Electronic Design

Cable Companies Will Deliver The Smart, Automated Home

For years, maybe decades, numerous tech fortunetellers have predicted the arrival of the automated smart home. Home owners will seek out and install the latest, coolest gizmos to make their homes truly smart, these experts said. Well, it isn’t going to happen that way.

Aside from the true techies and early innovators, people don’t want to have to redo their home. If what they have works, why change? Inertia has ensured that aside from computers and entertainment, today’s homes have not changed much in 50 years.

Our cars are automated, though. Press a button on the driver’s door, and all the doors lock or unlock. Press another button, and the windows in the back open or close. Why can’t we do that in our homes? Nowadays we can even remotely start our cars so it will be warm when we hop into the driver’s seat on a cold winter morning. Why can’t we control our home environment from afar?

The Cable Company’s Role

A new player on the scene may change everything. Cable companies are launching smart homes centered on the ubiquitous set-top box (STB). The companies that make consumer electronics, home security, and energy monitoring also are rolling out solutions, but the cable companies are primarily driving the new smart home—not the after-market device retailers or security system providers.

Powered by ZigBee Radio Frequency for Consumer Electronics (RF4CE)—a low-power, low-data-rate version of Wi-Fi—this new network is the choice of the world’s cable companies and service providers for introducing new services and applications to the home, as a way for them to develop new businesses and generate new revenue streams.

Cable companies have realized that providing high-quality video and Web connectivity isn’t enough. To survive the migration of home TV to the Web, they need to offer a range of other services. They’re now working to further engage their customers and keep them excited as subscribers in a Web-connected world.

No longer the purview of just hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers, the smart home’s installation, connection, maintenance, and troubleshooting now will be the responsibility of cable company technicians. This service will include the home’s security, environmental, and energy management systems, elderly care, all owned and managed by the cable company and included on your next cable bill, along with net access, the landline phone, TV, and maybe even cell-phone service.

The Role Of RF4CE

At the 2012 International CES, Comcast, one of the largest service providers in the world, said it is moving to ZigBee RF4CE with its new Xfinity and Xcalibur STB’s and remotes.

“We are moving to support ZigBee RF4CE standards-based remote controls and set-tops because they improve the user experience for navigating all our services in the home, while allowing us to make the transition to RF technology in a very cost-effective way,” said Ted Grauch, vice president of video premise equipment for Comcast.

Many other service providers around the world are also moving to RF4CE for their STB’s and remotes. In addition, several of the world’s leading consumer electronics and home entertainment manufacturers are planning on using RF4CE. In Japan, Sony is already using RF4CE in its televisions and remote controls to enable viewers to easily purchase items they see on their TVs (see the figure).

ZigBee RF4CE remote controls support motion sensing and interactivity. They also can operate on a single battery for 10 years or more and can monitor and control devices from almost anywhere in a home.

ZigBee RF4CE-powered remote controls and STB’s provide benefits for the consumer and for the cable company. These consumer benefits include the ability to control the TV set and STB from anywhere in the house. ZigBee RF4CE uses 2.4-GHz radio waves, so you will no longer need to aim and shoot the remote control at a small infrared (IR) target sensor on a TV set or STB. RF signals penetrate walls, cabinets, floors, and even people who choose to stand between you and your TV set!

RF4CE offers numerous cost-saving benefits for the service provider. For example, cable companies often get service complaints about problems with the remote control. Answering and resolving these calls is very expensive. RF is much more reliable and robust than infrared and will eliminate many of these calls.

Also, RF4CE makes it much easier to program the remote to control other systems in the home as well as new products that come onto the market. As RF4CE supports interactivity, cable companies can easily download the codes for new entertainment devices into the STB, which then sends the new codes to the remote. The end user will be happy, and there will be fewer customer service calls.

RF4CE is an extreme-low-power technology, so future remotes will no longer require replaceable or rechargeable batteries to operate. Tests have demonstrated that an RF4CE remote using GreenPeak Technologies ultra-low-power radios can operate for more than 10 years, at over 500 clicks a day, all on a single, tiny CR2032 coin-cell battery. This means no more dead remotes or broken battery compartment lids—another source of numerous cable subscriber complaints.

As RF4CE STB’s and remotes continue to roll out, more features can be introduced. These include interactive messaging delivered from the STB to the remote for programming notifications, advertising, bill payment, and product purchases.

In addition, service providers and cable companies now can offer an entire portfolio of smart-home services such as home security, energy monitoring and management, solar panel controls, and health monitoring, all controlled through the STB. These various services can all communicate with the STB via RF4CE and then can be controlled either by the remote control or via a mobile device over the Internet. As part of the home entertainment package, cable companies will be able to market, supply, and install temperature and home environment sensors, security systems, energy management, and other systems.

No longer just an entertainment supplier, the cable company of tomorrow will become the one-stop source for all of the home’s smart features and services. Maybe they were looking into the wrong crystal  ball or reading the wrong tea leaves, but technology fortune tellers finally may be right as cable companies deliver the new smart home.

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