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The Wonders and Wows of CES 2024

Every year the tech universe moves in unforeseen ways, with the manifestation of its will interpreted and expressed through CES, the largest annual gathering of technology companies in North America and perhaps the world. Up to 130,000 attendees arrived in Vegas in January to view, touch, test, and, in some cases, taste, the efforts of over 4,000 exhibitors, including over 1,200 startups.   

Like most large congregations of punditry and pontification, this year’s event delivered a mixture of wows and “What were you thinking, bro?” It is best to view the announcements and predictions from CES 2024 with a mixture of quiet joy and healthy skepticism, with truth emerging over time. This year, advances in health, AI, precision agriculture, vehicles large and small, aging tech,  AR/VR, and other sectors underlined the need for robust, high-speed, low-latency fiber broadband for today and many tomorrows to come as shiny new gizmos and innovative new services move from product announcements and exhibit halls to the real world.

Lumen Brings the Power of Wi-Fi 7 to Fiber

One doesn’t often see large carriers talking about fiber at CES, despite all introducing multi-gigabit offerings over the past twelve months. Wi-Fi 7 is likely to shift the conversation in the months and years to come, delivering a better, more robust in-home broadband experience in terms of coverage, lower-latency, and multi-gigabit speeds, making it the perfect complement for fiber service providers offering gigabit and faster services today.

Lumen Technologies Wi-Fi 7 display at CES 2024. Source: Doug Mohney.

The Wi-Fi Alliance officially announced its Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 7™ program in early January, providing test lab certification for device interoperability with the finalized standard.

First out of the gate to be certified was Lumen Technologies for its custom-developed Wi-Fi 7 router and optional Wi-Fi extender to pair with its bespoke ONT. At the close of its third quarter in 2023, Lumen’s Quantum Fiber service passed 3.5 million locations and had 896,000 fiber subscribers. New subscribers will be the first to receive the new Wi-Fi 7 gear with the company working out the details on potential migration options for existing customers.

“We’re excited about our Wi-Fi 7 devices because we’re trying to create an experience for our customers that’s best in class,” said Andrew Dugan, Chief Technology Officer, Lumen Technologies. “It’s something we’ve been working toward for multiple years. When we released our XGS-PON implementation ONT capable of 8 Gbps symmetrical customer data speed, it was something we felt was a first in the industry, an in-home device that can leverage the full 10 Gig capability of XGS-PON. We’ve now added the Wi-Fi 7 router to complement it. And it is ready to deliver that excellent experience for our customers.”

Through its initial internal testing program, Lumen saw dramatic performance improvements with Wi-Fi 7 over its predecessors, including double the coverage area over Wi-Fi 6. The Lumen box includes a GPS chip to support Automated Frequency Coordinate (AFC) service so that it can broadcast up to 4 watts of power in the 6 GHz band if there are no other licensed users of that spectrum in the area, providing larger area coverage for both home and business users.

The extended coverage provides immediate benefits for both customers and Lumen since no or fewer Wi-Fi extenders are needed, so customers can benefit from the Wi-Fi 7 router immediately without having to upgrade the entire home to Wi-Fi 7 devices. Fewer extenders reduce hardware expenses and inventory while Lumen gains a simplified in-home wireless environment to monitor, manage, and troubleshoot, part of an holistic approach to customer service that’s winning them rave NPS scores.

“We also have a strategy for creating a digital twin of all of our devices in the cloud,” said Dugan. “In real time, we extract all the operating parameters from our devices and pull those back to a cloud image, we’re monitoring 60,000 parameters per device in real time. We have an image of exactly how that device is operating in the home in real time in the cloud. It enables us to run algorithms and logic against that data, using AI tools to be able to understand how that customer’s experience is in the home. That will allow us to deliver a better experience. It also reduces our costs over time, as we can better support customers when they call in or even prevent them from calling in by making sure that the device is operating in optimal mode.”

Lumen started out building Quantum Fiber with the vision of providing the world’s best fiber experience, opening with a fully digital customer ordering process, simple subscription billing, and a customer support process with a single point of contact instead of being handed off between multiple groups within the organization when issues arose.

