Electronic Design

Cable Companies And Service Providers Shoot For The Fifth Play

ceesLinks-horizontalIn addition to providing the existing four plays of home services––TV and entertainment, Internet access, phone service (VoIP), and cell phone services––cable TV operators and broadband service providers are starting to add what will be known as the fifth play. These smart home services will monitor energy usage, home health, climate control, and other factors.  

The home set-top box will morph into the “home control box,” talking to and controlling a wide range of devices in homes locally via the handheld remote controls and over the Internet, with smart phone and mobile device apps.

A wide range of ZigBee radio devices already is on the market. Bosch, an international developer for home security and monitoring solutions, recently announced it would be using ZigBee chips in its devices. Comcast and Time Warner have already rolled out solutions that provide a variety of smart home services in addition to cable TV and movies, Internet connectivity, VoIP, and cell service (see the figure).


The GreenPeak Technologies GP710 system-on-chip (SoC) supports dual PAN operation with two (RF4CE and ZigBee PRO/IP) protocol stacks in the host processor. The chip fully complies with the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, providing robust spread spectrum data communication with a highly secure encrypted data flow.

GreenPeak recently announced a family of ZigBee radio chips that combine dual ZigBee technologies on a single chip. In addition to running ZigBee Radio Frequency for Consumer Electronics (RF4CE) for ultra-low power in home connectivity, the same chip can support ZigBee PRO or ZigBee IP for more demanding applications. By combining two or more communications protocols, it greatly reduces the overall price of the silicon and slashes the time it takes for developers to design in these additional technical capabilities.

How Will The Fifth Play Happen?

The evolution to the fifth play is already in progress, but it will take a while to mature. We see it arriving in three phases.

Currently, smart home devices and services are available as standalone devices that connect to something in the home. The first phase devices are usually purchased and installed by a home security or entertainment system integrator, an early innovator, or an inspired do-it-yourself (DIY) homeowner. Using a variety of communication technologies, these devices usually don’t talk to each other but only to their controllers. 

With the growing development of IPv6, the second phase is increasing device connectivity––either independently talking to the Web via a cellular radio or using a central router or set-top box as a connection to the Web. Once connected to the Web, they can be controlled via a smart phone or a net connected mobile device. Within the home, they can be also controlled via a ZigBee RF4CE remote control.

For a small monthly fee, the monitoring system and the devices are installed, managed, maintained, and monitored by the service provider or cable company. No longer does it take a technical expert to install and use these smart home devices. By operating on a standardized connecting technology like ZigBee, these devices are much simpler and financially advantageous for the service provider to install, maintain, and monitor.

The third phase is when these smart applications (the really smart home) start talking to and exchanging information with each other without the need for constant human intervention. The home owner or cable operator programs the device and the home becomes a self-sufficient auto-healing organism.

This is the new definition of the smart home. The house actually makes smart decisions. For example, the smart home will know if there’s anyone home and where in the house they are, and it then will adjust the heating or air conditioning accordingly. If everyone is in the den watching TV, why waste energy heating the bedrooms? Also:

  • A security breach in the home can immediately prompt a text message to the homeowner and/or a response company.
  • Water leaks can be immediately identified and alerted, saving money and preventing damage.
  • Family and medical staff can monitor the elderly via smart phones and alerts.
  • Medicine consumption can be automatically monitored.
  • Air conditioning can shut itself off when windows are opened.
  • Lights can switch themselves off in rooms where there are no people.
  • Rooftop solar panels can be monitored and controlled to ensure optimal operating efficiency.

The house makes decisions. This intelligence can live in the local set-top box or in the cloud, programmed by the homeowner and/or the service provider.

The Smart Home Ecosystem

The smart home network or ecosystem will combine a variety of applications, with the set-top box acting as a centralized home hub. Not only will the set-top box be the entry point for entertainment such as television, movies, gaming, and remote purchasing, it will also be the central hub for the home’s phone, Internet, telecommunications, and smart home services.

Of course, what we now call the set-top box will evolve as well. As it is a radio-operated hub, it does not need to sit adjacent to the TV or even be directly connected to the TV via cables. Instead, it can be located anywhere in the home, in a closet or a cabinet, and then use either ZigBee to connect to the various low-power, low-data sensors, device controllers, and remote controls located throughout the home, or by using Wi-Fi, transmit high-data-rate, high-quality video and audio signals to the home’s various entertainment devices. Wi-Fi can be used to connect the wireless VoIP handsets to the set-top box as well.

The Smart Home’s Arrival

One of the major challenges to the successful growth of the smart and connected home has been the variety of devices already on the market that, because they were not using a standardized communications protocol, –did not talk or interact with each other. But with the growing acceptance of ZigBee by many of the leading device makers, operators, and service providers, this impediment is being overcome.

Another challenge is the technical difficulty and cost of installing and maintaining these systems, which will be taken from the homeowner and instead be put on the shoulders of the service providers that also will handle the monitoring and reporting for these in-home systems.

Driven by the cable TV and Internet providers, this new paradigm for total home control is being enabled by the emergence of reliable low-power wireless technologies, like ZigBee, and the need for Internet access and entertainment providers to explore and exploit new markets to survive.

Not only will it change how we interact with our homes and provide us with more control of how we live our lives, this smart home/fifth play evolution will boost the worldwide economy as it generates a plethora of businesses that will be developing and making updated smart home devices and solutions for the cable and service operators.

 

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