Insteon Bows First Hybrid RF/PLC Technology
That’s the case with Smarthome, Inc., possibly the world’s largest specialty distributor of automation products, and a manufacturer of some 150 products of its own. The company has created a technology called Insteon that it believes will be the standard to end all standards in the home-automation space.
Insteon (pronounced “instee-on”) combines the convenience of RF with the efficiency of powerline-carrier (PLC) communications to create what appears to be the first hybrid wireless/powerline technology for control applications.
Smarthome envisions a world in which wireless security sensors and PLC-enabled light switches communicate with each other over a single network, through a single protocol, with a unified programming interface.
To enable an Insteon network, a user plugs two RF access points into AC outlets in the home. These access points—which double as couplers for the home’s dual power phases—can then communicate with any Insteon-enabled RF and/or powerline device in the home.
Both PLC and RF have their own advantages when it comes to in-home communications, whether for high-speed networking, or small-bit control applications. PLC is generally less expensive, while RF is more convenient. Either media might enable faster or more reliable communications, depending on the installation. Thus, a hybrid approach presents the best of both worlds.
Certainly, a hybrid environment could be created by bridging two existing protocols—say X10 for powerline and Zensys for RF. In fact, this is being done, but the approach is less than optimal. The translation from one protocol to another takes time, and there’s no way for X10 devices and Zensys devices to “feed” off of each other since they occupy two different networks.
On the other hand, hybrid Insteon products can simultaneously signal both powerline and RF devices. Whichever signal happens to work best for any particular device—that’s the one that automatically “wins.” Furthermore, Insteon employs a mesh networking architecture (as does Zensys for RF) in which all nodes are transceivers and repeaters. Thus, any powerline or RF device added to the network enhances the entire network.
Not all Insteon devices need be hybrid, however. Smarthome claims that its PLC and RF technology are superior in their own right.
Starting with powerline, Insteon apparently is 15 times faster than X10, delivering short packets (“Turn light on”) in less than 0.05 seconds vs. X10’s 0.60 seconds. A signal confirmation (“Light turned on”) doubles the length of the entire transaction for both technologies. X10’s one-second round-trip transaction is an awfully long time when multiple commands must be issued.
In addition to being speedy, Insteon features near-perfect reliability, according to Smarthome. Compatible devices automatically retransmit signals until a positive confirmation is received, and an error-detection algorithm ensures that, in fact, the correct response occurred.
Similar claims could be made by Powerline Control Systems, whose Universal Powerline Bus (UPB) has already been adopted by a number of automation companies seeking an alternative to X10. Among other differences between Insteon and UPB: the former is backward-compatible with X10; the latter is not.
“There are a lot of X10 products out there,” says Ken Fairbanks, vice president of sales for Smarthome. “We don’t want people to have to throw everything out.”
As for the RF portion of Insteon, it operates in the 900 MHz (ISM) band and performs well at up to 150 feet. Furthermore, it is synchronized with PLC signals from Insteon devices.
The entire proposition is eminently secure. Each device (up to 16.8 million) has a unique ID, and code encryption is allowed.
Smarthome itself will debut the first Insteon-enabled devices—primarily powerline-only products including keypads, dimmers and network interfaces—late in 2004. Meanwhile, the company is seeking other manufacturers to adopt the protocol. By 2005, a variety of dual RF/PLC products should be available.
Even when these products hit the market, however, Smarthome expects to continue selling X10 products. “We sell everything our customers want to buy,” says Smarthome CEO Joe Dada, “but we expect Insteon products will replace the vast majority of X10 sales.”
Pricing of Infineon products will be similar to their X10 counterparts “except for the very, very low-end [X10] products,” says Dada.