You use it much more than you think – and your router is the workhorse it rides on. Yours may need putting out to grass, writes Nikki Mandow
So, you floss (mostly), eat your five-a-day fruit and veges, have up-to-date virus protection, a fast broadband connection and upgrade your smartphone regularly.
But what about your router? Ahh, the router. The oft-ignored, ageing router.
Research suggests most people know that to get decent internet speeds and reliability they need new (or newish) devices, software upgrades, a good number of Gs on their smartphone (4G is a lot faster than 3G, for example) and a grunty broadband plan. But they are far less likely to know or care about the quality and age of their router.
And that’s crazy. Because routers are the workhorse of our Wi-Fi systems, and Wi-Fi is increasingly the way we access a lot of our internet. A lot more than we think. Picture your average day. Unless your device is plugged directly into an internet socket, you’ll likely be using Wi-Fi at home in the morning, switching to mobile on the way to and from work, back to Wi-Fi or wired at the office – except when you leave for meetings or lunch, when you’ll probably be using the mobile network again or tapping into another company’s Wi-Fi, or even a free public network – at the cafe, library, airport etc. Once back at home, it’s probably back to Wi-Fi.
Most of us don’t realise that Wi-Fi, not cellular, is our top wireless technology and handles many more gigabits of data than cellular data networks. In fact, in 2016, 60 percent of data traffic from our (collective) mobile phones worldwide didn’t actually go through the cellular network at all. Instead, it was offloaded to the Wi-Fi network (or an owner-operator femtocell, a small cellular base station) – see graph below. That’s according to Cisco’s 2017 VNI (Visual Networking Index) Global Mobile Data forecast, released in February. By 2021, that percentage will be 63 percent.
In terms of volumes, 10.7 exabytes (11,000 petabytes or 11.2 million gigabytes) of mobile data traffic were offloaded on to the fixed network each month in 2016, and that will rise to 83.6 exabytes per month in 2021, according to Cisco’s forecast. Meanwhile, total Wi-Fi traffic (from Wi-Fi only devices like laptops, games consoles and smart TVs, as well as dual cellular/Wi-Fi devices like smartphones and some iPads) will continue to grow over the next five years. They are set to reach almost half of the total (49 percent) by 2020, up from 42 percent in 2015.
And by the end of 2019, households worldwide will have 10 billion devices capable of connecting to a home router, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance. Hence the need for a router that’s younger than your washing machine. Or, as the nerds at How-To Geek put it: “The last thing you want in the age of Netflix is a router design from the days when Netflix was synonymous with DVD rentals.”
Tell-tale signs of a geriatric router include not being able to get Wi-Fi signal everywhere in the house, experiencing slow web-page loading or stuttering video, even when you have a fast broadband connection. Oh, and be careful about that free router you got from your ISP when you first got hooked up – that might not have been the most up-to-date model, even then.
With a half-decent (and that doesn’t need to mean hideously expensive) router, Wi-Fi will deliver great speeds, and the next generation of routers should take speeds beyond 1Gbps. Eventually, 100Gbps routers are planned. For the foreseeable future, Wi-Fi will outperform mobile in terms of speed, even with the arrival of 5G.
So, why is Wi-Fi the forgotten hero, the quiet achiever? As with most things, it’s probably a question of economics. The telco sector talks up fixed broadband and mobile because that’s where the investment is. So that’s what companies try to sell the consumer. My 200Mbps, all-you-can-eat fibre plan is an example. Sign up for a 15GB mobile plan and you get a 4G phone thrown in!
But, actually, while fibre and cellular are critical, it’s Wi-Fi that does a lot of the heavy lifting. So you need to take care of yours. (Oh, and don’t forget to floss.)
Wi-Fi – it’s a brand, not an urban myth
Just a quick aside: the word ‘Wi-Fi’ is not, as the urban myth suggests, an abbreviation of “wireless fidelity”. Hi-fi = high fidelity, so Wi-Fi = wireless fidelity, surely? Rather, Wi-Fi it is one of the more famous brands created by brand strategy company Interbrand.
Tasked with coming up with a catchy alternative to the IEEE 802.11b networking standard, Interbrand played with the hi-fi concept, tossed around a few rhymes and came up with the meaningless (but easy to remember) name Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi is, of course, only wireless for a few metres. Your Wi-Fi internet connection simply connects your device with your home/cafe/business’s fixed internet connection – ultra-fast broadband, VDSL or ADSL. Wireless is actually mostly wired. Perhaps we need a new urban myth around what Wi-Fi stands for: wireless fibre?