When Apple discontinued its own AirPort series of routers in April, it hinted that it viewed mesh networking as Wi-Fi’s next evolution by promoting Linksys’ Velop mesh routers in its stores. Now the company is taking another step in that direction by joining The Thread Group, an organization devoted to promoting mesh networking.
The group describes Thread as an “IP-based wireless networking protocol providing the best way to connect products in the home,” enabling integration of over 250 devices per location into a “low-power, wireless mesh network.” Thread competes with better-known mesh options Zigbee and Z-Wave, which have only achieved modest success since entering the market, and arguably Bluetooth 4.0/LE, which was updated with mesh support last year but seemingly hasn’t seen much adoption.
Unlike traditional Wi-Fi routers, which provide a single wireless access point shared by all of a home’s or office’s devices, mesh networks relay information across multiple devices throughout the same space. While users will likely need to buy more router-like devices to build the mesh network, they can achieve better connectivity, particularly at the edges of large spaces.
As Thread’s focus is on home devices, the concept is to interconnect everything from smartphones and tablets to home heating, water, cooling, lighting, and security products within an encrypted network. Critical to both Apple and extended-use home devices, Thread promises “extremely low power consumption” — years of operation on one AA battery, using IEEE 802.15.4 MAC and PHY standards for short messaging — and “banking-class, public-key cryptography.” A large collection of chips already support Thread, and two Nest products (Guard and Detect) are already Thread-certified.
Apple’s participation in Thread doesn’t suggest that it will be re-entering the router market anytime soon, but it does increase the likelihood that its future products — including both HomeKit accessories and devices that control them — will support Thread mesh networking. The Thread Group website also notes that it’s working to expand past home networking into “commercial building” and “professional” sectors, including internet of things (IoT) support, so its potential applications are highly likely to expand in the not too distant future.