed to.

“It’s like an invisible carbonara that customers are ordering and we’ve had to double the portion behind the scenes just to to feed them. For users, it’s about speed but speed is a euphemism for reliability and capacity and the five biggest frustrations for Wi-Fi customers: buffering, dropouts, blackspots, house coverage and difficulty using multiple devices.”

An approach of consistency is something all smart home users should certainly welcome. With smart washing machines, doorbells, security cameras and even smart garden devices often at quite some distance from the router, patchy performance is a common frustration. What’s needed is not just eye-catching headline speeds but a useable connection at your home network’s limits. Virgin Media's attack on the problem is not an anechoic chamber but a test facility which mimics real-world internet demands.

How intelligent Wi-Fi could be the answer to your smart home woes

Step inside the lab

Water and concrete are two of the biggest problems for Wi-Fi, hence the full plumbing and the three-floor set-up. There are plenty of steel beams for further electromagnetic interference and the walls, although only stud, are fitted with sheets of mesh wiring to simulate thicker materials; one sheet added is equivalent to bricks; a second sheet and it becomes blockwork. When it comes to testing homes made of stone there’s a 10th century cottage in Oxfordshire where the walls aren’t just 20 inches thick, they’re also damp to add more water problems.

The walls aren’t just 20 inches thick, they’re also damp to add more water problems

But the test houses in Buckinghamshire we’re standing next to – two so that results can be compared, and to examine the effects of neighbouring internet interference – sit within an enormous warehouse space, walls lined with a chequerboard of insulation tiles and Wi-Fi-absorbing sponge to ensure no RF gets in or out, and that no Wi-Fi signals are bounced off the walls and back to the house.

The only incomings are several bundles of cable which can pipe through Virgin Media’s broadband speeds, ranging from the customer-delivered 362Mbps to the 8Gbps hyperfast connection that the company has been trialing up in its Cambridgeshire facilities. The houses can be split up into Multiple Dwelling Units (jargon for "a block of flats") with each served by a different router, again, to examine how Wi-Fi signals from near neighbours can conflict with one another.

And, while making it rain is logistically a little too far, Virgin Media does pump in cold air and hot air to test out its performance in weather extremes, with multiple connected devices in the 18 main rooms all vying for a connection.

How intelligent Wi-Fi could be the answer to your smart home woes

A Colosseum of connections

The goal is to provide a minimum level of service in every part of the house, which, to Virgin Media, is the ability to successfully watch a 4K video stream, a bar easily high enough to satisfy any smart home kit at the extremities of your network. There’s even an access tunnel which runs right through the houses with a robot on rails to measure the signal strength and quality at every point in the building, and that’s not the end of it.

The aim is to see if they can break the internet

In a separate room in the facility sits a bank of 10 desktop PCs, each able to emulate 1,000 different households to stretch Virgin Media’s network and simulate all kinds of situations and demand. Even more extreme is a white room dubbed the ‘Colosseum’, looking like it belongs in The Matrix, with rows and rows of connected devices; old to new, phones to door bells; which can be turned on and off to create over 120,000 different test connection permutations, featuring all kinds of operating system software. Like the rest of the facility, the aim of the room is to see if they can break the internet.

Intelligent Wi-Fi is Virgin Media’s solution, an automatic and free firmware update to all Hub 3 routers that's rolling out now. It de-conflicts routers by allowing them to auto-hunt for the best channel at any one moment. It identifies greedy devices – usually older ones – in the household and limits their share of bandwidth. There’s an all-new app which can scan your house for black spots and, if it finds one, the company will send out powerline boosters within 24 hours for free, provided you’re on one of its Full House packages or more.

How intelligent Wi-Fi could be the answer to your smart home woes

The other interesting update, certainly from a smart home perspective, is that Intelligent Wi-Fi performs band steering on devices, ensuring that those that can use the higher speed 5GHz frequency do so. Users can still manually select 2.4GHz if they wish, and that might be important for smart home gadgety sitting on the Wi-Fi periphery where lower frequency signals can better penetrate.

“We’re not specifically targeting range,” says Sinclair, “but, doubtless, there may be a feeling of that. It’s about having working Wi-Fi in every corner of the house without having to think about it. Even two dashes of Wi-Fi signal on your device will be running five times faster than in a competitor home.”

It’s certainly a good push, but is it more compelling than a whole home mesh network? Probably not, but it’s an excellent base to start one from and, more to the point, it’s a free upgrade.

Of course a lot of Wi-Fi woes would disappear if people put their routers smack in the centre of their homes, but that’s usually not physically possible, and ISPs do accept that their customers simply don’t want to put their boxes on a plinth in the hall. But router design language is improving: just like other smart home kit manufacturers, even ISPs are clueing up to the idea that the better their home networking devices look, the more likely they are to succeed at their job.

Until routers become object d’art, all Virgin Media asks is that you don’t go stuffing theirs in a drawer. Not even free boosters can save your smart home from that.

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