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A screen grab of Eero website.
A screen grab of Eero website.

Why is my Wi-Fi so crazy slow?

Eero says it will fundamentally improve home network without making consumers jump through hoops connecting, reconfiguring networks

Ask people about their tech headaches and they’ll tell you about their home Wi-Fi networks. Balky, inconsistent connections are as commonplace as they are maddening. A startup called Eero says it’s going to change all that.

Earlier this month, Eero began taking pre-orders for a Wi- Fi system it says will fundamentally improve home connectivity without making consumers jump through hoops connecting and reconfiguring their networks. The idea seems to have struck a chord: The company says it sold $1 million of routers in the first 48 hours.

If Eero can follow through, it will have solved a problem the rest of the technology industry has failed to solve for years.

It has always been tricky to blanket an entire residence with a high-quality wireless connection. But in recent years, customers’ expectations have exploded along with their appetites for streaming video and audio, making the dead zones in the distant corners of their homes seem that much more lifeless. While Linksys, D-Link, and other popular router manufacturers have been marketing more powerful routers, the biggest problems with home Wi-Fi can’t be solved with any one device. The sort of specs you would find on the box of a home router can be deceptive. Stronger signals, for instance, have shorter ranges.

The best way to improve the performance of a home Wi-Fi network is to increase the number of radios sending out a wireless signal. There are various ways to do this. Wi-Fi extenders are common and can be relatively cheap, but they aren’t very efficient at transmitting a signal, and they add a layer of complexity that could drive you nuts. Hard-wiring additional ethernet access points is very effective but can amount to a project.

In businesses and public places, connections are often offered through mesh networking—multiple devices that each serve as receiver and transmitter of a signal. This spreads the Internet equally throughout the air in the network and sends devices to the most logical access point, based on their locations.

Mesh networks have consumer applications as well. Sonos, which sells Internet-connected speakers, creates a mesh network among its devices to play music throughout a home. Open Garden uses mesh networks to let people participate in a kind of online chat that doesn’t require a connection to the Internet.

We haven’t yet seen a good use of mesh networking for home Wi-Fi, but it’s the logical future, according to Tim Higgins, managing editor of the Wi-Fi-focused website, SmallNetBuilder.com. “The key thing that Eero is doing is really bringing mesh to the consumer," he says. “It’s a big deal if it works."

Nick Weaver, Eero’s co-founder and chief executive, says other companies haven’t built mesh networks for consumer devices because it’s hard to do so without rewriting all the code that runs the systems. Many router companies outsource the code that runs their devices, and they may rely on systems that are over a decade old. Eero designed its hardware and software from scratch. “It basically all comes down to the software," Weaver says.

The appeal of Eero at the moment is conceptual because reviewers and customers haven’t had a chance to test the system. The company says it will begin shipping pre-orders this summer.

In addition to a stronger Wi-Fi signal, Eero devices serve as Bluetooth connection points. They create home-wide Bluetooth networks, an additional form of wireless connectivity, generally used to communicate signals between two devices within a few feet of one another. These innovations are potentially exciting to people who understand and care about home networking.

Eero will need to get beyond those customers. So it is following the same home-appliance-as-iPhone strategy that Nest has pursued for thermostats and smoke detectors. The Eero even kind of looks like the Nest thermostat. The company boasts that this is one router you won’t feel inspired to hide in that dusty area behind your TV stand.

It’s hard to see many people buying a wireless router just because it’s an elegant white square instead of an ugly black rectangle. The bigger draws are likely to be the promise of a quick setup that takes place entirely on a smartphone, or an easy way to let house guests connect devices to the network. As with the core networking functionality, we just have to trust Eero on how well these features work at this point.

Eero also resembles Nest in its price premium. The company said it would raise its prices to $199 for a single unit, up from the $125 it initially charged, and $499 for a three-pack (up from $299). Higgins of SmallNetBuilder.com says demand for wireless routers drops off sharply once customers are asked to spend more than $300. Even if Eero has developed a fundamentally superior Wi-Fi router, he thinks it is unlikely that many people will spend $500 for something they’d rather never think about.

“That’s a little steep for what’s basically a science experiment at this point," he says.

Eero’s Weaver says people often spend nearly that much on home networks, once they’ve bought an expensive router and a few range extenders. But he acknowledges that Eero is raising prices partly to limit demand to what the company could actually deliver on schedule. “Over time, as you hit larger scale, price becomes a flexible thing," he says. Bloomberg

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