Understanding why network performance comes down to WiFi performance

Dec. 10, 2019
For service providers, managing and monitoring tools can be one tool, but not the only tool, for delivering the WiFi experience end-user customers demand.

By Ken Fernandes,

Today’s broadband service provider faces immense challenges with the rise of millennials and the on-demand economy leading to constantly growing service expectations from broadband. At the same time, competition is nipping at their heels looking to steal customers, resulting in downward pressure on revenues and margins. Still, the success of today’s broadband network providers remains guided by two rules: 1) Speed is king, and 2) Service monetization is key to staying in business.

In this environment, understanding subscribers and ensuring their satisfaction is critical to retaining customers. Because mobile connectivity is now the norm for network usage by most subscribers, service providers must maintain a laser-beam focus on WiFi performance. As broadband-access speeds rapidly race upward, however, WiFi challenges are likely to surface more frequently. This will be compounded even further by the evolution of emerging 10-Gigabit-capable XGS-PON and 10G EPON technologies and network saturation by even more clients. Previously, 1-Gbit Ethernet access ports could support many end users on a network, but as the number of devices relying on connectivity exponentially increases, multi-gigabit WiFi is becoming a necessity.

As these multi-gig environments enable more network serviceability for operators, how do they not lose out on the opportunity to secure a good return on their network investment while ensuring a great experience for their customers? Perhaps the most important step they can take in sidestepping network-performance deficiencies involves getting a firm handle on WiFi implementation.

Pulling back the curtain on WiFi performance

We talk a lot about speeds and feeds in the broadband-access space, and as networks continue to evolve, multi-gigabit speeds will become more commonplace. The fact is, however, none of that speed matters if the WiFi is awful. WiFi has become the preferred method of network access to end consumers, so for most of us WiFi and internet are now one and the same. We increasingly judge the quality of our broadband connection by the quality of our WiFi experience. Think about our homes; when there is a network outage, the kids announce, “The WiFi is down!”

Historically, WiFi implementations were deployed by service providers in a best-effort model where they often felt that they could either not control, or were not responsible for, that aspect of the customer experience. Moreover, in situations where broadband network capacity remained lower than WiFi throughput, performance issues didn’t really arise. However, with service speeds advancing, it was only a matter of time for problems to occur. Adding to the challenge was the fact that consumers often deployed the WiFi themselves with off-the-shelf gear from their local electronics store. Operators have since begun to realize that taking an ostrich approach to WiFi problems—sticking their head in the sand and hoping they will go away—will result in rapid increase of customer complaints and churn rates.

Regardless of whether or not the WiFi equipment is provided by the service provider, they can count on getting blamed for the poor quality of experience and expect to suffer the very real pain of subscriber churn. The only way forward is for service providers to proactively manage the WiFi challenge.

Bringing WiFi metrics into the fold

So what’s the answer? Most of us agree that you can’t fix what you can’t measure or monitor. That’s the first step. Service providers can leverage cloud-based management and monitoring tools to extend visibility into the home network and understand what exactly is happening. Measuring and monitoring, however, are not enough. The radio-frequency environment is dynamic and ever-changing. Having the ability to measure signal strength, transmit rates, channel utilization, interference levels., etc., are all useful—but if it requires the customer to call in to report a problem, or human intervention is required to make changes to improve the user experience, operators can incur massive support-cost increases.

Luckily, advances in self-optimization, machine learning, data analytics and artificial intelligence are all combining to deliver an automated approach to safeguarding the quality of subscriber WiFi experience.

Service providers need to take advantage of these auto algorithms to solve these issues proactively before ever getting a call from the customer or having to perform manual intervention.

With the right equipment in place, radio resource management (RRM) or self-optimizing network (SON) technologies can automatically change radio settings such as channel and transmit power to prevent interference from negatively impacting WiFi quality. Dynamic steering technology can also steer wireless clients to the ideal radio in the optimal access point to provide the best possible customer experience. By steering the client toward the cleaner, faster 5-GHz spectrum or preventing the client from sticking onto an access point that is farther away when there is a closer one available, would naturally improve performance.

Given the prominent role that WiFi assumes in the end user’s overall experience, it is often incorrectly blamed for performance issues that emanate from other causes. Active monitoring of non-WiFi parameters such as CPU, memory, Flash utilization and protocols like DHCP and DNS and their associated response times would certainly help reduce some of the misplaced blame on WiFi.

Equally important, speed tests that distinguish between WiFi and broadband throughput can help to quickly determine whether the problem is WiFi-related or an issue elsewhere in the network.

The above is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential that these network insights can provide. Knowing which customers are exhausting their current capacity can open the door for targeted upselling. Likewise, understanding which customers are accessing more capacity than specified in their contract, reduces revenue leakage, while proactively intervening to minimize churn.

The challenges discussed here are going to be faced by every operator in the world as their service offerings continue to advance customer expectations. The time to start planning for these scenarios is now—not when you have already invested heavily in marketing your new service offerings, only to discover that disgruntled customers are undermining those efforts by taking to social media to complain about poor experiences. Therefore, it’s imperative to plan for the WiFi experience you and your customers want, today.

Ken Fernandes is director of WiFi and strategy with ADTRAN, where he oversees home and enterprise WiFi product lines. He has more than 20 years’ experience in networking and security.        

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