Communications Crossroads - Winter 2009

Get Smart

Get Smart

With each new generation of manufacturing — from the TV to the phone to yes, even the refrigerator — our electronic tools become increasingly integrated. They do more. They know more. As consumer devices continue to evolve into network appliances, what can we expect from the technology, from the regulators and from the gadgetry itself?

A little knowledge isn’t always a dangerous thing. Case in point: The SmartGrid. It’s cool — like the Matrix — but far more benevolent. And it’s where those intelligent appliances — poised for installation in a home near you before long — will be keeping track of how often the fridge door opens and adjusting temperatures accordingly to keep the soft drinks cold and save energy simultaneously.

Smart appliances can’t be a bad thing. Who wouldn’t like to knock their clock radio’s IQ up a few points? But it’s not Stanley Kubrick’s world just yet, so fear not. The toaster won’t be changing your alarm code because you keep forgetting to empty the crumb tray. Not anytime soon, anyway.

Even so, the evolution most certainly has begun.

“With the proliferation of Wi-Fi and 3G/4G-enabled devices, large penetration of broadband connections and home networks, there already are devices and solutions for people to remotely turn their lights on and off, check on their homes using Web cameras, even use a network-connected thermostat to change the temperature,” says Michaёl Gazier, senior director, architecture and business development, in the office of the CTO at Ciena, a company that specializes in optical and Ethernet networking.

A report published earlier this year by MultiMedia Intelligence forecast that roughly 245 million IP-connected consumer electronics devices will ship in 2013. “Today, the largest share is held by gaming consoles,” says Steve Borelli, vice president of marketing and business development at MediaFriends, “but that quickly will be joined by multiple devices connected to the home network, ranging from DVD players and televisions to MP3 players and wireless speakers.”

And while home entertainment is the obvious first step, the incorporation of decidedly futuristic home automation contraptions —the clothes dryer, the water heater, the dishwasher — are not far behind.

Visible Vs. Invisible

Gazier, and other industry experts with whom we spoke, also believe in a distinction between these potentially “smart” appliances — one side for the devices with which we truly interact and one for the rest. “When people ask me if my refrigerator will talk to the network — I’m sure it will, but frankly I don’t want to know about it. I just want it to work very efficiently at keeping my food and drinks cold.”

Conversely, at a coffee shop with a friend recently, Gazier was discussing some pictures he’d posted on the Web. “He was interested in seeing them, so he pulled out his iPhone and we quickly pulled up the site and viewed the photos. It was a seamless part of our conversation because of the network-connected device and ubiquity of the wireless Web in that coffee shop via 3G mobile broadband.” And a prime example of what he calls the “visible Web.”

Its unseen twin, however, is making gains — big ones — spurred on (primarily, anyway) not by the avid gear head’s burning desire to live inside a giant robot, but the looming energy crisis. Welcome to the SmartGrid, a concept that refers to injecting intelligence — and communications capabilities — into the electrical grid.

“Much of the SmartGrid is aimed at linking generation,” says Brian Markwalter, vice president, technology and standards, for the Consumer Electronics Association, “especially new renewable energy sources, transmission and distribution so that the utility can efficiently manage the grid.”

It’s also about conservation, which is where communicating with devices in the home comes into play. “In such an upgraded system, meters will communicate over the SmartGrid to be able to vary the price of electricity and know how much is being used in each price period,” he says. “Real-time pricing, as it is called, accomplishes nothing unless the consumer and — even better — the devices inside the home are aware of the cost of electricity.”

Pilot programs are underway using Web portals to provide consumers with up-to-date energy cost information. “Studies show that awareness alone increases conservation,” Markwalter points out. If your home becomes part of a truly “smart” electrical grid, “your thermostat and appliances communicate with the meter to make adjustments according to your preferences based on the cost of electricity.”

This is a part of Gazier’s “invisible Web,” the behind-the-scenes intelligence he says is making impressive strides. “This is the washing machine that senses how much laundry has been put inside and uses only the amount of water required for that specific load … it is home electricity consumption that is metered and monitored using GSM/SMS/GPRS technologies.” Not only does such capability allow for peak and off-peak electricity periods, “It also can be used to provide two-way service monitoring and management.”

Simply put, a utility could remotely lower air conditioning units by a degree across service areas to avoid citywide brownouts. That really is smart.

The Really Worldwide Web

“Oh, they have the Internet on computers now?” an astounded Homer Simpson once asked.

Wait until he finds out it’s on TV. An emergent force is driving Web content to the tube — and even the radio — and manufacturers are responding in kind. “There are a number of TV sets on the market today with Internet connections,” says MediaFriends’ Borelli, who expects them to be hot items this holiday season. “[These new models] will have 802.11n wireless connectivity to the home network, a Bluetooth-connected remote with a full QWERTY keyboard and various Internet-based widget applications.”

All the pros we spoke with envision an increasing number of these devices coming equipped with Ethernet ports and/or wireless antennae. “It already is evident in the DTV product lines that have been announced,” says the CEA’s Markwalter. “And it’s been reported that the number of broadband-connected TVs doubled in the last quarter. TiVo has made use of the power of the Internet for years. Look at what’s going on with Yahoo! Widgets, Netflix streaming, Hulu, etc. Ethernet ports on products are happening now.”

The key, he says, is for broadband-connected television to deliver a TV experience — not a PC experience. He expects to see interesting developments this January at CES.

Internet TVs are expected to account for about three percent of TV sales this year, then jump to 25 percent over the next four, says Ciena’s Gazier, citing data from a recent study by Parks Associates. “This makes total sense. TV always has been a social experience, whether it’s on the couch with family and friends or over the water cooler at work the next day — and the Internet only enhances that with social networking and real-time communications.”

