It is 10 AM in the morning and it has already been three hours since my workday blessedly began. I use the word ‘blessedly’ for a number of reasons. To begin with, when I moved across the street and into this lovely standalone home surrounded by trees, I thought it was an upgrade from the apartment I had been luxuriously stationed in. Yet, my WiFi connectivity had not received the memo. A month in, I was struggling to find decent network coverage and my work was disrupted by daily problems that I just could not understand. My trusty work from home network which had helped me turn my freelance practice into a small business on a growth footing, now stood like a dilapidated and forgotten hotel in an abandoned town where the T was missing and the lights on the loud signage were flickery. I now had a ‘rusty’ work from home network – and just a street away from where things had been so, so different.
It felt like a return to the dark ages where buffering was the reality and I could almost hear the electronic, metallic creak and squeal of the network that was trying to come to life via a dial up modem. No! My brain screamed as I helplessly tried number after number, operator after operator, only to be told that they do not operate on that side of the street. The reason? Too many trees, too little scope for wires. And not enough users to make it worth the effort.
Are you kidding me? Apparently, not.
Finally, my operator decided to bring back the T and added it to the rusty to make good on the trusty promise again. Four months after I moved into this beautiful home, I had WiFi again. I did not have to sprint across to the book cafe where I could sit in peace and finish my work before sprinting back home in time to receive my daughter from school; nor did I have to hook up my laptop to a hotspot drawn from the phone data in order to get the job done. I was working 16 hour days with plenty on my hands and no 4G or daily GB count could save me. Therefore, I welcomed my operator back and made peace with the fact that things will never be the same again. To this day, my work from home reality and record of 20 years is tarnished by nightmarish lags that put a yawn on my fast paced day.
This is also the time when I decided to indulge in some rabbit hole style research to track down the meaning of words like access points, mesh and much more as well as the companies that served all these, the world over, promising to make emerging markets as powerful as their well equipped developed counterparts. I learnt the names of companies I would not have heard before, and I understood many terms that many people like me had not bothered to learn either.
WiFi Hardware Evolution
So, my question at that time was – what changed? What made my operator more confident of servicing me in that area? I was told that there had been a change of management, but my recent research showed me that a change in network hardware could have done the trick as well. I wondered, not for the first time, if such a change could fix the noise that many were making about inadequate WiFi infrastructure for the new work from home reality. Could it be that we do not know enough about what the market has to offer? Are we not ready to fix the gap between the sudden work from home reality and digital infrastructure?
My research found me staring at some facts that showed me how Apple literally brought in the era of the 802.11g device (also known as router) in 2003, which became the benchmark for all wireless routers and network devices thereon. While the initial speed was at 54 Mbps (path breaking for its time), there was much scope for other companies to build on this.
And build they did. Like all benchmarks in the tech world, this one too was left far behind at trailblazing speed, when we began to see WiFi speeds like 600 Mbps (by 2009), 7,000 Mbps (by 2013) and 10,000 Mbps as recently as 2019!
These new age routers and wireless network devices managed to solve a number of problems so that we could enjoy better WiFi, including:
- A bandwidth switch that reduced interference coming in from other devices, which would also disrupt and slow down the internet signals and speed;
- Gone were the days of expensive routers and even more expensive upgrades – now one could upgrade at a fraction of the cost thanks to the disruptive pricing of many new players;
- Signals were not easily hindered by solid objects any longer thanks to tweaks in the routers that could throw signals far, wide and through such objects;
- Multi point access was now possible unlike the older generation routers that could only handle one device at a time;
- MIMO (Multiple Input and Multiple Output) also gave a deserving boost to the speed of the device in question;
- The icing on the cake would be the emergence of mesh networks that went above and beyond the 5.8 GHz bandwidth to support entire networks for homes, schools, offices and much more! This would be perfect to service the average household where at least 5 devices are vying for a good signal at any given point of time!
Apart from this, we now have WiFi 6 built for the IoT of tomorrow given that most homes have at least one smart home automation device – even in emerging markets.
