Fixing the Great CPE Divide

By: Jason Moore

Over the last two decades, we’ve watched the world adopt a digital-first mindset. Once a luxury, the Internet is now a necessity. And while we were well on our way to a more connected universe before the pandemic, COVID-19 forced us to adapt to a new era of home offices, remote education, and video meetings—all of which placed additional strain on in-home networks.

During this adaptation, residential Internet usage skyrocketed, and domestic Internet Service Providers (ISPs) had to shoulder the burden of supporting this heavy usage. Because this change came about in a relatively rapid fashion, rather than gradually or at least on a pace on par with past adoption of Internet-enabled devices, many ISPs were unprepared for the high volume of additional usage placed on their systems. The fact that many ISPs managed the shift successfully with relatively few disruptions is a testament to their ability to adapt to new stressors, and to the quality of their infrastructure.

This increase in usage, though, revealed the technological hurdles that ISPs with even the most stable infrastructure need to overcome to meet and exceed subscriber expectations. This is because the problem isn’t necessarily one of ISP infrastructure; rather, it’s one of an overloaded in-home environment.

Many ISPs have made efforts to support the in-home experience and resolve WiFi connectivity issues. These solutions often focus on gaining visibility into the home—or at the very least, the router. Often, the solutions ISPs have found for supporting the in-home environment rely on some form of customer premise equipment (CPE), meaning ISP-provided hardware that provides the ISP with valuable information about the in-home network. On paper, CPE is a decent fix; it’s given ISPs the visibility into the home they were after. But simultaneously, it’s created a new problem. Over time, CPE has slowly but surely fragmented ISPs’ customer bases, adding to the challenge of supporting the in-home environment.

The fate of connectivity lies in the home

In our new digital-first world, it isn’t just computers and laptops online anymore. It’s our doorbells, speakers, phones, watches, fridges, thermostats, stationary bikes, and in some cases even our toothbrushes. And then there is the growing crop of devices made to manage these smart devices, adding device on top of device, and creating an interconnected web of devices competing for bandwidth. In fact, modern households have an average of more than 10 connected devices, and this number is only going up as manufacturers see an ongoing demand for WiFi-enabled smart devices of every size, shape, and function.

With more devices and more usage come more issues and more calls into support organizations. Every smart device carries its own risk for malfunction, but homes loaded with these devices tend to run into bandwidth issues. As home Internet networks get clogged with more and more devices, overall connection reliability and stability goes down. It’s like traffic on a freeway: when you’re the only car on the road you can go as fast as you want, but when it’s rush hour you’re suddenly at the mercy of available asphalt. Each device takes up a little more of the digital roadway in the home, especially when outdated routers or WiFi networks made to support five or six devices are suddenly supporting twice as many.

The average ISP customer, however, isn’t going to realize that their favorite streaming service keeps freezing up because their smart fridge and their smart water bottle are currently hogging all the in-home bandwidth. They’re just going to blame their ISP for sub-par connection, despite it not being the issue at all. 

This is really the crux of the matter: while a strong infrastructure helps deliver the connection these devices need, it alone won’t keep customers connected. It needs to


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