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Plume is turning home Wi-Fi into a subscription service

A Wi-Fi router startup is trying to shake up how we think about home Wi-Fi in a major way: by turning it into a subscription service.

The plan comes from Plume, one of several companies that have popped up over the past few years to capitalize on the growing popularity of mesh Wi-Fi systems that use multiple routers to provide better in-home coverage. Plume launched in late 2016 and has been selling its first router straight to consumers ever since. That changes today with two big announcements.

First, Plume is launching a more capable, tri-band router called the SuperPod. (Its normal router is called the Plume Pod.) It’s a bit bigger and a lot more expensive, and there isn’t much special about it on its own; most mesh systems offer both dual- and tri-band options at this point.

The bigger change is Plume’s business model, which is completely changing today. Previously, you would buy a Plume router (or several of them, since this is a mesh system) and go on your way, just as you would with every other router in existence. But that’s not the case anymore.

Now, you’ll have to subscribe to Plume’s Adaptive WiFi service before you can even buy a router. And once you own Plume routers, you’ll want to stay subscribed, or else the routers may not fully work. (Existing Plume Pod owners will be grandfathered in.)

Plume’s subscription service will cost $60 per year. One of the most tangible things you get for paying is reduced pricing on Plume’s routers. Its current routers come in a three-pack for $179. With the subscription, you can get a three-pack (that includes two dual-band and one tri-band router) for $39, which is a major discount. It still gets pricey if you want to buy more routers (especially tri-band units), but it’s still cheaper than buying this kind of router somewhere else.

At least, it’s cheaper at first. Plume is hoping to make up the difference by getting you to pay $60 per year indefinitely in order to keep your routers running well. In addition to the hardware discount, subscribers will also get access to parental controls, “security products,” speed tests, and “active management.”

Plume Pod routers.
Image: Plume

I kept asking Plume’s CEO what “active management” is, and it’s still not clear to me. The company’s argument is that, nowadays, we’re attaching more and more devices to our routers — from computers to phones to streaming boxes to speakers to smart home gadgets — and it’s all getting really complicated and needs additional work… from somewhere or something… to run smoothly. But what is that something, and why does it require a subscription? Why can’t our routers optimize Wi-Fi on their own, as they always have?

There’s a degree of truth to Plume’s argument, but much of it feels theoretical at this point. Yes, security products are important. But I don’t understand what most of this “active management” actually entails beyond the basic functions of a router. It’s not like a Plume employee is going to be sitting around micromanaging my Wi-Fi channels.

Plume says its routers will keep working if a subscriber stops paying the $60-per-year subscription. Fahri Diner, Plume’s CEO, said the company wouldn’t “brick” routers just because someone decides not to pay, but he indicated that they wouldn’t work as well for various, unclear reasons.

Diner says Plume wants to provide so many additional services as part of its subscription that customers will happily remain subscribed. “Our intent, our hope, is to make the decision a no-brainer,” Diner said in a phone call. “If the customer doesn’t want to renew, it won’t be because of the price. They will be unhappy for us for one reason or another.”

Plume isn’t the only company bringing the subscription model to routers, but it is doing it in a unique way. Eero, for instance, started offering a subscription service that added additional features to its routers — primarily additional security features — but its routers still run fine without it. Luma, which maybe doesn’t exist anymore, offered a subscription product, too, primarily focused on security.

It seems inevitable that subscription services will come to more routers. We rarely buy new ones, and subscriptions give these companies a way to keep making money. Plume’s approach — which makes it inexpensive to buy hardware but hard to leave the system — is an interesting one. But it’s not clear to me that it makes a ton of sense for consumers. If these features are available elsewhere and without a subscription, then why pick the router that makes you keep paying?

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