Thursday May 18, 2023

ISPs Need to Do More to Improve Wi-Fi Performance in the Home

Key messages

  • Wi-Fi woes continue. Ookla® Speedtest Intelligence® data shows Wi-Fi performance continues to lag behind ethernet performance within home networks in many advanced fixed broadband markets, with Wi-Fi speeds typically ranging from between 30-40% of ethernet speeds during Q1 2023.
  • Developed Asian and North American markets lead the charge to Wi-Fi 6/6E. Wi-Fi 4 and 5 remain the dominant Wi-Fi access technologies globally, accounting for a combined 89% of Speedtest® samples during Q1 2023. However, a number of advanced fixed broadband markets are rapidly migrating to Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, with China, Hong Kong (SAR), Singapore, Canada, and the U.S. leading the charge.
  • Growing Wi-Fi 6/6E adoption helps narrow the gap in Wi-Fi performance. In markets such as Canada, France, Germany, Singapore, Sweden, and the U.S., where the transition to fiber is more advanced, and where ISPs are actively driving adoption of Wi-Fi 6/6E routers, we see Wi-Fi performance closing the gap to ethernet. However, more needs to be done in other markets, where migration to more advanced fixed access networks is exposing the limitations of the installed base of Wi-Fi routers.
  • Router vendors pushing the envelope with Wi-Fi 7 capable launches. ASUS leads the market for Wi-Fi 6/6E routers among Speedtest samples, and both ASUS and other leading router vendors have been quick to launch Wi-Fi 7 capable routers. Despite this, Wi-Fi 6 and 6E remain the growing component of their installed bases. ASUS leads the market according to Speedtest Intelligence with 39% of its routers we sampled supporting Wi-Fi 6/6E during Q1 2023, well ahead of second placed NETGEAR with 26%.
  • Smartphone device support indicates Wi-Fi 6/6E should remain the immediate focus for ISPs. With the two largest smartphone vendors globally, Samsung and Apple, currently shunning Wi-Fi 7, ISPs waiting to see if they can leapfrog Wi-Fi 6E to Wi-Fi 7 should stay their hands. The fact that China still needs to allocate the 6 GHz spectrum band — key for Wi-Fi 6E and 7 — for unlicensed use is also significant, and appears to have weighed on the Wi-Fi 6E adoption among China’s leading Android smartphone manufacturers.

Wi-Fi performance continues to lag ethernet within the home

ISPs in advanced fixed broadband markets are increasingly looking to offer more advanced Wi-Fi routers and solutions such as mesh networks, which are designed to improve Wi-Fi coverage and performance. However, Speedtest Intelligence data shows that more needs to be done to improve Wi-Fi performance, which typically ranged from between 30-40% of ethernet speeds. Median Wi-Fi performance as measured by Speedtest will tend to lag behind median ethernet performance, depending on distance of the end-user device from the router, including any obstacles and signal interference the Wi-Fi signal needs to traverse to reach the device.

Our analysis of Speedtest Intelligence data reveals that driving greater adoption of more advanced Wi-Fi routers can help ISPs narrow the gap between Wi-Fi and ethernet performance, with ISPs in Canada, France, Germany, Singapore, Sweden, and the U.S. already successfully doing so over the past year.

Despite this, the results are not always positive, with the gap between Wi-Fi and ethernet performance widening, in particular in the U.K. and Taiwan. Where markets are rapidly migrating from more legacy fixed broadband technology to advanced cable and fiber connections, Wi-Fi performance can lag relative to ethernet, indicating a need to accelerate the adoption of more advanced Wi-Fi technologies.

Older generations of Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5 remain dominant globally

While much of the focus of the device ecosystem is on spurring adoption of the latest Wi-Fi standards, there is a long way to go before even Wi-Fi 6 becomes a dominant standard globally. Based on Speedtest Intelligence data, the proportion of Wi-Fi tests by generation (a good proxy for adoption) shows that Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5 remain the dominant router technology, with Wi-Fi 6 representing just under 10% as of February 2023, and Wi-Fi 7 showing very few samples. The share of samples from Wi-Fi 4 routers has fallen by 6 ppts year-over-year, while Wi-Fi 5’s share of samples has marginally increased.

