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How does your Wi-Fi router’s performance stack up with other devices? It sounds like a simple question, but finding answers is anything but. You’d think you could just pull up a vendor-neutral report comparing routers across standardized performance tests, but until recently there was no standard test set for residential Wi-Fi. There’s not even consensus around what “good performance” means.

If the lack of apples-to-apples metrics sounds frustrating as a consumer, imagine what it’s like for service providers choosing which platform to roll out to millions of subscribers. Behind the scenes, residential Wi-Fi operators have been grumbling about this problem for years. Now, the industry has come together to advance multiple standardized Wi-Fi performance testing frameworks. With 92% of residential broadband customers using Wi-Fi as their primary Internet connection in the U.S. alone, this change couldn’t have come at a better time.

The challenge of Wi-Fi performance testing

Groups like the Wi-Fi Alliance provide invaluable testing and certification regimes. But these regimes focus on conformance testing—validating that a device conforms with wireless standards and regulatory requirements governing RF transmission. This testing is immensely important; the confidence customers gain from knowing a product will interoperate with other certified devices has been a key driver in Wi-Fi’s success. But conformance testing just validates that a device will work. It doesn’t tell you how well it will work, especially compared to other devices.

Obviously, mechanisms exist to measure attributes like signal strength, throughput, and range. So, historically, why hadn’t Wi-Fi industry groups added performance testing to their regimes? Partly because vendors resisted such efforts, pushing back on any testing that would rank one Wi-Fi device as objectively better than another. But the vendors had a point. The performance of a given device, in a given deployment, depends on many factors outside a vendor’s control. There are also practical considerations that complicate standardized performance testing, including:

  • Wide variability: Wi-Fi devices are extremely sensitive their RF environment. Physical characteristics of a deployment site, building materials, and especially other devices sharing their airspace can dramatically affect performance. RF environments also constantly change, making it difficult to produce consistent, repeatable results, even when testing the same device.
  • High costs and complexity: Tools do exist to compare Wi-Fi performance in a given environment, but this testing tends to be time-consuming and expensive, usually requiring skilled onsite RF experts with specialized equipment. Professional site surveys make sense for an enterprise outfitting a new factory, for example, but they’re a nonstarter for service providers deploying to millions of homes.
  • Lack of consensus: What constitutes “good” performance is highly context-dependent. Each Wi-Fi device provides a specific mix of throughput, range, supported features, etc., at a specific price point, and what matters most for one application won’t necessarily apply to another. A device that provides great value for home broadband deployments, for instance, may be poorly suited to crowded offices with significant RF interference, and vice versa.

Standardizing Wi-Fi performance testing

Establishing a uniform performance test set to address all of these complications was always going to be a near-impossible task. Instead, the industry has adopted a “fit-for-purpose” approach that measures performance for specific applications and environments. And rather than trying to create a single standardized testing plan, industry groups have advanced three, each targeted towards a different use case:

  • Wi-Fi in-premises performance testing plan (TR-398): Developed by the Broadband Forum (BBF), this is the industry’s first test plan to focus exclusively on measuring performance of residential Wi-Fi access points (APs). Designed specifically for single-AP home broadband environments, it measures RF capability, coverage, and stability, both at baseline and with multiple connected clients. It includes a well-defined set of test cases and methodologies, with clear pass/fail criteria for each test.
  • Wi-Fi device metrics test plan: This test plan from the Wi-Fi Alliance also measures home broadband performance. But where TR-398 validates that an AP passes minimum thresholds, this plan enables statistical analysis for comparing how different devices perform across specific tests, including rate vs. range, latency, and channel switching.
  • Broadband radio access network (BRAN) multiple access points performance testing plan (TS 103 754): This specification, from the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), addresses more complex residential environments with multiple APs, such as Wi-Fi mesh or extender scenarios. It covers a variety of test cases including roaming time, one- and two-hop throughput, band-steering, and self-healing.

Together, these standardized test sets give vendors, operators, and customers a way to objectively measure and compare Wi-Fi device performance for the first time. Even better, they don’t attempt to squeeze all devices and applications under a single test plan—likely producing results that create more confusion than clarity. Instead, they offer practical toolsets to understand how residential Wi-Fi devices perform specific operations, in specific environments, so service providers can make more informed business decisions.

Looking ahead

Like the airspace in which wireless devices operate, Wi-Fi technology itself is continually changing, so residential performance testing needs to keep evolving as well. In particular, Wi-Fi 6 and 7 introduce multiple new technical capabilities, including:

  • Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA)
  • Multi-link operation
  • New mesh capabilities
  • New power saving mechanisms

These and other innovations will bring faster speeds, higher quality, improved reliability, and other benefits to Wi-Fi users. But they also add new layers of complexity in how Wi-Fi devices operate, raising new variables to control and new questions around what good performance looks like. For those seeking to answer these questions, ongoing Wi-Fi evolution drives a need for ever-more sophisticated test cases and increasingly complex testbeds to implement them.

Fortunately, industry groups and the testing leaders and vendors who drive them – are already developing new approaches to address these challenges. The industry has gone long enough without standardized performance testing. As Wi-Fi becomes more mission-critical for more applications, we can count on standardized performance testing to evolve along with it.

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© 2012-2024 GTG Group. All rights reserved.

© 2012-2024 GTG Group. All rights reserved.