Technology & Science

Google OnHub router aims to make home Wi-Fi easy, reliable

Google says it has a solution to the glitchy home Wi-Fi that many people have in their homes – a smarter, prettier router.

Router designed to automatically optimize Wi-Fi signal

The OnHub router, unveiled by Google on Tuesday, looks like a jumbo-sized drinking cup with a ring of light around the top — a significant departure from the box-with-blinking-lights-and-antenna look of traditional routers. (Google)

Google says it has a solution to the glitchy home Wi-Fi that often stops working when you try to stream a movie or upload photos – a smarter, prettier router.

The OnHub router, unveiled by Google today, resembles a jumbo-sized drinking cup with a ring of light around the top. It's a significant departure from the box-with-blinking-lights-and-antenna look of traditional routers, but not that different from some newer D-Link routers that are also cylindrical and come in different colours - for many of the same reasons.

It's designed to improve the range and reliability of home Wi-Fi networks while becoming part of your living room décor.

The goal is to encourage people to put it on a bookshelf to maximize the range of the Wi-Fi signals, instead of hiding the device on the floor behind the TV, as the company says most people do now. It's a cylinder so people won't impair the signal by tipping it on its side or stack other objects on top of it.

"We didn't just make it beautiful because we wanted it to be pretty," said Google product manager Trond Wuellner via video conference from Mountain View, Calif., at a media preview in Toronto. "We designed it that way so it actually has a chance to operate at its best."

The device also optimizes your home Wi-Fi by automatically choosing the channel or frequency with the fastest connection, given nearby signals.

Google says it tried to make the router pretty so people would position it on place like a bookshelf instead of behind a TV, improving its performance. (Google)

It allows you to set up and manage your network remotely via an Android or iPhone app. The software lets you see what devices are connected and how much bandwidth they are using – intended to be an improvement over the enigmatic blinking lights that most routers use to communicate.

Unlike most routers, Google says OnHub will be able to receive over-the-air software updates – both to add new features and to easily patch security vulnerabilities.

Made in Canada software

The software was largely built in Canada, said Paul Leventis, a Google Canada engineer who worked on the project.

"Anything the user touches has been done in Waterloo."

With respect to the hardware, the slightly tapered cylinder hides 13 antennas, including one with a reflector that boosts the range of the signal at the front of the device. Wuellner said that will improve its performance if it's put in the corner of the room, as routers often are. 

For many users, says Jay Shah, a Google product manager based in Waterloo, that will eliminate the need for a Wi-Fi range extender.

OnHub has ports for an internet cable and a power cable, but only one networked device can be wired directly to it — the rest need to connect via Wi-Fi. That's because Google wanted to minimize the number of wires attached to the device to keep it simple.

Google says the device does not contain any microphones and doesn't track the websites you visit or collect the content of any traffic on your network. In response to a question from CBC News, the company did not say whether it can collect data about internet usage or the types of devices that are connecting. However, it told the Associated Press that it is pledging not to monitor any of the information transmitted over OnHub except for visits to its search engine or other Google services, such as YouTube or Gmail, when the user's online privacy controls are set to permit data collection.

Google has been in trouble over Wi-Fi eavesdropping before. In 2010, Google acknowledged that company cars taking photos for its digital maps also had been intercepting emails, passwords and other sensitive information sent over unprotected Wi-Fi networks. Canada's privacy commissioner found that the company had breached Canadian privacy laws by inappropriately collecting personal information through a "careless error." The company also paid $7 million in 2013 to settle allegations of illegal eavesdropping in the U.S. made by 38 states and the District of Columbia.

To develop OnHub, Google partnered with network hardware maker TP-LINK. Another model, built with ASUS, is coming later this year. In Canada, the device goes on sale at Best Buy and the Google Store for $269 on Aug. 31. That puts it on the higher end of the price range for wireless routers.

When asked why Google decided to target Wi-Fi, Wullner said devices and services that rely on being online are "the heart and soul" of what Google does best and given its investments, it's important to the company for users to have a good experience online.

"Being able to put a product in the world like OnHub that helps make the experience more relatable, safer and faster sets the stage for the type of environment and the type of connected home that we all believe is where the future is headed," he added.

Google has been investing in a variety of technologies to help people spend more time on the internet, where it earns most of its income through advertising.

It has been rolling out its Google Fiber ultra high-speed internet service in U.S. cities since 2010. It bought solar-powered drone-maker Titan Aerospace in 2014, saying the technology could be used to beam internet to remote parts of the world. And it has been testing internet-beaming balloons.

It has also shown interest in connected home technologies. It bought smart thermostat-maker Nest for $3.2 billion US last year.

Nest's products are some of Google's services that specifically use WiFi. Another is its U.S. wireless service, Project Fi, which launched in April. It switches between cellular networks and WiFI to curb data use. 

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