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Chip makers jostle for position in smart home

Home Automation (HA) fever has been gripping parts of the pay TV and broadband sectors lately, with the leading silicon makers such as Broadcom, Sigma Designs and Qualcomm all making splashes in the area.

HA is sometimes included in the larger smart-home sector, which includes remote healthcare and any application involving connected devices in the home, and so is perhaps a more suitable term. Either way, it is going to be a big market, with a growing sense that it could be a winner-takes-all game where the owner of the home gateway will rule these emerging services as well. This is highly relevant for broadcasting and pay TV given the convergence of video and broadband, and the fact that the TV itself will play a pivotal role in some of these emerging services, such as for remote consultations with doctors and as a place for accessing video components of the applications.

HA is hardly new, dating back to 1970s when infra red controls were introduced for TVs as well as lighting systems. But these were hampered by requiring line of sight and failing to support two way communications, leading to development of X-10 in the late 1970s as an international and open industry standard for home automation communication using either power lines or radio. Reliability, though, was poor and since then numerous other signaling protocols have come and often gone, boiling down to the present situation where there are really three wireless contenders, Zigbee, Zwave and Wi-Fi.

Zigbee and Zwave are somewhat similar, both being designed for simple low power devices, differing principally in their operating frequencies, generally 2.4 GHz for the former and 900 MHz for the latter.

Zwave is owned by Sigma Designs, which is actively promoting it for HA and believes it has stolen a lead on rivals by offering not just a protocol but a complete HA package, following the recent launch of its "Z-Wave Next Gen" portfolio, aimed both at service providers and also original equipment makers (OEMs) looking to develop home control products and services. This platform includes middleware for home control, a customizable user interface, and a reference design called ZIPR to handle translation between Z-Wave, IP and the Z-Wave mesh home network, as well as a gateway to translate IP commands to Z-Wave.

But Sigma Designs does not have all the smarts needed to deliver a complete home network with the intelligence to support all the emerging smart home applications, and so is courting home software partners. One of them is the French company SoftAtHome, which is best known as the software partner for Orange France’s new Livebox Play gateways and set-top boxes. Orange France operates the world’s largest IPTV network with almost 6 million subscribers for which these new boxes are now available.

Focusing both on broadcasters and broadband operators with its SoftAtHome Operating Platform (SOP), the company has been catering for the emerging smart home from the outset while still meeting the needs of its principle broadband and TV customers. It announced a partnership with Sigma Designs back in January 2010 to incorporate its SOP platform on hybrid, terrestrial and IP set top boxes on the Sigma Designs’ SMP8654 chipset. Now SoftAtHome has confirmed it is in talks with Sigma Designs over collaboration around the latter’s new Zwave Next Gen platform to address the HA market directly.

Meanwhile, Wi-Fi itself has been evolving with great rapidity as a contender for HA communication, which may disrupt some of the current activities around the other contending wireless HA protocols. After all Zigbee and Zwave were developed only because WiFi was too power hungry and was heading upwards to support higher data rates, rather than low power low bit rate processes. But now, the IEEE 802.11 Group responsible for W-Fi standardization is working on a new version, 802.11ah, specially designed for low power smart home devices, operating below 1GHz rather than in the 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands of current WiFi deployments. When 802.11ah is ratified around May 2015, WiFi will be contending with Zigbee and Z Wave for low power signaling applications, for on top of reducing power consumption, it ensures that HA devices can get access to the WiFi network to transmit short bursts of data at low rates, alongside bandwidth hungry HDTV channels.

Past that, Qualcomm, the world’s leading maker of chips for mobile devices, seems to be backing WiFi as the winner for HA, working on its optimization techniques for low speed data ahead of 802.11ah ratification. Qualcomm has just launched its Streamboost technology to ensure access to network capacity for HA applications. This involves identifying HA streams by capturing short snapshots of the data, without invoking heavy duty computationally intensive Deep Packet Inspection. Streamboost then allocates bandwidth to all services as they need it, balancing the requirements of the very different competing applications from HDTV down to meter data.

Given that WiFi is already virtually ubiquitous on mainstream home devices it could well squeeze out contending low power protocols if 802.1ah coupled withQualcomm’s efforts do succeed in reducingpower consumptionto the same level on small devices. The convenienceof having just one protocol for the wholesmart home could outweigh any small residual disadvantages.