Initially targeting the home, new tech developed by CableLabs strives to improve how smartphones connect to the best Wi-Fi link and, in turn, help cable ops cut MVNO costs by offloading more data to Wi-Fi networks.

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

October 25, 2022

7 Min Read
CableLabs aims to bring mobility to Wi-Fi

Convinced that previous efforts have failed to deliver, CableLabs said it has developed a new technology that brings mobile, cellular-like capabilities to Wi-Fi networks.

In addition to helping smartphones connect to the best Wi-Fi connection and improving the customer experience, CableLabs also believes its technology will enable cable operators to cut down on MVNO costs by offloading even more data to their Wi-Fi networks.

Figure 1: (Source: CableLabs. Used with permission.) (Source: CableLabs. Used with permission.)

CableLabs initially is focusing the technology on home networks that are comprised of multiple Wi-Fi access points (APs) and extenders, but also believes the pieces are in place to support other use-cases, such as Wi-Fi network deployments in commercial buildings and the Cable Wi-Fi roaming initiative that now comprises about 4 million hotspots.

CableLabs shed some light on that effort, dubbed Mobile Wi-Fi, last week in this blog post. As described by CableLabs Principal Architect and Director Steve Arendt, the approach relies on a central controller that detects which AP a user's device is closest to and connects to it. If the user moves, the controller then evaluates whether the phone should remain on the original AP or seamlessly switch to a new, better one.

"There have been many attempts to do this over the years, typically relying on coercing the device to reconnect to the new AP, but this frequently seems not to work quite right," Arendt explained. "Sometimes, there's a lag before a device switches APs, and sometimes the device never switches APs. Or sometimes, the device insists that an AP is still present, even though it no longer is – for example, when you leave your house in your car and your phone insists it's still connected to your home Wi-Fi."

Steve Glennon, a distinguished technologist at CableLabs, told Light Reading that Wi-Fi has done well in new iterations to beef up physical data rates as home broadband speeds continue to climb to 1 Gbit/s and beyond. But he argues that Wi-Fi has fallen short of the mark in attempts to seamlessly connect smartphones to the best link in multiple-AP environments after the initial Wi-Fi connection is established.

"In general, phones go down the path of saying, 'I'm connected, life is good.' And they spend a bunch of battery and compute trying to scan and work out what's around and when should I switch," Glennon said. "You might be sitting right next to a Wi-Fi extender and your phone is still getting cruddy throughput. The problem is it's associated with the main AP back in the living room of the house and in fact you're upstairs in the bedroom sitting right next to the extender."

Touting a new, virtualized approach to Wi-Fi roaming

Glennon said Wi-Fi roaming work around 802.11k, 802.11r, and 802.11v help to recognize this issue, but suggests they've not been super-successful at fixing it by giving the phone more information to help select the best AP.

Instead of putting a bunch of focus on the smartphone and requiring that device to be constantly scanning, CableLabs wants to flip things around by treating multiple APs like a mobile network. And instead of having the phone associate with a physical AP, the approach proposed by CableLabs is to create a virtual access point that moves from AP to AP without requiring the phone to know what's going on.

CableLabs says it accomplishes that through a Virtual Basic Service Set (VBSS), which aims to virtualize the concept of an access point being a piece of hardware. The VBSS effectively is a network that is set up exclusively for use by one device and can be moved from AP to AP without the device (the smartphone, in this case) disconnecting and reconnecting.

"It's like the binary version of the SSID [service set identifier]," Glennon explained. "It's kind of like the magic, unique identifier for the access point. And rather than having physical access points, we virtualized the access point. You're no longer associating with a physical access point; you're associating with a virtual one. And because it's virtual, we can move that virtualized access point between different pieces of hardware, without the phone even knowing … We can take the virtual access point and move it around between different physical access points."

Glennon said the new Mobile Wi-Fi tech also has the smarts to automatically kick the phone off the Wi-Fi link if performance on the closest AP is degrading and to shift the phone to the cellular network. And when the Wi-Fi environment improves, the system will flip the phone back to Wi-Fi.

Cutting MVNO costs

The broad aim here is to improve the customer experience when the phone connects to Wi-Fi as the user moves about. But Glennon notes there's also some big, potential benefits to cable operators that are now in the mobile game: offloading more data on Wi-Fi and lowering MVNO costs.

"Offloading your mobile connection to Wi-Fi as frequently and as completely as possible is the best financial outcome for the cable operator who's offering mobile service," he said. "The whole point here is make the Wi-Fi experience be really good, because then you'll do more Wi-Fi offload and there's more financial benefit to our [members]."

Sidestepping the phone

Regarding the architecture of Mobile Wi-Fi, Glennon said nothing new needs to be added to the phone, avoiding the need for major smartphone makers such as Apple, Google and Samsung to get around to adopting the technology.

"If we need to put anything in the phone, we've failed," Glennon said. "There's nothing that goes in the phone at all."

Instead, the controller and virtual access point would typically live in the main gateway for the house and set up the "mobile" Wi-Fi network by then detecting and monitoring the performance of other APs on the home network.

"As far as the phone is concerned, it's just Wi-Fi. This is like a new way of implementing Wi-Fi across multiple APs, but the phone doesn't know anything changed at all," Glennon said.

Glennon said the project started about five years ago. The initial use case is for multiple APs in the home, but the pieces are there to extend the capability to commercial businesses and other venues where cable operators have set up Wi-Fi networks, he said.

Next steps

CableLabs said it is working with the prpl Foundation to include Mobile Wi-Fi in the open-source prplMesh implementation of Wi-Fi Alliance EasyMesh, and is also working within the Wi-Fi Alliance to support Wi-Fi Certified EasyMesh.

Glennon believes that's the right route, as it will help the technology get woven into the Wi-Fi ecosystem without interfering with the other Wi-Fi work operators are already focused on.

"It [Mobile Wi-Fi] will kind of get through the ecosystem and will end up in our members' products, like new versions of software … from OpenWrt, RDK [Reference Design Kit] or EasyMesh or prplMesh," he said. "That's the place we want to go to get upstream in the supply chain."

The current expectation, he added, is to have an implementation of Mobile Wi-Fi in prplMesh "early in 2023."

CableLabs is also looking to take the technology to IEEE and try to set it up as a feature in a next-gen version of Wi-Fi. But that piece is "still very tentative," as CableLabs will need to present it and get agreement from the IEEE members.

CableLabs has patents on the technology, but the organization is not expecting to try to charge royalties for them.

"We're simply trying to get this technology out to make Wi-Fi better, so that consumers have a better experience. And as a side effect of consumers having a better experience, our members end up with a better financial outcome," Glennon said.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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