2021 Prediction #4: Wi-Fi 6 is a bust (for now) as Bufferbloat returns thanks to ISP greed

Remember Bufferbloat? It’s a subject I was among the first to write about a decade ago, starting with a prediction column just like this one in 2011. The problem at the time was that every video or audio application -- the big bandwidth consumers -- was trying to solve performance issues through pre-buffering. You’d launch Netflix (just one example -- they all did it) and it would pause for a few seconds filling a huge buffer intended to smooth-out any playing glitches. Except performance didn’t improve and in fact got worse because of buffers buffering buffers. These extra buffers were defeating TCP/IP’s own flow control mechanisms, often leading to total failure of the connection. Jim Gettys from Bell Labs called it Bufferbloat, then Jim and Dave Taht spent the next three years or so fixing the problem, or so they thought.

Well Bufferbloat is back.

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Fair queuing and Active Queue Management (AQM) in home routers "solved" Bufferbloat in 2012, though only if people upgraded their router firmware. Many users still haven’t upgraded. Smart Queue Management (SQM) did become widespread. And, most important, fq_codel (RFC8290) was built into Linux, BSD Unix, iOS, and OS X -- but not into the core ISP bottleneck links (Cisco and Juniper) where it mattered the most. AND IT WASN’T BUILT INTO WINDOWS, EITHER.

So Bufferbloat got better, just not all better.

Today hundreds of aftermarket products are providing really good de-bloated performance in the range below 300 megabits-per-second. They help a lot on connections of 250 megabits or less. 

In 2021, with most of us working from home as citizens of COVIDville, our use of video conferencing and video entertainment apps has increased dramatically and people are running into Bufferbloat again. Complain to your ISP and they’ll advise a bandwidth increase to solve the problem for more money. Except it won’t solve anything.

If you are working at home and trying to co-exist with your kids, DON’T buy more bandwidth, because it only makes the problem worse. Instead, keep your bandwidth to 250 megabits or less and get a router that runs the right firmware. Your home network -- and your bank account -- will thank you.

I dropped my Xfinity connection from 400 mbps down to 250, saving some money. I have an Eero mesh network with five routers in all and Eero has a pretty good Bufferbloat solution so I am good to go.

But here is something important: one reason my Eero system is good is because my routers are all older units. More on this in a moment. But first I need to yell at ISPs.

All of the anti-bufferbloat internet standards mentioned here have been published and available for at least eight years, yet hardly any large ISPs support the new code in their default equipment. I can only guess that’s because it solves too many problems and lessens demand for bandwidth. Think about it, ISPs make a killing selling you excess bandwidth you don’t actually need. Electrons you aren’t using don’t exist and therefore those bandwidth upgrades are 100 percent profit.

Your ISP would rather upsell you -- actually decreasing performance -- than fix your problem.

Your best solution for distance learning is to buy a connection that is 250 megabits or less and buy (don’t rent from your ISP) a third-party router, making sure it is RFC8290 compliant. Older Eero and Ubiquiti routers are good, as is pretty much any router that runs the latest version of OpenWRT or DD-WRT firmware.

Google Wi-Fi, and especially Nest, are terrible. Plume is terrible. If you are a Starlink beta user, it missed the boat, too (thanks for nothing, Elon). These companies are just a firmware upgrade away from being okay, but they have to recognize the problem and fix it. 

EvenRoute V3 and Ubiquiti’s EdgeRouter X are my top two picks for economy routers that work fine right out of the box.

If you don’t know if you have bufferbloat, you are lucky. Check by running the DSLreports speed test, NOT the speed test from your ISP.

The big bufferbloat problem now is in new gear targeted at speeds most Internet users don’t need and can never achieve, with binary blobs provided by crabby makers of router chipsets unwilling to let anyone touch their code.

As for Wi-Fi 6 and Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) -- both the core and overhyped technologies required to get it to scale decently past a few dozen clients -- they don’t really work. MU-MIMO never got around to working either. Even for Eero, sorry.

The only present advantage of Wi-Fi 6 products is more spectrum. Otherwise you have vendor lock-in combined with bad performance and poor reliability. Users are much better-off staying for now with 802.11n or ac at the mid tier of Internet speeds with good bufferbloat fighting tech if they want to sit at home sharing the link with their kids.

Maybe this will be the year it is widely recognized that bad videoconferencing can be traced to bufferbloat, and easily solved by users re-flashing their routers to OpenWRT or DD-WRT. 

Maybe the FCC will finally get on the stick and at least measure the problem.

Or maybe not.

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