Portal router aims to deliver us from congested WiFi

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What happens when former Qualcomm engineers decide to build a router of their own? You get something like Portal, an innocuous looking device that aims to speed up WiFI networks using technology never before seen in consumer routers. It supports 802.11AC WiFi, but it works on all six channels of the 5GHz spectrum, whereas today’s routers only work on two channels. That’s a big deal — it means Portal is well-suited to delivering fast WiFi in places like dense apartment buildings.

It used to be that simply hopping onto a 5Ghz network was enough to avoid the overcrowding in the 2.4GHz spectrum. But with more people upgrading their routers, even speedy 5GHz spectrum is getting filled up today.

"The fundamental problem is that as WiFi becomes more popular and applications becomes more demanding, your problem is not going to be ‘how fast does my router go?’," said Terry Ngo, CEO and co-founder of Ignition Design Labs, the company behind Portal. Instead, the real issue will become, "How does it survive in an increasingly connected environment?"

Portal uses a combination of features to deal with that dilemma. For one, it packs in nine antennas inside of its sleek, curved case, as well as 10 "advanced" radios. Ngo points out that there’s no need for giant bug-like antennas we’re seeing on consumer routers today, like Netgear’s massive Nitehawk line. (Most of those long antennas are usually just empty plastic.) The Portal is also smart enough to hop between different 5Ghz channels (check out a diagram of channels above) if it detects things are getting crowded. Most routers today pick a channel when they boot up and never move off of it.

In a brief demonstration, Ngo and his crew showed off just how capable the Portal is. While standing around 50 feet away from the router, with a few walls between us, the Portal clocked in 25 Mbps download speeds and 5 Mbps uploads, with a latency of around 3ms. In comparison, a Netgear Nitehawk router saw download speeds of 2Mbps and upload speeds of 5Mbps from the same location, with 30ms of latency.

You’d still be able to stream 4K video streams from the Portal in that spot, whereas the Netgear might even give you trouble with an HD stream, depending on how congested the reception is. Portal was also able to stream three separate 4K videos at once, and, surprisingly, they didn’t even skip when the router changed wireless channels.

One of Portal’s features is particularly surprising: radar detection. That’s necessary to let it use a part of the 5GHz spectrum typically reserved for weather systems in the US. Most devices just avoid that spectrum entirely to avoid the ire of the FCC. By implementing continuous radar detection, Portal is able to turn off access to that spectrum for the few people who live near weather radars (usually, it’s only near airports and certain coastal areas). But even if you’re locked out from that bit of spectrum, Portal still gives you three more 5Ghz channels than other consumer routers.

Just like Google’s OnHub router, which is also trying to solve our WiFi woes, Portal also relies on the cloud to optimize your network. For example, Portal will be able to know in advance if certain locations won’t have access to the 5Ghz spectrum reserved for radar. It’ll also be able to keep track of how crowded WiFi channels get in your neighborhood, and it could optimize which channels are being used at different times of the day. There’s a bit of a privacy concern there, for sure, but using the cloud also lets Ignition Design Labs bring new wireless features to Portal without the need for expensive hardware.

Portal also includes five gigabit Ethernet ports, as well as two USB ports for streaming your content. That’s a notable difference from OnHub, which limited Ethernet ports in favor of a simpler design. Ignition Design Labs has also developed a mobile app for setting up and managing Portal, but you can also log onto its setup page just like a typical router.

While new routers like the Eero and Luma are great WiFi solutions for large homes, where reception range is a bigger issue, the Portal makes more sense for people living in apartments and other dense areas. But Portal also has an extended range solution, if you need it: You can just connect two units together in a mesh network (the company claims it also does this more efficiently than Eero and Luma).

Portal is launching on Kickstarter today, with the hopes of raising $160,000 over the next 60 days. You can snag one for yourself starting at $139, but, as usual, expect the final retail price to be higher. While I’m not very confident about gadget Kickstarters these days, the fact that the Ignition Design Labs folks have many years of experience dealing with wireless hardware gives me hope for the Portal. We’ll be getting a unit to test out soon, so stay tuned for updates.