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Comcast Pushes Further Into Home Networks With xFI Rollout And Plume Investment

The following post comes from Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence. To learn more about this research, please request a call.

Comcast Corp. continued its push to ensure the performance of its broadband services within subscribers' homes with the recent rollout of its Xfinity xFi dashboard and an investment in private mesh Wi-Fi device startup, Plume Networks. The moves follow Comcast's growing desire to define and control the end user experience in the home by being hands-on in the development of software and hardware, as well as the integration of both into its overall product portfolio.

XFi is a cloud-based home Wi-Fi management platform that delivers apps for X1 set-top boxes and xFi broadband gateways, which used to carry the model numbers XB3 and XB6. Additionally, xFi monitoring and performance apps can be used on Apple and Android devices. Some of the features available via the xFi app include the ability to easily view the user names associated with devices on a home Wi-Fi network, monitor network activity, and troubleshoot any wide area network, or WAN, or Wi-Fi coverage issues.

Comcast high speed data subscribers

Historically, those features have been available on all Wi-Fi routers and gateways. However, those devices' user interfaces were often clunky, making it challenging for users to set specific network parameters or preferences. But with over-the-top, or OTT, video continuing to generate an increasing amount of traffic on Wi-Fi networks, and with its low tolerance for latency, the need for subscribers to diagnose and quickly fix Wi-Fi issues has become even more critical. A good percentage of the service calls Comcast and other ISPs deal with on a daily basis are related to in-home network and performance issues. These calls are costly and avoidable with a combination of device accessibility improvement and continued customer education.

Beyond those baseline features, xFi also incorporates advanced customization typically found in mesh Wi-Fi systems from companies such as eero, Luma, NetGear, Belkin and Google. These features include:

  • Individual user profiles, the devices belonging to these users and traffic prioritization by user and device.
  • The ability to pause Wi-Fi access on demand and at scheduled times for all users or for selected users, otherwise known as a "bedtime" feature
  • An advanced set of parental controls, restricting access to a pre-defined or customized set of Web locations, either via traditional browsers or via apps such as Twitter or Facebook.

Other features that are likely on the xFi roadmap include time limits by device, pop-up alerts when new devices attempt to register on the network and ongoing monitoring of individual devices to protect against malware.

In addition to the launch of its xFi platform, Comcast also made a strategic investment in mesh Wi-Fi startup Plume, which sells Wi-Fi pods designed to work together to blanket a home. Plume has designed Wi-Fi pods that plug directly into power outlets, allowing consumers to place one in each room requiring improved coverage. A set of three pods sells for $179, while a set of six pods sells for $329, with additional pods costing $69 each. A typical home could be covered by anywhere from four to six pods.

Comcast is working directly with Plume to develop a custom version of the Plume pod to be integrated with Comcast's xFi platform with plans for a launch later this year. The idea is that the Plume pods will be offered to extend Wi-Fi networks based on throughput tests customers can access themselves via the xFi app.

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The Plume investment is a big win not only for Plume, but for mesh Wi-Fi in general. Previously, Comcast and other cable operators had indicated that they would use multimedia over coax, or MoCA-based Wi-Fi extenders to distribute Wi-Fi signals throughout larger homes. Using MoCA allows cable operators to backhaul the Wi-Fi traffic over a fixed Ethernet connection back to the cable modem or gateway. This eliminates the issue of throughput loss that Wi-Fi-only extenders present because they are repeating an individual signal generated by the primary Wi-Fi router. However, not every room requiring MoCA-based backhaul has a coax connection. Also, there are often configuration challenges and a limitation on the number of MoCA nodes that can be connected to a primary router.

Comcast understands that the addition of Wi-Fi extenders throughout a home must be as simple as possible. Otherwise, customers won't use them or will once again call the cable operator to diagnose and troubleshoot their Wi-Fi issues.

Mesh routers are generally sold in packs of two, three or six separate units designed to be placed throughout the home to deliver a consistent Wi-Fi signal to every room. Each unit functions as a combination of an access point, router, and Wi-Fi extender. There are two big benefits to mesh routers:

  1. Throughput loss seen on traditional Wi-Fi extenders is reduced significantly because each access point is generating its own signal.
  2. Moving around the house doesn't require you to switch to the separate network that a traditional Wi-Fi extender creates. Instead, all mesh access points work together to create a single Wi-Fi network.

Worldwide unit shipments of 802.11ac mesh WI-FI routers

Mesh routers are ideal for larger homes with a lot of connected devices. For Comcast and other service providers looking to add on home automation, Internet of Things, or IoT, and home security services, mesh routers will play an integral part of providing sustained connectivity to these various devices and sensors.

We do expect mesh Wi-Fi routers to grow significantly through 2022, when total unit shipments are expected to reach around 14 million units. The vast majority of mesh routers will be sold in North America, where homes tend to be larger and a single Wi-Fi router or access point just won't do.

For Comcast, offering the Plume Wi-Fi routers is a surefire way to improve the overall in-home customer experience. Comcast understands that its network doesn't end at the side of a customer's home. It also understands that, at some point, whether a customer is receiving 300 Mbps, 500 Mbps, or 1 Gbps won't really matter unless that bandwidth is made available consistently throughout the home.

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