So, are we asking for more and not doing enough to get educated about where we can find it? I decided to first understand the problems people are facing before going any further.
User Experience: Problems and Reservations
The work from home reality is one that seems likely to stay. We have not only been asked to bring home our office chairs and set up a productive space at home, but we are also now expected to cater to the growing demands that only an advanced WiFi infrastructure can tackle. School and work as well as play and relaxation now go hand in hand, within the same square footage and riding pillion on the same router or network device. So far, I was liking what I was seeing. We were clearly not in the dark ages. I was possibly one of the many users who was:
- In an emerging and potentially untapped market;
- Not yet aware of how these network devices could now be setup at home.
Accordingly, I decided to talk to a few people in the field and find out what the ground reality was. In the past six to seven years, a number of players had come forth to service emerging markets like ours in order to ensure that WiFi is a more prevalent reality rather than a hard to come by commodity in such areas. Situated as I was on the rural fringe of an urban Indian Tier 2 city, I decided to do some digging. I ended up speaking with people who were just a few kilometers away in the IT hub of that same city. It might sound like a paradox, but yes, this is the reality of countries like India. Towns and cities that still have rural fringes in their municipal limits, would also have thriving IT hubs that service teams and clients across the globe with perfect accents and complete knowledge of their tech driven niche. Watch Outsourcing, already!
When I spoke with some IT engineers in these IT corridors in Pune, Bangalore and other cities, I was told that WiFi was still a problem and more so with the work from home situation. Here are the most common complaints I found:
- Slow speed, overall
- Lag in voice or video related activities
- Varying WiFi range in different rooms of the home
- Complete disconnection – speed and bandwidth
- Monopoly of a single player which stops them from turning to other options
- ISP or WISP party does not resolve issues on urgent basis when there is a breakdown in connectivity and the data transfer pipeline
- Lack of awareness about setting up systems that have so far been labelled as enterprise level network devices
Many people, especially engineers and professionals who had to swap large multimedia and similarly heavy files at reliable and consistent speeds were asked what could be done differently. Here are a few points that emerged from my survey:
- Better fibre connections
- Consistent data connectivity with thrust cables
- Multiple options should be made available to the end user
- Better management of issues from the ISP or WISP side
There were other concerns that had to do with digital hygiene and security where people were not sure of their credentials being compromised when they would go with a new or relatively lesser known ISP or WISP setup. Also, many people in the survey mentioned that they were not sure how these systems could be setup while IT based professionals were confident that many of these new fangled systems like access points and mesh could be set up quite easily thanks to the plethora of videos available online.
In fact, if we are to focus on the actual demand for these products, there was a 100% consensus that community based sales would be more reliable in such cases, if they were to buy and set up their own systems or turn to ISPs who would operate from within such a sales environment. However, shockingly, for a country that has so many IT hubs servicing cities across the globe, only one in four had heard about the advanced products that we are going to discuss here!
But first – How Connected Are We?
This brought me to a question that manufacturers could rightly address: are we really not that well connected? Or are we unaware of our own scope when it comes to procuring the right products that are now well within our domestic distribution channels?
Founded in the year 1996 by two brothers in Shenzhen, China, TP-Link has emerged as the market leader of sorts thanks to the great boom of the Chinese led manufacturers and innovators. Spreading its wings far and wide, TP- Link made an entry into India, an emerging market that was demanding higher network bandwidth and speed, to make quite a dent as far as market share went. TP-Link is now a name synonymous with internet hardware that includes DSL cables, ethernet hubs, routers and more after its initial foray into the market with a network card. We spoke with TP-Link India VP Channel Sales, Bijoy Alaylo about the contribution of TP Link to the overall digital infrastructure in a market like India.
“Reliability is a virtue the customers have been experiencing over the years and that is what we at TP-Link have been working towards as well. We believe in reaching out to the consumers with a vast product portfolio carrying the latest technology in the networking space offered to the consumers. This helps us to cater to all types of end users which in turn brings to us the market share.”
