5 misguided reasons for asking wireless carriers to manage smart home networks

Wireless operators managing smart home devices using newly acquired 600 MHz spectrum is a bad idea that defeats the purpose of smart home technology.

smart home screen
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Last week, a guest editorial by Jerome Rota of Greenwave Systems titled, “How to Bring the ‘Internet of Things’ to Life” appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Rota suggested that wireless operators should manage smart home networks using spectrum acquired in the FCC’s 600 MHz auction. This is a bad idea for several reasons.

1.   “Today a smart home nearly requires an IT specialist.”

The first products based on new technology are often difficult to set up and manage. Mr. Rota’s solution -- having wireless carriers perform these tasks -- could short-circuit the development of more user-friendly products and would saddle consumers with unnecessary monthly fees.

As smart home devices and networks mature they will become easier to set up and manage. Some of these products are already blazing new trails in the ease-of-use department. For instance, when I get up in the morning I simply ask my Amazon Echo what the weather forecast is for the day. There’s no need to wake up my PC, open a browser, and click on a bookmark.

As I described in my introductory post about smart homes, dozens of vendors are collaborating to ensure that their products work together, and industry groups are developing smart home standards and open-source code that will hopefully lead to universal interoperability.

2.   “Plenty of cool, connected and smart stuff is available for purchase, but the technology still requires a prohibitive amount of effort to get going. And even then, it often doesn’t work the way it should.”

Mr. Rota raises a valid complaint.

However, these problems are not inherent to smart home devices and networks. As bugs are ironed out and designs are improved, smart home devices will become easier to set up, and they will work the way that consumers expect.

One of the industry’s top goals is to develop smart home networks that ordinary consumers can set up and manage. Putting wireless carriers in charge of smart home networks would be comparable to giving up and admitting defeat.

3.   “This low-frequency bandwidth, in layman’s terms, isn’t great for carrying big loads of data, so it won’t be much help in streaming high-definition Netflix on your iPhone. But it is fantastic at traveling long distances and penetrating buildings -- past metal doors and through concrete basements, where your cell coverage now wanes.”

Mr. Rota is partially correct. Compared to the higher frequencies used by mobile phone networks and wireless LANs, the 600 MHz band is a good choice for reaching “things,” particularly outdoors.

However, the main task for smart home devices is to talk to each other. This should be done in the way that is most secure and consumes the least battery power. It takes significantly more power to reach a tower one mile away -- particularly for a device installed in the basement or on the wrong side of a refrigerator. Low-power wireless mesh networks are a better fit.

Most homes are already connected to the Internet. It makes more sense to install a wireless mesh equipped with an Internet gateway device. This enables remote control and access to cloud-based services, but without compromising smart home network security and battery life.

4.   “Perhaps worse, security remains a major issue, in part because it’s difficult to update software as device manufacturers release patches and bug fixes…With all the apps, boxes and devices needing updates, you would need a full-time IT specialist to make your home truly smart.”

Security is a major issue, but not for this reason.

Most smart home devices are either connected to the Internet or controlled directly by a smartphone. Therefore, most of the devices and apps are capable of receiving automatic software updates.

There are two security challenges for smart home networks: 1. Ensuring that only devices authorized by the user can connect to the network; and 2. Keeping the data private. Devices that communicate at high frequencies using low power are much less likely to be heard outside the home than devices that communicate at low frequencies with enough power to reach the nearest cell towers.

5.   "The Internet of Things could be listed as a service on wireless or cable bills. Consumers could purchase whatever smart stuff they want -- a smart lightbulb or thermostat, say -- and simply activate the devices with their mobile carriers upon installation."

You can already buy smart lightbulbs that you only need to screw in and pair with your smartphone. There’s little if any advantage to getting a mobile carrier involved.

A smart thermostat is different because the installation is more complicated. Some homeowners can do the install themselves, while others might want to hire a professional. Like a smart lightbulb, a smart thermostat can be paired with a smartphone or added to a low-power wireless mesh network. Again, there’s little if any advantage to getting a mobile carrier involved.

Having smart home capabilities added to your wireless or cable bill is not an exciting prospect. The ideal smart home solution should enable users to add, change and remove devices without consulting a third party. It should be self-healing: the network should automatically find a way around a failed node.

Finally, the ideal smart home network should automatically notify the homeowner when a device stops functioning or needs a new battery, and it should tell the homeowner exactly what to do to fix the problem.

Mr. Rota tries to nail down his argument by pointing out that enterprises are already working with wireless carriers to bring IoT applications to life. He suggests the technology just needs to be scaled for consumer use.

I think he has it backwards.

Consumers don’t want to pay additional monthly fees to set up and manage smart home devices. In fact, they see smart thermostats, do-it-yourself security devices and Internet TV as tools they can use to reduce their monthly expenses.

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