Borelli believes that Internet TVs underscore a key indicator in the market as entertainment; mobile devices and the raging wildfire of social media converge around a trend that has been escalating over the past year. “Consumers no longer are being restricted to reaching the content and communities they want from specific devices or networks,” he says.

“Texting is hugely popular, but consumers primarily are limited to doing it from one mobile [device] to another mobile device. The near-term growth will be driven by texting anyone from any device — a mobile phone, a PC and eventually even a TV. Or by making TV a more social experience by integrating shared private SMS-based chat rooms with your friends.” Such features will be incorporated into the viewing experience right there on the screen alongside sports, news, “Lost” — whatever programming the viewer prefers.

Homer Simpson’s undying love for TV, like that of many Americans, is balanced neatly by similar predilections for things like doughnuts and bacon — so he might be equally interested in the growing number of consumer-based digital health and wellness devices. The upcoming Digital Health Summit at CES will focus on this emerging market and is a clear indicator of the trend.

“We are just now seeing iPhone/iPod applications that can monitor your heart rate over time and send this data to a doctor’s office, where they can watch for abnormal trends before a heart attack takes place,” says Tom Soroka, U.S. Telecom’s vice president of engineering and technology. “As we become a society that increasingly monitors its own health and health care, we will want devices that can analyze and predict various health conditions so that we can act upon them appropriately.”

In the nation’s capital, the healthcare debate continues to simmer. Meanwhile, medical professionals with an eye toward progress are singing the praises of remote monitoring. “It is becoming increasingly more sophisticated and prevalent due to lower costs for wireless devices, the wide availability of broadband networks and healthcare providers looking for new ways to streamline patient care and costs,” says Gazier. Recent figures from ABI Research forecast that this market is poised for 77 percent compound annual growth — and will reach nearly a billion dollars — by 2014.

And whether purely for fun or physical well-being, devices (thankfully) won’t be the only things getting smarter. “College students are already the sweet spot for technology adoption,” says Markwalter. “It’s not surprising to see them at the forefront of experiments to replace paper textbooks with e-readers. Further, it is not a stretch to imagine that every consumer electronics product a student might carry would be connected to the Internet.”

Rush Hour

Although it could be quite a few years before we see a wide selection of network-enabled washing machines and refrigerators at the local Sears, similar applications in the realms of lighting, climate control and security already are finding their way into the hands of consumers eager to plug into the burgeoning motherboard. Add the newest developments to the ever-growing roster of “connected” appliances and it means more of something that’s hardly new: traffic.

“Consumer electronics devices, intelligent appliances and exchange of information all create a continuous flow across networks, whether it’s within a home or across the global Internet,” Gazier points out. “There will be an exponential increase in the number of network-connected devices talking to each other, so even if they only are exchanging a small amount of information — multiply that across all the devices in [all the] homes and it becomes a real driver for much more network bandwidth.”

Experts seem confident that network upgrades are keeping pace. “They can better handle the raw bandwidth needs from 802.11n and femtocells (low-power wireless access points that operate in licensed spectrum to connect standard mobile devices to an operator’s network using broadband) in the home network to DOCSIS 3.0 and fiber in the home to access networks — and then faster speeds in metropolitan and core networks,” says Borelli, who believes the bigger issue could be how best to prioritize and manage the quality levels of different services so devices aren’t interfering with one another.

Although progress in technology often moves faster than the infrastructure necessary to support its widespread use, this may be one case where the stepping stones are laid at the pace of the trailblazer. If televisions, radios, gaming consoles, mobile phones and the like had to share space with millions of dishwashers and sprinkler systems tomorrow, havoc likely would ensue. “But,” says a realistic Soroka, “this ‘intelligent appliance’ evolution will take place over many years. Our nation’s broadband service providers will be continuously updating their networks to stay ahead of the bandwidth curve.”

The Home of Tomorrow — Today?

Okay, maybe not today today. It’s going to be awhile before the Roomba becomes Hanna-Barbera’s beloved Rosie (beep beep) and I can drop the kids off at school via escape pod from my new zero-emission hover car, but home automation — truly intelligent homes — is right there on the horizon. Soroka sees plausibility in all the speculation.

“I see [intelligent appliances] being connected to the Internet as a series of technology progressions that may take place if energy conservation is truly a national and global priority,” he says. “As the evolution of SmartGrid technologies takes shape, we could see the appliance industry designing remotely controlled energy management into their products.”

And as the engineers churn out new technologies to navigate the challenges developing consumer needs and trends present, so, too, will the strategists in boardrooms and courtrooms. “There will invariably be political, regulatory, business and privacy hurdles that need to be addressed,” says Gazier, “whether it is network neutrality and similar discussions around fair share network configurations or handling service requests across service providers — and where some services may not be in the interest of some providers, such as over-the-top VoIP or video.”

Soroka believes if industry leaders can raise money and reduce politics, the sky’s the limit. He acknowledges that there will be obstacles, but he remains optimistic. “All these issues need to be vetted,” he says. “The Internet and readily available computing power have broken down so many barriers to innovation that new ideas will be invested in and the strong ones will rise and possibly reach widespread adoption well in advance of regulation.”

Judging from past regulatory experiences, he sees concerns about the usual suspects — privacy, competition, use of consumer data, and a “Big Brother” perception if utilities have the ability to control homeowner appliances. “If the various industries can allay these potential fears with prudent self-governance and consumer protection, the appliance industry should see both growth and consumer adoption.”

As with most things, progress will be driven by consumer demand. As more intelligent devices become available, and as prices for these exciting new products inevitably drop, providers can look forward to a public embrace of the technology and all that it offers — which means a continued amalgamation between TV and Web content and the communications that bridge them.