“We did a lot of research around customers’ broadband experience and the pitfalls and the challenges and doing business with providers of all sorts,” said Maxine Moreau, President of Lumen’s Mass Market division. “We wanted a customer experience that was very different from telco. The number one challenge consumers have when they purchase broadband is connectivity within the home and the number one reason customers call us today after they get their service is because they’re not getting the throughput. Very few devices are hardwired to benefit from 1 Gig, 3 Gig, and 8 Gig. The Wi-Fi capabilities leap between 6 and 7 provides a significantly better in-home or in-business experience.”

Moreau noted the Quantum Fiber brand already receives positive customer NPS scores of over +60 across all touch points, with digital twin technology enabling Lumen to proactively diagnose issues in the home and resolve it before the customer knows there is a problem, resulting in significant operational savings. 

“Many times prior to digital twin, we would get a phone call, we troubleshoot with the customer, we tried two or three different things, they tried two or three different things, we’d hit a dead end, and we’d need to send someone into the home,” Moreau said. “With this technology, we believe we can cut those customer visits down significantly because of the data that is being extracted from the network and the AI overlaying to be able to self-heal the network.”

Another principle included in Lumen’s Wi-Fi 7 router and extender devices is sustainability, a point Lumen executives highlighted several times during the discussion with Fiber Forward. Using less materials saves the company money in several ways, including shipping and storage since the products take up less volume and weigh less.

“There’s lots and lots of passion with our green packaging,” said Crystal Dowds, Vice President, Architecture, Engineering, and Technology, Lumen Technologies. “We went to Vietnam a couple of years ago and walked through everywhere all our products are made and saw our manufacturers using recycled plastic. That started us on this great sustainable journey. All our Wi-Fi 7 devices are manufactured from day one with recycled plastic and then you’ve got the new packaging. We’re looking at reducing our costs by about a third because of the reduction in cardboard, recycled plastic in the device and then all the packaging will be sustainable products.” 

Could other fiber providers tap into Lumen’s multi-year work in hardware and operational support systems? Company officials seemed to be open to the idea of making it available on the appropriate terms.

AI, VR, and Holograms

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was the overhyped buzzword/concept at this year’s show, but it and Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) have emerged as key building blocks entrepreneurs are using to build new services across all sectors. One may wonder about the ultimate value of an AI-enabled pillow or mattress or a smart pet collar collecting data and feeding it to a generative AI, but there’s no doubt that the technology is embraced and leveraged by health tech entrepreneurs looking to deliver better patient care while reducing loads on doctors, emergency rooms, and insurance companies.

AR/VR has moved out of the gaming zone and into many other applications. Startup Rendever is bringing senior living facilities together with AR as a social interaction tool for residents to visit with their friends and family, as well as a method to assess and improve balance and mobility. In four weeks of use, older adults improved their working speed by 9%, with 48% of participants reporting less concern about falling after VR exercise. 

Global conglomerate Siemens used CES as an opportunity to embrace the Industrial Metaverse, a concept including AI and immersive engineering. “We envision the Industrial Metaverse as a virtual world that is nearly indistinguishable from reality, enabling people — along with AI — to collaborate in real time to address real-world challenges,” stated Siemens CEO Roland Busch in a press release. “This will empower customers to accelerate innovation, enhance sustainability, and adopt new technologies faster and at scale, leading to a profound transformation of entire industries and our everyday lives. Designers and engineers will be able to create and work with design concepts in a VR immersive workspace and use mixed reality to review those designs against the real world, with Red Bull Racing among its first customers applying the tools to its problems.

Howie Mandel holograms live into AARP AgeTech exhibit panel
discussion, the next step in interactive real-time conferencing
technology. Source: Doug Mohney.

Holograms have always been a key science fiction trope, but they made a real-world appearance throughout CES thanks to Proto and its Epic hologram box, capable of creating a real-size, real-life 3-D moving image of a person in real time using a cool 20 Mbps of bandwidth. Proto “beamed in” America’s Got Talent judge (and company investor) Howie Mandel using Epic to the exhibit for a live interactive discussion at the AARP stage. William Shatner was also beamed in, but he was pre-recorded. Over 100 companies in fields including health care, live entertainment, and retail are working with the technology, which includes a touch screen for interactive applications.


