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Bring Back the Smart Residential Gateway for Home Automation Success

Embedding home automation technologies into routers and settop boxes -- and creating a rich back-end -- could go a long way in helping service providers support their IoT customers.


Bring Back the Smart Residential Gateway for Home Automation Success
SmartRG shows how a home router integrated with a Vera home automation hub from MiOS can offer Internet providers a window into all connected devices in their customers' homes for remote diagnostics and management.
Julie Jacobson · July 24, 2015

We started EH Publishing in 1994, and for the first dozen years the buzz was all about residential gateways for home automation—or Internet of Things (IoT) if that term had existed back then. There were entire conferences on residential gateways. Residential gateway alliances were formed with committees and subcommittees. Had there been Twitter in those olden days, #ResidentialGateways would be trending.

I never much participated in the residential gateway thing. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what it meant.

And even though I’m still not sure what a residential gateway is, I know we need it. We’ve gone so far outside the house with the Internet of Things – where things communicate with other things inside the house via cloud servers way outside of the house – that we’ve lost the ability manage, monitor and control those things locally.

And when I say “we” have lost the control, I mean you, me and the service provider of your choice. That might be your Internet provider, some third-party tech-support operator like PlumChoice, or simply the resident geek, perhaps your 12-year-old kid.

Here’s the problem, which I tend to bring up to unwitting keynote presenters like the Connected Home chief at Comcast/Xfinity: When my light switch stops working, who do I call at Comcast? The broadband people or the smart-home people? There’s a disconnect there.

“What? There’s no disconnect here,” he might have responded to an incredulous audience. “It’s all the same number: 1-800-COMCAST.”

True as that may be, you still have to press 2 for Internet support or 5 for smart home services. So you press 5 because it’s a light switch, right? And the Xfinity Home representative spends 30 minutes on the phone with you, asking you to reset the light switch by pressing and holding or some such thing. Then there’s the gateway reboot, and then the modem reboot. And ultimately she tells you it’s not an issue with the home automation system, but with your home network because it’s not seeing the smart-home hub.

So call back, she tells you, and this time press 2.

And the network support guy tells you right off the bat to talk to the smart-home guys (It’s a light switch!). After you rehash the previous 30 minutes of troubleshooting, he has you reboot the modem again, and then you hear some clicking on his end and he finally comes back and tells you to call back and press 5.

And after all of this, you later learn, it was your ailing refrigerator wreaking havoc on the home network.

When my light switch stops working, who do I call at Comcast? The broadband people or the smart-home people? There’s a disconnect there.

Mending the Disconnect

Internet providers and black-box makers have all the faculties to create a better support scheme, but there really is a serious disconnect.

Comcast broadband doesn’t communicate with Xfinity Home. Ditto for Time Warner Cable, AT&T and the rest of them. Sigma Designs, which owns Z-Wave, doesn’t include the home automation technology in the 55 million settop boxes it has deployed. And so on and so forth ….

I found progress last year at a Parks Associates conference, where I met the folks at SmartRG, which provides broadband gateways and support for second- and third-tier regional broadband providers.

The company showed its modems connected to a Vera home automation hub from MiOS.

On the back-end, we saw how the service provider could see every Z-Wave and every IP device connected to the home network. The provider could check the status of each device, “heal the Z-Wave network,” unassign and reset devices, view the local user interface as the customer sees it, view graphics of each device along with their IP and MAC addresses, and more.

It’s a start.

Verizon, which has not yet deployed a successful home automation service (its DIY Home Monitoring & Control program was dropped after a couple of years), recently started shipping smart broadband modems co-developed with Greenwave Systems, whose team includes some of the talent behind the original Verizon smart-home service.

The new Verizon FiOS Quantum modem/router has Z-Wave built in and can support ZigBee via a dongle. And while neither Verizon nor Greenwave has said anything about their plans for this smart gateway, we can imagine that it would enable excellent service and support, whether the customer presses 2 or 5.

Meanwhile, Michael Wolf of NextMarket speculates that Google is targeting home routers for its new Brillo platform, which makes sense.

And this disconnect isn’t limited to service providers like the cable companies. Look at Staples Connect, Lowe’s Iris and Quirky’s Wink—none of which seem to be making their backers extremely happy.

While my customer-service experience with Wink a very long time ago was excellent (didn’t solve my issues but there was a lot of good effort), I wondered why in this day and age I had to describe every IP and Z-Wave device on the network, and how it was performing at that moment. And then I personally had to go around plugging, unplugging, pressing buttons, pressing and holding buttons, rebooting ... and describing every action along the way.

This is frustrating for the customer and terribly unprofitable for the provider.

Yeah, I’m thinking smart “residential gateways” will be a big thing in 2016. Or, as the kids say, a #bigthing.

Now, about that refrigerator ….
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JULIE JACOBSON
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  About the Author

Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at [email protected]

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