The smart home will increasingly become a battlefield pitching pay-TV operators not just against each other but also a range of ICT (Information Technology and Communication) companies all seeking new revenues through services that exploit a common infrastructure comprised of both fixed and wireless communications. The ability of future Home Area Networks (HANs) to increase average revenue per user (ARPU) was trumpeted at the recent Cable & Satellite International (CSI) Multimedia Home Gateways conference in London. There, leading Telcos BT and Telefonica argued that the time was right to start deploying smart home services because, at last, the infrastructure was in place.
This is significant because the smart home has been on the agenda for Telcos and IT service providers for almost two decades, long before it was for the TV industry because it was incapable of going beyond the set top box. In practice, home communications evolved in islands, with heating system control, security, telephony, Wi-Fi for broadband and video over media such as coax becoming increasingly prevalent but with no integration between them.
Most recently, increasing bandwidth at all levels, combined with the arrival of devices such as tablets and more advanced remotes capable of controlling or accessing a wide range of HAN applications, has led to renewed impetus in the smart home field. This has not been lost on pay-TV operators in the cable and satellite arenas as well as Telcos, with Comcast in the U.S. one of the prime movers, planning to deploy HANs to premium customers and starting to develop or commission the relevant components.
One of the main components is wireless communication, since many of the devices in the smart home will be small and portable. Here, there are at least three protocols that will have to be supported – Bluetooth, WiFi and ZigBee. WiFi will be needed for transmitting high bandwidth signals such as HD video. Bluetooth is the predominant wireless technology for very short-range communications, being a replacement in effect for data and audio cables. This created a need for a third protocol, ZigBee, which evolved much more recently to transmit relatively small amounts of controlled information to a new generation of wireless devices in the home.
ZigBee was motivated partly by failure of rechargeable battery technology to improve as quickly as had been hoped. Indeed, as many users of advanced smart phones will appreciate, battery capacity has become a constraint on the evolution of small devices for some applications, stimulating development of techniques for conserving power. ZigBee saves power partly by transmitting at low bandwidths up to 250Kb/s, and partly by operating intermittently, only turning on its processor when there is data to send. Obviously, WiFi as a protocol to support broadcast applications at high bit rates cannot achieve this, but there was an argument that Bluetooth could be adapted for such applications, thereby avoiding the need for a further wireless technology.
Bluetooth, after all, also supports intermittent communication. But, it does not so as efficiently as ZigBee, being much slower to wake up, which is crucial for intermittently communicating applications involving small wireless devices. Typically, Bluetooth devices take three seconds to respond to wakeup calls, while ZigBee, having been optimized for this task, takes 30ms or less, that is at least 1000x faster. Since devices consume less power in idle mode by factors ranging from four to 20 or more compared with active mode, depending greatly on the applications and device, ZigBee’s efficient intermittent mode can boost battery life a lot for the many small devices that spend most of the time asleep.
In fact, ZigBee also scores over infrared communication in terms of power consumption. This, combined with not needing line of sight, and above all support for two way communications, his persuading some pay TV operators to consider replacing IR with ZigBee or some other radio frequency (RF) technology for remote control of set top boxes.
According to the ZigBee Alliance, responsible for the standard, batteries for standard remote controls using ZigBee last three times as long as infrared remotes. The improvement is less, about two times, when the remote control incorporates a pointing device, because then more communication is involved, reducing the advantage gained by ZigBee’s efficiency at flipping between waking and idle mode.
In fact, ZigBee supports a relatively new protocol called RF4CE to support remote control applications, and this is starting to end the dominance of IR for controlling consumer electronics devices that has lasted for over 30 years since the first TV remotes arrived.
Televisions are in the early stages of RF remote adoption, creating remote controls with greater flexibility and potential as whole home control devices. Some operators, such as Comcast, DISH Networks and France Telecom, have commissioned set top boxes supporting ZigBee communication via RF4CE. The two-way communication, coupled with ability to roam anywhere within radio range, gives ZigBee remotes great potential as devices for many whole-home applications, with the ability to receive alarms as well as control heating systems and appliances.
So far, cable operators have shown the strongest interest in ZigBee and in extending their reach to smart-home applications in general, because they are under great pressure from both satellite and IPTV competitors. They see ZigBee as a route to new applications both within and outside TV. In the first instance, RF remotes will allow customers to interact in new ways with the primary TV service, and almost operate as a companion or second screen by allowing reminders about programs, and advertisements to be sent. They could also enable voting and gaming, while opening new e-commerce opportunities, able to accept payments via e-wallets or by credit card.
RF remotes could also address the dreaded “truck roll” problem by enabling more problems to be solved remotely, as well as setting up new features. Many customer complaints relate to the remote control itself, and by being interactive, RF remotes can more readily be checked and even reconfigured remotely. Similarly, upgrading services remotely via software downloads to the set top box can be done more readily if the remote can participate in the process as well. The ability to monitor and control the remote control itself remotely will also help with extension to new non-TV applications such as energy management and even in the future telehealthcare.
The prospect of remote monitoring of medical diagnostic devices was cited by Telefonica at the CSI London conference as holding interesting possibilities. This could be useful both for continuous monitoring of health parameters such as body temperature, pulse rate and blood sugar levels in patients with conditions like heart disease or diabetes, triggering alarms when certain thresholds are breached.
For such applications, BT highlighted the importance for pay-TV operators or Telcos of forming partnerships with companies expert in the relevant fields, and in this way assemble an ecosystem of components fulfilling a growing range of smart home applications. But, perhaps the biggest challenge is to get off first base and start pulling these applications towards the TV home infrastructure. This first step may well define the fate of pay-TV operators in future if video and even digital entertainment becomes just one of many different HAN applications.