Growing Precision Agriculture

Two years ago, John Deere introduced its first automated tractor at CES. Now every piece of farm equipment that the company makes will have the option to operate without a human behind the wheel. John Deere’s booth included the real-time operation of an autonomous tractor tilling a field in Austin, Texas, and monitored remotely through multiple windows on a large display. 

“We have examples throughout the booth of us using technology to help farmers at their highest point of need,” said Lane Arthur, Vice President of Embedded Software and Solutions (ISG), John Deere. “The tractor is actually turning the dirt. In general, farmers don’t like to do this work. It’s kind of boring. And labor has been a huge issue for them. An autonomous solution allows them to deploy their labor to other places that are more high value.”

This video and information dashboard is representative of where
precision agriculture is going. Autonomous vehicles, such as John
Deere’s line of equipment, require plenty of bandwidth for control,
monitoring, and software updates. Source: Doug Mohney.

Reliable broadband is necessary to operate autonomous vehicles remotely. “We need constant connectivity for that machine to work,” said Arthur. “If we lose connectivity, we can’t see it anymore, then we stop the tractor. High levels of connectivity are critical for use to be able to do what we do.” 

Available in limited quantities today, John Deere is making automation available through add-on kits that can be retrofitted to existing machinery with the appropriate electronics package, keeping the seat, pedals, and wheel in for a human to drive it at other times. “Farmers would use this tractor for other jobs besides what it is doing today,” Arthur stated. “Second, we’re not going to do autonomy on the road.” 

John Deere is steadily applying automation to harder problems, with “Furrow Vision” their latest challenge. “We put a laser down where we can measure how deep the furrow is going to be, so we can measure the depth of the trench. Farmers usually need to know how deep they are planting. I’m doing cotton, it could be an inch or less that I need to plant. The planting unit has other sensors that will tell you exactly where a seed is planted geospatially, how many seeds are there, and we use that data to create a geospatial map.” 

The geospatial map, combined with other data, provides the ability to directly apply the exact amount of water, fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticides necessary to keep the plant healthy and growing, saving resources and money. When it’s time to harvest, the map knows where the plants are and can tell the appropriate machines what to do to bring in the crops. 

AgeTech Booms

Technology is more important than ever for many communities, but few are embracing it more than the American Association of Retired Persons, better known simply as AARP. The association has created and fostered a huge ecosystem of companies involved in using technology and artificial intelligence to help older adults “live longer, better, and more independently,” according to a January 4, 2024, blog post.

AARP had a massive 12,000 square foot showcase of AgeTech, which included a stage that hosted more than 20 talks and exhibits from over 30 companies. The association’s AgeTech Collaborative™ ecosystem is made up of nearly 370 companies which anticipate serving a $28.2 trillion dollar market by 2050. Anywhere from 50 to 60 new AgeTech startups are sourced each year through its accelerator program from fields including smart home, mobility, fintech, and health tech. 

Most of these startups are working with bandwidth-rich tools such as AI, AR/VR, robotics, real-time communications, and health and wellness data monitoring systems requiring symmetrical bandwidth for video and other interactions. Samsung’s Health House in the AARP booth featured 10 startups designed to monitor and assist in improving aging at home, including an AI health care coach, contact-free (no wearables required!) sensors to track health rate, respiratory rate, motion, and presence, and a toilet seat that can measure heart rate, blood oxygenation, and soon blood pressure. While a health-monitoring toilet seat isn’t the most glamorous application, it’s practical and requires reliable connectivity to a secure cloud. 

Once you start incorporating AgeTech smart devices into the home and add in some videoconferencing and AR to communicate with relatives, the need for future-proof bandwidth becomes apparent for people of all ages. AARP is demonstrating high-speed, low-latency connectivity is no longer a desire for hard-core gamers, but necessary for people of all ages.