When we asked him about how connected we really are, especially in these work from times, he said new opportunities have opened up in terms of innovations, to cater to this new reality. “All the industries have started to adapt to this new WFH trend where the ABC industry has new plans of fitting in an office space in their newest designs; the larger IT corporations have made this the new normal by allowing WFH till the coming year and we may see many new organizations adapting to a WFH strategy in the near future.”
While the stage is set for new innovations, we looked beyond this obvious brand, holding its sway in Asian markets even today. We went to an upcoming name that is already well recognized in the West. An MNC that was established by Patrick Lo in San Jose, the silicon valley of California, USA; Netgear was founded in 1996. With consumers in 25 countries the world over, Netgear can be called an emerging name in the world of wired and wireless devices that provide connectivity. The company also manufactures a number of switches, cameras, smart home systems and network storage devices plus network appliances.
When asked about how they are entering emerging markets like India, Netgear Country Head for India, SAARC and Middle East, Nagendra Marthesh mentioned, “We have our products sold through Amazon and our own Estore – both of these are enabled to deliver our products to the remotest places in India. You have a need and we at Netgear will make it happen.”
With this confidence, I take it that Netgear is equipped to understand and handle the work from home reality in countries like India even in the face of stiff competition from established players like TP-Link. The answer again, comes in the affirmative, when he says, “Change is the only constant as some interesting person put it. We need to adapt to the new normal for which, the challenge here is the fear of the unknown. Even a class 1 student attends classes online and is comfortable doing so; tests are being conducted online even at that age. We need to find inspiration from them to continue our work and deliver results. The biggest challenge that one faced while working from home was internet connectivity. Yet, today the Rural internet users have surpassed the urban internet users. This is driven by the cheapest internet connections in the world, therefore enabling a new generation of employees and students alike to work productively from the comfort of their homes.”
Further, he talks about removing the rural urban divide in terms of connectivity and reach – a very pertinent problem that is quite specific even in turn of the century India. His take is an optimistic one. “Rural India has surpassed urban internet users, therefore internet penetration is not the issue. However the challenge is to convince someone owning 10 devices that connect to the internet, to invest in a good quality router. The investment will pay its dues over a period of 2 years and will enable the user to reap the benefits of high speed internet that the ISP may provide. Most employees from any company have good internet speed, and now companies have even put forth the idea of funding their internet packages and networking needs. With good internet speed and a good router, yes it is absolutely possible for employees to effectively and efficiently manage their work from home reality.”
What Are The WiFi Solutions That Can Make Us More Productive From Home?
Now that we have understood where we stand in terms of how emerging and well settled companies are understanding our reality, we can easily say that we are on our way towards becoming a well connected market.
This also brought me to an emerging player in a market like India – and many other countries that could be termed as underserved at best. As per Forbes, Ubiquiti, a San Jose based wireless data communication products design and manufacturing company was founded by Robert Pera in 2005, when he left Apple to pursue his dreams of building systems with higher range and power. Incidentally, the idea struck him when he tried to pitch a tweak to the routers designed by Apple at that point. He decided to take his innovation to his studio apartment from where he began Ubiquiti, before things began to take off in emerging markets that needed his innovative and price disrupting products. Ubiquiti has also produced solar kits as well as wearable gadgets like its Front Row Camera.
In a talk with Arnav Mody, Country Manager at Ubiquiti, we found that Ubiquiti’s solution for the work from home challenge has been one of its many hallmarks. “Ubiquiti has recently launched the UniFi Dream Machine (UDM) which is the easiest way to introduce UniFi to homes and businesses. The UDM includes everything you need for a small-scale wired or WiFi network. It is easy to use and still offers all the benefits of UniFi for homes and businesses. This device is an all-in-one router with a 4×4 MIMO access point, 4-port gigabit switch, security gateway, and management controller.” All good things, I was told when I ran the specifications past a few professionals working from home, and looking for such networks.
He further talks about building that key network bridge that would help professionals seamlessly switch between home and the office. “UniFi’s entire range of access points, switches, and security gateways can be used to build a powerful WiFi network to support professionals working from home. This also includes advanced firewall capabilities and VPN features for employees to connect to their office network.”
