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Router wars: TalkTalk opens a home front against BT, Sky and Virgin

The humble broadband router and your home network connections are TalkTalk’s latest weapons in its battle to take on broadband giants BT, Sky and Virgin Media.

Alex Lane meets the tech chiefs at TalkTalk’s northern HQ.

Router wars: TalkTalk opens a home front against BT, Sky and VirginMost broadband customers probably don’t give a second thought to their router, the little box that connects your broadband to your home.

To broadband providers, it’s literally a gateway into your home and the source of either great satisfaction or great disappointment for customers with their broadband connection.

Virgin Media has suffered ongoing embarrassment over problems with its SuperHub router, while BT’s Home Hub has been through some less than amazing iterations. The new Sky Hub, however, has looked impressive.

If you’re also providing TV over broadband, as all the major ISPs now do, it’s got to support video streams as smooth as if they were coming through a TV aerial or satellite dish.

With TalkTalk now Britain’s fourth most popular broadband provider after Sky, the router needs to become its standard-bearer for reliable connections.

It’s now launched the first family of routers and supporting Powerline network extenders, based on an intensive research and development programme.

The Huawei H533 and D-Link 3780 routers are handed out to TalkTalk Plus customers, with the Huawei H523a for those wanting Essentials budget broadband.

With TalkTalk TV now a central plank of the business, Powerline products have been fine-tuned to ensure a high quality connection when the router’s not close to the TV.

Time to improve

As the holder of Britain’s most-complained-about-ISP crown for longer than they’d like to mention, TalkTalk’s tech chiefs admit they used to deliver routers straight from the manufacturer, without much testing or customising the software.

Jerry Turner, head of new product development and devices, TalkTalk Consumer, is charged with looking four to five years ahead to design a roadmap, and then put iting it into action.

“We are investing heavily in our kit now, where before we can argue that we didn’t,” he said. “It used to be that you took what came from the vendors and shipped it out, so it was the luck of the draw, but we do a lot more testing now.

“We’ve put out some ugly routers in the past, look and feel wasn’t always something we looked at.”

The new products certainly look better than some of the 60 devices TalkTalk finds customers using, some its own, some inherited along with customers from businesses it has absorbed, like Tiscali and AOL.

There are even 20,000 USB modems still connected directly to PCs, and TalkTalk is keen to see them enter the recycling chain. 

Any upgrade to TV will need a new router, but it’s possible that loyal old customers will be offered a new router any time they contact their ISP, even if there’s no router problem. It saves money on customer support in the long term, Jerry explains.

Router wars: TalkTalk opens a home front against BT, Sky and Virgin
TalkTalk’s new black routers and its previous models

 

For good WiFi, think sausages

WiFi performance has been a major focus, not just incorporating new technologies like 802.11n (in the latest products) and 802.11ac (expected in 2014), but how well signals can be received around the home.

Most WiFi routers produce a signal shaped like a squashed sphere with the router at the centre, but with most routers placed next to a BT master socket within three metres of the front door, half of your signal is already in the street.

A sausage-shaped profile is generally best, says Jerry, and he’s worked with the manufacturers to incorporate antennas which produce this – the shape can be modified by software, but not as well.

This is no joking matter for some customers, adds Jerry, showing us comical photos of older routers which customers have jammed and bodged into positions where they’ll reach the whole house (for privacy reasons, we can’t show them to you).

Router wars: TalkTalk opens a home front against BT, Sky and VirginThe TalkTalk Plus routers also have a 2×2 antenna array, which allows a higher throughput, with two antennas each for transmitting and receiving.

Although they’re WiFi N devices, the new TalkTalk routers don’t operate in the less crowded 5GHz frequency band, remaining in the 2.4GHz range used by most of your neighbours’ WiFi, as well as microwave ovens, baby monitors and some DECT cordless phones. 

The new routers monitor the airwaves to find the WiFi channel with the least interference from other devices, although TalkTalk wasn’t keen to elaborate on how often the routers scan or exactly what it looks for.

