Setting up Wi-Fi in your home has never really changed. You buy one router, hope it reaches every corner of your home, and then react in frustration when it doesn't. Businesses have always had a solution to this problem — putting multiple Wi-Fi access points throughout a large space — and now some startups are trying to bring that approach to the home. The latest is Luma, a new router system that's supposed to make it easy to fill a home with strong Wi-Fi and provide a homeowner with much more control over what happens on their network.
Parental controls show you what site everyone is visiting
The Wi-Fi part is straightforward. You can buy just a single Luma router, but you're expected to buy several of them at once — they're sold in a three pack — and place them throughout your home. Once they're set up, the routers will all form a single network, so you'll only have to connect once, even as you move throughout the house; the routers can even take care of moving you between 5GHz and 2.4GHz networks.
But that's where the basics of Luma stop and the more interesting — and invasive — aspects begin. Unlike typical routers that have bewildering settings pages, Luma can be managed entirely through a simple companion app. And that companion app is able to do quite a few other things, including show what devices are connected to the network and what those devices are doing. That means showing everything from what servers your smart thermostat is connecting with to the exact websites that people in your house are viewing (it cannot, however, show the specific content; so you may see that someone is viewing Facebook, but you won't see their private messages).
Luma's activity tracking is meant for monitoring children: a content filter is included that allows you to lock certain users into viewing sites that are rated G, PG, PG-13, and so on; requests to bypass the filter can be sent on a site-by-site basis after they've been blocked, and a chat window can be activated to let parents discuss it. Luma also suggests using its tracking abilities to see if kids are doing their homework or browsing the web. The app can also be used to set internet time limits. It really seems to have robust parental controls.
Where it gets more problematic is that you can only sort of turn this off. Luma's activity tracking isn't a niche feature — it's front and center on the app, with everyone's activity and snapshots of the sites they visit presented like an Instagram feed. Their history is recorded for a year, too. The network's administrator can tell Luma to hide certain users' activity, so it won't be displayed, but there's no way to lock that setting in. The administrator can just go back and unhide their activity later. Watching every site your child visits is overbearing at a minimum, but the app could also allow one adult to spy on another, since only one person can be Luma's administrator. That's a huge issue.
Luma is also touting the additional security features built into its router and app. It analyzes traffic looking both for intruders on the network and for whether any local computers might be infected with malware, which might cause them to speak with strange servers. Luma will also regularly scan devices on the network to see if any are set up with default passwords, which it'll prompt the administrator to change. Another security feature is that you don't have to give the router's password out to anyone: when someone tries to connect to a Luma, they'll get an interstitial pop-up — kind of like when you try to connect to Starbucks' Wi-Fi — which will stay put while the administrator chooses to grant them access or not, and for how long.
Luma tries gives you network powers that businesses usually have
Its all impressive tech, but it's clear that Luma's business-style approach to home network management can go a bit too far. (Luma comes from a team that's created and sold several other startups involving business network security.) Whether you should actually have so much power over a network is worth considering before getting a Luma. There are other options like this, too. The most similar is Eero, another multi-room Wi-Fi system that's supposed to make it easy to get a good connection anywhere throughout a house. Eero also has an app that handles guest access and security, but it doesn't show you everything that people are viewing. It was supposed launch over the summer, but has been delayed until next year.
Luma is also launching next year, with shipments expected at an unspecified point in the spring. At that time, Luma is also supposed to go on sale in some stores, including Best Buy and Home Depot. Preorders start today, with Luma selling all of its units for half price. A single router will be $99, and a three pack will be $249. Eventually, those prices will rise to $199 and $499, matching Eero.