Asian and North American ISPs lead the charge to Wi-Fi 6 and beyond

ISPs are the main driver behind the adoption of new Wi-Fi standards, as highlighted by a 2022 study by Parks Associates, which found that 52% of U.S. consumers acquired their router from their ISP. Rolling out more advanced routers to their customer bases enables them to take advantage of the increased performance of newer generations of Wi-Fi technology, and helps to ensure ISPs deliver faster speeds, particularly over fiber access networks.

Adoption of Wi-Fi 6 varies by market, even among the most developed fixed broadband markets globally. ISPs in a number of advanced fixed markets have already begun offering Wi-Fi 6E routers to their customer bases, with ISPs in North America in particular moving in this direction, including Bell Canada, Rogers, Telus, Verizon, XFINITY, Charter, and Frontier, as well as leading ISPs in advanced Asian and European markets.

Markets in Asia led the way on Wi-Fi 6 adoption, with China and Hong Kong both recording 42% adoption, followed by Singapore with 37%. Outside of Asia, North America showed the next highest level of adoption, with the U.S. and Canada recording 32% and 30%, respectively. European fixed markets lagged behind, with adoption ranging from 13% in the U.K., to 24% in Sweden. For markets such as Chile, which placed towards the top of the Ookla Speedtest Global Index™ for median fixed broadband speeds, a relatively low-level of Wi-Fi 6 adoption (8% in Q4 2022) signals further opportunity for ISPs in the market to boost performance.

The fastest growing markets, in terms of increasing share of Wi-Fi 6 of Speedtest samples year-over-year in Q1 2023, were Canada and Malaysia (+15 ppts), Singapore (+14 ppts), and Hong Kong (+12 ppts). While there was considerable variance between ISPs within each market, leading ISPs such as SmarTone (Hong Kong), DiGi (Malaysia), and ViewQwest (Singapore), are prompting a competitive response so that even ISPs with lower levels of Wi-Fi 6 adoption are prioritizing the technology and seeing adoption grow steadily.

Country ISP Wi-Fi 6 %, Q1 2023
Hong Kong (SAR) SmarTone 62.4%
Canada Bell pure fibre 57.3%
Singapore ViewQwest 53.7%
Singapore MyRepublic 50.3%
Malaysia Digi 50.2%
Malaysia Maxis 49.0%
Hong Kong (SAR) NETVIGATOR 44.2%
Canada Rogers 43.4%
Singapore M1 41.7%
Singapore SingTel 41.4%
Canada Telus PureFibre 41.0%
Hong Kong (SAR) HKBN 41.0%
Canada Shaw 39.0%
Singapore StarHub 35.6%
Hong Kong (SAR) HGC 30.0%
Malaysia TIME 28.8%
Malaysia TM 21.5%

In addition to providing newer routers, ISPs are increasingly positioned to help consumers solve Wi-Fi performance issues in the home, such as offering mesh Wi-Fi solutions. For some ISPs, this has even taken precedence over offering newer Wi-Fi 6E routers, as they look to improved coverage within the home as a faster route to improving Wi-Fi performance.

In the U.K., BT has prioritized whole-home coverage over Wi-Fi 6E with its BT Complete Wi-Fi (mesh) offer, despite the U.K. regulator Ofcom having released the lower portion of the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use in 2020. In Canada, Telus, while having recently released a Wi-Fi 6E router for its broadband users, also offers its WiFi Plus package, which includes professional installation and “wall-to-wall coverage” throughout the home. Rogers also offers guaranteed Wi-Fi coverage throughout the home, as well as Wi-Fi 6E routers. Plume offers a subscription-based service, HomePass, across a number of markets, which allows users to add additional access points to help eradicate not-spots or poor Wi-Fi signal within the home and also offers solutions for ISPs looking to improve their Wi-Fi offerings. In Hong Kong, China Mobile Hong Kong (CMHK) was the first ISP in the market to offer a fiber-to-the-room service, while it and other ISPs such as NETVIGATOR offer consumers the option to subscribe to multiple channels over fiber with separate IP addresses, allowing them to divide their activities across channels and thereby help avoid congestion.

