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Plume is turning Wi-Fi into the ultimate smart home intelligence platform

The home networking startup has been using Wi-Fi to detect motion, and now wants to build data intelligence products based on insights from 31 million homes.

A Comcast xFi pod

Comcast's xFi home networking products are powered by Plume's cloud-based software.

Photo: Comcast

When Fahri Diner founded the home Wi-Fi networking startup Plume Design in 2015, he was just looking to solve what he calls the last 2-meter problem. Make sure that the broadband reaching people's houses actually made it from the home gateway to their devices, and that one data-hungry appliance didn't slow down everything else.

Six years later, Plume is in over 31 million homes, and its Wi-Fi networks have managed to connect more than a billion devices worldwide to the internet. Along the way, Diner discovered that Wi-Fi can provide much more than just connectivity. "Plume has started with that narrow vision, and we've really become the operating system of the smart home," he told Protocol during a recent interview.

Now, Plume is looking to enable all kinds of additional technologies and businesses on top of that operating system. The company has begun using Wi-Fi signals as motion sensors, and is increasingly turning the insights it gains from managing those 31 million networks into a data business. Today, it helps internet providers cut down on service call costs. Tomorrow, it may help investment bankers figure out which companies are worth their money.

How Plume got into 31 million households

When Diner and his team set out to improve home networking back in 2015, they quickly realized that the answer to Wi-Fi slowdowns wasn't just adding more antennas in people's homes. Instead of making yet another mesh router system, Plume built a software layer that enabled Wi-Fi networks to more intelligently allocate bandwidth for each device and use case.

"We realized that in order to do it right, it was more of a software challenge, and not coverage and mesh devices and all of that," Diner said. "A Zoom call doesn't need a lot of throughput, but it needs a low packet loss. A gaming session wants low latency. A 4K TV streaming session wants sustained throughput."

The result was a cloud-based home network management platform that the company then sold to internet service providers. "Think of us as the switchboard, the intelligence and the common data plane," Diner said. Today, Plume's technology powers Comcast's xFi Wi-Fi products as well as home networking products for Charter, Vodafone and a number of other operators around the globe.

Wi-Fi has become an increasingly important part of the business for these companies, especially as consumers ditch their pay TV services in favor of streaming. "As people buy fewer services, their propensity for churn goes up," Diner said. "In order to retain these customers and also grow revenue, they need more services — and smart home is the play."

How Wi-Fi can be used to track motion

Plume also built a direct-to-consumer business, complete with its own Wi-Fi pods, and a monthly subscription package for home network management. However, at least for the time being, those subscription fees aren't a huge money maker for the company, with Diner estimating that the company has fewer than 200,000 retail subscribers. "The reason I have a direct-to-consumer business today is so that I can stay directly connected with the consumer," he said. "Think of it as a large beta network."

A beta network Plume can use to try out new services, which include using Wi-Fi as a motion detector. "Just simply by looking at perturbations, disturbances of the Wi-Fi radio waves, we can detect whether there's motion, and we can detect where that motion is," Diner said. "It works surprisingly well."

Plume began testing Wi-Fi motion detection technology developed by Cognitive Systems in early 2020, and the company is now considering offering additional services atop of that technology. These could include triggers that help consumers save energy by automatically turning off lights after someone leaves a room, or even provide security and elder care products. "I'd like to monitor my elderly parents, but people don't want cameras watching them," Diner said. "It's kind of a semi-private way of monitoring, making sure your parents got up and went to the bathroom."

How Plume can become an App Annie for the smart home

While Wi-Fi can provide a lot of intelligence on the household level, this type of data can be even more valuable in aggregate. Plume showed off some of its smart home intelligence chops when it announced the billion-device milestone earlier this summer, detailing that the number of Wi-Fi-connected devices in U.S. households increased by 38% during the pandemic. The company was even able to drill down in specific device categories, reporting that Peloton saw its device install base grow by 158% between October 2019 and May 2021. The number of Apple watches grew by 54% in the same time frame.

Plume has already begun to monetize these insights via its existing relationships with internet service providers. "We're building all sorts of data products," Diner said. Service providers can use this type of data to better target consumers who may want to upgrade to higher internet speeds, but these companies also rely on it to manage their networks and help with customer service issues.

"The first person a consumer calls when something doesn't work with their network is the ISP," said Internet of Things podcast host Stacey Higginbotham. By providing a window into a customer's home, and combining it with aggregate intelligence across their entire customer base, service providers will have an easier time troubleshooting device connectivity issues. "ISPs do want to know this stuff," she said.

So do others, as it turns out. Plume has seen demand from a range of industries for its insights, including device makers, retailers and even the world of finance. Diner went out of his way to stress that Plume would only ever sell aggregate data, and not allow any third party to target individual users with advertising. However, he also readily admitted that there's money to be made with Wi-Fi intelligence data.

Higginbotham agrees. "There is demand for this," she said. Plume could, for instance, help investors make better bets on consumer electronics companies, and help device manufacturers with competitive intelligence. "They can become a kind of App Annie for the smart home," she said.

However, Higginbotham also cautioned that Wi-Fi insights only go so far, especially when companies rely on MAC addresses to identify what's on a home network. "They will have a hard time with new devices," she said.

Diner admitted as much, but also said that his company was refining detection of devices based on usage patterns and more. "It's a prediction," he said. "We guess, but the guessing is surprisingly accurate, and we're getting better and better at it.

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