Here too, I was provided with a solution that is all set to revolutionize the way we work from home or even within an enterprise. Mesh systems seem to be the key phrase here and I was determined to learn more.
As per Netgear’s Marthesh, “Mesh system (Router + Satellites) is like its name – it creates a kind of mesh around your entire home with one SSID. For example, lets consider it to be 2-3 routers placed at various corners of your home. In a Non Mesh system, this will mean you have 3 different SSIDs and you would probably need to switch between networks while you roam inside your home. Mesh technology addresses that very challenge. Works in a manner that the router and its satellites will show only one SSID and you, as an internet user will never see the switch over from router to satellite or vice versa, giving you a seamless roaming experience. The RBK50 is one our flagship Mesh Wifi Systems, it comes with a router and a satellite and covers up to 350 sqmtrs, which is more than an average household in India. It also comes with Parental control options and a built in security feature powered by Bit Defender. We have great reviews on this product online and you can purchase the same either from Amazon.in or netgearstore.in”
Mody of Ubiquiti also sheds light on this when he explains, “All UniFi devices can be set up and managed from the UniFi controller. Access points that are configured within the same site can form a mesh network for superior performance and connectivity to client devices. The Wireless Uplink feature allows an access point with a wired data connection to act as a Base Station for up to four other access points, which can extend WiFi coverage to inaccessible areas, as well as pull down any configuration and settings changes from the UniFi Network Controller.”
Yet, TP-Link, the power player in this market is taking things slow even though Alaylo agrees with the efficacy of mesh systems. “The best solution in today’s times is a Whole Home Mesh Wifi System which comprises of 2 pack or 3 pack routers to give seamless roaming and cover up maximum area as compared to the traditional routers. We do have the WiFi 6 / AC series versions as well, for different customer segments. These also come ranging from pocket friendly costs to the higher end versions for the bigger duplex or bungalows. Mesh and WiFi 6 have been the new finds of the last couple of years and we still have a long way to go when it comes to improvising on these technologies. TP-Link has got a varied range in these technologies and we are getting new products every month to offer the customers. There has been a growing demand in the home automation industry as well as the computer accessories segment due to the WFH trend and TP-Link is sure to be the leader in bringing the total basket here in India. Soon we would see the Powerline products range which is again making a comeback after many years in India and we trust this would have a great demand from the Indian Consumer.”
What is Stopping Us?
There are a number of factors that are keeping Indian consumers from adopting these systems. While price is a major concern for those who do not yet see a mesh system as an investment, many are concerned about security issues and others are yet to simply see the value in evolving to these advanced devices.
So, I decided to tackle this one issue at a time, to break it down for the consumer in this emerging market.
Notably, Marthesh has also penned a report on the positive change in the spending habits within a growing economy like ours. This gels well with the pricing of the advanced technology products that Netgear is bringing to users in India for a better work from home experience. In his words, “Equal Wealth distribution is very important for the health of any country. A $3T economy is only possible through the increase in manufacturing capacity, Infrastructure projects and tremendous agriculture output. This will create more jobs and good for any economy.”
Speaking of challenges that would help meet demand with affordable pricing and an understanding of how this infrastructure would solve multiple problems that I found during the survey, Alaylo of TP-Link says, “One way we can say this is a challenge is because this pandemic has hurried us into a situation which would have come much later in this century. People did not care much about the fixed line internet at home since they were spending most of their time on their office WiFi. At home they were used to a regular WiFi or then the 4G mobile Internet. But since this pandemic has forced them to stay at home, people need the best of the best connectivity even though the infrastructure is not ready as of now. Though the Internet Service Providers are working double time to get this ready and provide the best connectivity to the consumers, yet this will take some time to cover total Indian geography.”
So, the issue is that we have to see this as an appropriation in terms of spending behavior while we understand the value of such systems to make our home based schooling and working productivity a far more tangible and efficient system. Remember, asset – not liability!