To capture the full performance benefits of Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7, countries must allocate 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use, therefore allowing Wi-Fi devices to access this higher frequency, higher capacity spectrum, and utilize wider channels. At present, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, allocation of the lower portion of the 6 GHz spectrum band (5,925 MHz to 6,425 MHz) is common among developed economies, with some notable exceptions in some developed markets in Asia and Asia Pacific, in particular China, while allocation of the full 6 GHz band is more limited, available across North America and some Latin American markets, as well as Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

Wi-Fi 7 on the horizon as router vendors continue to push the envelope on performance

Wi-Fi performance continues to scale, and with Wi-Fi 7 routers and smartphones having launched in the second half of 2022, that trend is set to continue. In addition to higher throughput, successive Wi-Fi generations also support lower latency, helping to better support higher quality video streaming, cloud gaming, and future use cases linked to concepts such as the Metaverse and other uses of extended reality (XR).

The major silicon vendors, Broadcom, Qualcomm, and Mediatek, were quick to update their solutions to support the emerging Wi-Fi 7 standard, and hardware vendors have followed suit. Chinese vendor H3C was the first to launch with its H3C Magic BE18000 Wi-Fi 7 router in July 2022, and it has since been followed by other major vendors including tp-link, ASUS, and more recently NETGEAR. However, the prices of early Wi-Fi 7 routers that take advantage of Wi-Fi 7’s range of enhanced performance capabilities will be a barrier to entry for many, with tp-link’s flagship Archer BE900 currently retailing at a cost of $699.99.

Speedtest Intelligence data shows minimal Wi-Fi 7 adoption as of March 2023, however we are likely to see the same vendors drive Wi-Fi 7 adoption that are currently leading on Wi-Fi 6. Based on global Speedtest Intelligence samples, we see ASUS leading the market in Wi-Fi 6 penetration, with 39% of samples recorded using Wi-Fi 6 compatible routers. NETGEAR and Belkin followed, but for the remaining major router vendors, Wi-Fi 6 penetration currently stands at close to 10% or below. Wi-Fi 6E remains a small but growing subset of Wi-Fi 6 certified devices, currently standing at 7.7% of products based on the latest Wi-Fi Alliance data. Of these, a majority are either routers or smartphones, with an almost even split between the two.

Smartphone support indicates ISPs should focus on Wi-Fi 6E for now

With Samsung releasing its Galaxy S23 range in February 2023 without Wi-Fi 7 support, and Apple’s latest iPhone 14 smartphones limited to Wi-Fi 6, it’s clear that, for now, ISPs should prioritize the rollout of Wi-Fi 6/6E among their customer bases rather than consider leapfrogging to Wi-Fi 7. The Xiaomi Mi13 Pro was the first Wi-Fi 7 capable smartphone to hit the market, launching in December 2022, although it was limited to Wi-Fi 6E initially, requiring a software update to enable Wi-Fi 7. The availability of Wi-Fi 7 supporting Android smartphones will grow through 2023, enabled by SoCs from leading vendor Qualcomm with its flagship Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, and MediaTek with its Dimensity 9200. Apple, on the other hand, lags on the latest Wi-Fi standard support, with the iPhone 14 series featuring Wi-Fi 6, and with its fall 2023 models rumored to be adding Wi-Fi 6E to their feature list.

Samsung, as the leading Android smartphone vendor globally, has the largest installed base of smartphones supporting Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, and has stolen a march on its main rivals Xiaomi, OPPO, and Vivo. While the major Chinese smartphone vendors have launched Wi-Fi 7 compatible devices, the lack of assignment of 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use in China does appear to have held them back relative to brands such as Samsung and ASUS.

The outlook for Wi-Fi in the home

It’s clear from the gap between Wi-Fi and ethernet performance that ISPs need to do more to improve the customer experience for Wi-Fi users within the home. Part of the solution lies in rolling out more advanced generations of Wi-Fi technology, given Wi-Fi 4 and 5 remain the dominant technologies deployed globally. However, evidence linking increased adoption of Wi-Fi 6 to overall Wi-Fi closing the gap to ethernet performance is mixed, and validates the approach of ISPs looking to also offer mesh networking Wi-Fi solutions. Contact us to find out more about how Ookla insights can help you monitor the performance of your networks, and stay ahead of the competition.

Ookla retains ownership of this article including all of the intellectual property rights, data, content graphs and analysis. This article may not be quoted, reproduced, distributed or published for any commercial purpose without prior consent. Members of the press and others using the findings in this article for non-commercial purposes are welcome to publicly share and link to report information with attribution to Ookla.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article/press release are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the approved policy or position of the GSMA or its subsidiaries.

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