A great memory of my childhood is watching The Jetsons – fascinated by the space age lifestyle where a robot does the cleaning and other household duties, while a push of a button prepares meals for the family and simply stating a command anywhere in the home results in an action (e.g. “turn off the lights”).
That is the promise of the Smart Home, where multiple devices can be remotely monitored and controlled based on the needs and preferences of the user(s).
Although the Smart Home concept is not new; strong broadband adoption combined with the proliferation of Internet connected devices and advances in cloud computing in recent years has accelerated interest in the Smart Home.
Devices include intelligent light bulbs, appliances, door locks, light switches, ceiling fans, electrical outlets, smoke detectors, speakers, cameras, air conditioners, thermostats, plant monitors and that is just scratching the surface – the number and type of options are endless. While Smart Home services include automation, security, assisted living, remote healthcare monitoring, energy management and others that have only been imagined.
For the Jetsons’, their Smart Home is a seamless and for the most part, a touchless experience, but the same is not true for today’s Smart Homes. Different manufacturers, operating systems, networking protocols, apps, set-up procedures, authorization, passwords, etc., challenge the concept of seamless.
But it is this lack of continuity that had opened up lots of opportunity for operators, professional services, gateway manufacturers and applications developers.
Chaos Creates Opportunity
While most homeowners are able to self-install single application smart home functionality (such as smart thermostat or even simple home automation), it gets a lot more complicated as the smart home becomes more sophisticated with multiple applications, services and devices.
Hence the development of the gateway (or “hub”) platforms and apps, that can act as a conductor to this orchestra of devices.
If a homeowner is using products with multiple or different communications protocols, they will likely need a gateway to manage these products. In some cases, and if all products are certified to a specific app – no gateway is needed. These products can be managed completely through the app, but in most instances a hub is required. Two interesting examples include Wink (app only) and Smart Things (hub).
In general, companies offering these products tout their ease of use and quick installation, but based on user reviews and forums, this remains far from the reality.
The number one difficulty cited was pairing the devices to the hub. And this difficulty grows if consumers are using older home automation products; despite the fact that these hubs claim they can support multiple communications protocol.
This has opened up a great opportunity for telecom operators to offer Smart Home Services. Telecom operators have always been a source of connectivity for their customers. As the provider of broadband, they have now become the vital link for many consumers for all of their communications and entertainment services.
Telecom operators have a number of advantages over retailers (such as Best Buy, Home Depot, etc.) to offer Smart Home Services. These include a trained and skilled workforce with an understanding of technology and standards; established customer support via field service and call centers, as well as expertise in networking and professional installation.
A Smart Home requires a network that is optimized for sensing and controlling rather than distribution of content – meaning bandwidth is not a gating factor. Instead, power consumption, reliability, availability, security and cost take precedent. And the minor detail that devices need to be able to talk to each other.
While there are numerous technologies that have been in use to address the home network such as ZigBee, Z-Wave and Insteon; a recently introduced technology call Thread hopes to eliminate many of the challenges facing consumers when trying to make their home smart.
Thread is based on 6LoWPAN, a low-power wireless protocol that delivers IPv6 over an 802.15.4 radio – the same radio used for ZigBee. And for those customers that already have 802.15.4 based devices, only a software enhancement is needed for interoperability.
Thread is scalable to connect 250+ devices into a single network supporting multiple hops; provides security at network and application layers; utilizes product install codes to ensure only authorized devices can join the network and utilizes banking-class, public-key cryptography.
A couple of attractive features of Thread include the ability for users to commission and control Thread products in the home even if there is no Wi-Fi connection, using peer-to-peer communications. Another interesting aspect of this technology is battery life. A number of devices – such as door locks and sensors utilize batteries. According to Thread, a mesh network can extend battery life because “the network is so much more efficient when there are multiple ‘parents.’
Sounds promising, but needless to say both the Z-Wave and ZigBee Alliances are skeptical and probably rightly so.
Home Invasion - Why Security Matters
Let’s be clear, this is not a physical invasion of the home, but a cyber-version. As the number of connected devices increase, security concerns become exponentially multiplied – especially when the majority of these devices collect at least one piece of personal information.
There have been numerous articles of smart homes being hacked, from criminals using your webcams and cameras to snoop on you to criminals commandeering your gateway to turn it into a “thingbot” to launch cyber-attacks.
At the heart of the matter, most devices are poorly protected and most consumers have no way to detect or fix issues when they do occur. Unlike a computer that can be protected by anti-spam and anti-virus solutions – none of this is available for smart devices. Furthermore, they are often not monitored by a dedicated IT team that could potentially address security issues as they arise – such as new firmware updates or security patches.
HP recently conducted a security study of 10 of the most popular devices including TVs, home thermostats, remote power outlets, hubs, door locks, home alarms to name a few of which many included some form of cloud service and included mobile apps which could be used to access or control the devices remotely.
And the results were alarming:
- 80% failed to require passwords of sufficient complexity and length
- 70% did not encrypt communications to the Internet and local network
- 60% did not use encryption when downloading updates
- 60% were vulnerable to issues such as persistent XSS, poor session management and weak credentials
Based on its analysis, HP recommended that these issues be addressed at the product development stage.
In the end, a Smart Home requires a Smart Homeowner with a bit of common sense and the realization that everything can be hacked, even your hardware devices.
Homeowners can take simple steps, such as creating separate VLANs for computers and storage devices, and smart devices. In addition, many operators are offering premises support services that will monitor your home network for unusual activity, including all of these smart devices.
Smart Homes are here to stay as the Internet of Things continues to grow. You just have to decide how important it is to have your refrigerator talk to you.