If there’s a space available, the routers can also switch to a 40MHz channel with twice the capacity of a standard 20MHz WiFi channel, getting closer to WiFi N’s advertised top speeds of over 100Mbps.

The prototype WiFi AC device has six antennas which can create more focussed beams, and more of them, as well as much higher speeds on fatter channels.

But while top speed might be important to retailers and journalists looking for a headline, consistent throughput is the key to customer satisfaction when they’re streaming video to tablets and laptops.

TalkTalk has also insisted on a shielded power supply that doesn’t emit electrical noise, which can disrupt both WiFi and reduce the router’s performance generally.

On the software side, TalkTalk has encouraged phone, tablet and dongle manufacturers to troubleshoot their devices prior to launch, either by sending over prototypes or putting TalkTalk broadband lines and routers into their UK offices. With more than three million potential owners, it’s in the manufacturers’ interests to avoid connection gripes, as much as TalkTalk’s.

At the other end of these routers are DSL modems, and these have also been improved to reduce sync times and improve performance for customers who are a long distance from their BT exchange, between 3km and 4.5km where speeds can fall off very badly.

There’s also a dedicated port for fibre broadband customers, which brings us to a port-sensing feature across the back of the routers, that can tell customer services who receive a call that something is not in its right place.

This sort of feedback is found throughout the latest products, all of which can report and be set up remotely by TalkTalk’s agents. It’s another little expense designed to save money and trouble in the long run.

Router wars: TalkTalk opens a home front against BT, Sky and Virgin
The TalkTalk Plus router and its powerline companions

 

Power rangers

Even finely-tuned WiFi only gets you so far with steel frames or bricks that have a high iron content, so TalkTalk has also turned to powerline network extenders, which piggy-back your home network signal over your mains power cables.

There are currently two sorts: a compact wireless extender that plugs into a mains socket creates a clone of the router’s WiFi signal, and a ‘passthrough’ version that doesn’t take up a socket and has multiple Ethernet ports.

The second is often used with TalkTalk TV, where the Huawei-made TV box needs a broadband connection, but is rarely close to the router. It’s always better to extend the network than to put the router on a telephone extension that will dirty the incoming broadband connection.

Interestingly, this is an area where Sky disagrees, providing a WiFi-based extender for Sky On Demand because it doesn’t like Powerline.

The routers are made by a single partner – D-Link – and as with the new routers, they include a remote control chip so that customer support can diagnose problems on the phone.

The routers currently use the Homeplug AV standard, which gives speeds in the tens of Megabits, but the roadmap has Homeplug AV2 scheduled for introduction next year, pushing into hundreds of Megabits and greater reliability.

At the same time, the two Powerline devices will be replaced by a single product with pass-through and WiFi in 2014, but the technology has impressed everyone with at how much happier it makes customers who thought their broadband was performing badly.

Room to perform

Router wars: TalkTalk opens a home front against BT, Sky and Virgin
You can see the TalkTalk router just to the right of centre in a busy 2.4GHz environment

You’d think the leading ISPs would have developed their routers into products their customers could rely on, but TalkTalk were surprised when they tested the market.

TalkTalk’s own routers faced off against 10 products from BT, Orange, Plusnet, Sky, and Virgin in a set of real-world tests and an anechoic chamber – essentially a room closed off from other radio signals to test their raw performance.

It was a major exercise, with more than 450 tests across three different houses, and 120 measurements in the lab.

The Sky Hub was a great-looking easy-install product out of the box, but its performance was poor, while BT and Virgin’s routers were disappointing.

One particular issue they noted with the Sky Hub is a flattened WiFi profile which can’t get where it needs to be.

The Orange Brightbox comes in for high praise: “They’ve pulled out a lot of stops with that one.” Just a shame so few people have them, then. 

While TalkTalk’s in-house results have to remain confidential, we’re awaiting confirmation from an independent testing facility that should prove interesting reading in the next few weeks.

What’s clear from Jerry and Jon Bauer, head of product quality at TalkTalk Technology, is that being the value broadband brand no longer means you can get away with low quality kit and poor experiences. They will have to be as good as the competition, but do it for less.

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