Price and value are definitely closely tied in as far as these WiFi solutions go, since the consumer in a country like India needs both to be mutually inclusive. Research and development are the main value addition adopted by these companies. Marthesh says, “At Netgear we invest in research and in the near future you will see our Wifi 6 products lines expand itself to provide products for a range of users. We have our flagship lines named Orbi and powerful Nighthawk line which will go on expanding to cover the length and breath of every Indian consumer’s needs.”
Research and development seems to be the byline adopted at Ubiquiti as well. Mody of Ubiquiti says, “The overall value proposition is that UniFi offers high performance, enterprise-grade networking solutions at a fraction of the cost of other vendors. It is also very easy to set up, configure, and manage using the free UniFi controller software. As a result, homes and businesses can manage their own IT and still enjoy some of the highest performing WiFi solutions.” To this end, Ubiquiti has even launched its own online store in India. This makes it even easier for people to purchase Ubiquiti products and enjoy free delivery directly to their doorstep in just a few days. Plus, a demo page illustrates the best way to plug and play!
This is uppermost in the minds of most of the people who participated in the survey. So, I decided to question the market leaders on this aspect. How much priority does the security aspect get in the development and design of a product engineered to put a person on the digital map?
Marthesh of Net gear answers that question when he says, “Yes, with increase in employees working from home, we at Netgear have invested heavily to research and produce technology that almost mimics the experience that one has in their office. Our consumer Mesh technology line, like I mentioned, comes with its our safety feature which is powered by Bit Defender. It also comes with an app that can give you a complete view of the devices it is connected to, Guest Wifi options where you do not need to share your master password with a guest, and more. These are some of the safety features that we as a company deployed even before COVID 19 took us by storm. We will continue to update and invest in safety.”
At the same time, Ubiquiti has an entire range of security products that can be installed and used with one’s network.
Ease of Installation
This is another area that keeps consumers away from products that can actually make their lives better, but seem daunting at first. I know this has been a deterrent for many people like me who are not tech savvy. Yet, here we are with our multiple devices and Chrome extensions. So, is it merely a matter of getting used to something new; just as we did with inflection point fuelling innovations like smart phones and a mouse with the computer?
Here, Mody of Ubiquiti tells us, “Ubiquiti’s UniFi product range is built to Simplify IT, be it at your home or business. The devices have no licensing fees and can be remotely managed using a free controller software, making it easy-to-use for anyone with access to a web browser or the UniFi mobile app. Plug and Play installation and intuitive management reduce the need for dedicated IT personnel resources. Much of Ubiquiti’s success is credited to the Ubiquiti Community. This is an online forum of experts and engineers where anyone can post questions or discussion topics and leverage the collective expertise of our user base for suggestions to enhance their network.” This fits in directly with the finding from my survey where 100% of the WiFi survey participants said they were more likely to trust a product that came to them via community based sales, which is something that Ubiquiti thrives on.
As a matter of fact, the Ubiquiti website welcomes you with: At last, Simple IT that just works.
What my research, survey and interviews showed is the fact that we are better connected than ever before, yet there are some gaps that can be filled with better awareness and a tweak of one’s spending mindset, more than anything else. In the words of Marthesh of Netgear, “In the current situation, I cannot emphasise on wireless infrastructure investment and setup, enough. With safe distancing from friends and colleagues, internet connectivity is key for a successful India. To keep the economy growing even in the midst of a pandemic, completely rests on a connected India.”
My key takeaways here are pretty simple:
- Look at WiFi mesh systems or access point products as an investment rather than a liability;
- Understand that a successful work from home situation is possible only with such investments that will end disruptions in connection pipelines;
- Technology evolves and we should too!
- It is not just the job of your office to provide Internet infrastructure; the need of the hour is for you to take a step forward in looking for WISPs who provide such systems or set them up with plug and play products etched out above!
- Tackle the monopoly of existing providers who are playing at the shallow end of bandwidth and speed. Setup your own network.
On that note, wish you happy connectivity and hope to see on the other, brighter side of productivity!