In the beginning, there was 802.11b, the first Wi-Fi standard to gain consumer popularity. In the years since its release, Wi-Fi has gotten faster and faster, seeking out new wireless spectrum in a push it's still pursuing. Increasingly, though, the technology has become a victim of its own success. Demands from multiple devices on the same network as well as interference from nearby networks can put a damper on tasks that demand high, sustained network speed and fast response times/ These include streaming ultra high-definition video or accessing an Xbox game from a Windows PC.
Over the years, router companies have tried many techniques to improve the Wi-Fi experience in the home. These have included adding multiple antennas and provisions for quality of service that can prioritize, say, video streams above Web surfing. More recently, a few companies such as Eero and Luma have sought to address the "dead spot" issue by selling multiple access points designed to be dispersed throughout a home. Then there is Wi-Fi SON (Self-Organizing Networks), a feature from wireless chip giant Qualcomm that allows devices to seamlessly navigate to networks offering better performance. It is largely for cellular operators that manage huge Wi-Fi networks for many businesses although router company D-Link is among the first to support it in consumer routers.
But a new company called Ignition Design Labs staffed with former employees of Qualcomm's Wi-Fi chip group are taking a new approach by unlocking a capability that's been a largely dormant part of Wi-Fi for years. Its first product, a router called Portal, implements a technology called Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS), which allows routers to take advantage of a great deal of Wi-Fi spectrum (up to 65 percent of it in the U.S. according to the company). This spectrum is generally ignored because it must stay out of the way of radar signals that coexist in that space. The catch is that it works only with Wi-Fi standards that use 5 GHz networks. Most modern devices do, but very old devices (or very cheap recent ones) may not offer support.
To prove its ability to withstand intense network congestion, the makers of Portal have gone head to head with other premium routers in a crowded apartment building environment. But the more organic and impressive demo came at the CES consumer electronics show earlier this month. As other companies bemoaned non-functioning Wi-Fi during their demos at a crowded media trade event, the Portal router transferred data effectively in a Wi-Fi network nightmare environment.
Like the data it manages, the makers of Portal are pursuing multiple paths to get its technology into the field. Beyond selling the product and licensing its technology to other router companies. it's also taking an unusual step by making its capabilities available in a USB stick that can plug into most routers. While the company concedes such an approach will not deliver the full benefits of the Portal router, it says it comes close.
What's unknown at this point is the price of Portal or the router add-on. The latter will need an affordable price to entice a public that's generally apathetic about its networking equipment. However, even as faster Wi-Fi standards lie on the horizon, network congestion will remain a problem. For those who frustrated by slow Wi-Fi in their home or business, the end-run that Ignition offers could mean a dramatic improvement for the foreseeable future.