Lennar, the #2 homebuilder in the U.S., is the first to adopt “Wi-Fi Certified Home Design,” a new Wi-Fi Alliance seal signifying the network is designed for “whole-home connectivity, with no dead spots.”
Bravo to both organizations for recognizing the need to prewire for a robust wireless network!
Lennar's new technology portfolio — from loudspeakers to thermostats to home automation — will all tap into this anointed wireless architecture. (That story coming soon.) A solid Wi-Fi foundation will ensure these technologies work well today, right out of the box.
New home buyers expect “things to just work,” says David Kaiserman, president of Lennar Ventures, in an interview with CE Pro.
That extends not just to plumbing and electrical, but wireless Internet as well. In order for Wi-Fi to “just work,” he says, you need to “engineer for wireless from the get-go.”
With the help of the Wi-Fi Alliance, Lennar is creating Wi-Fi “heat maps” for each of its floor plans, specifying where routers and wireless access points should reside. Routers and other gear are stored in RF-friendly plastic boxes, with Cat 6a cable run to WAP locations – from one to three, depending on the floor plan.
Per the spec, the WAPs must be accessible to the consumer, i.e., not up high on vaulted ceilings.
That way, says Kaiserman, “as [network] speeds grow, you can easily replace the access points.”
“They’re plumbing this in,” says Greg Rhoades, marketing director for Leviton, which helped develop the Wi-Fi spec and has supplied structured-wiring products for Lennar. “We’re really starting to see Wi-Fi being the fourth utility. Just as builders are laying out plumbing, gas and electric, they’re doing it for Wi-Fi.”
In addition to specifying “RF-friendly” wiring cabinets, the Wi-Fi Certified spec requires roaming capabilities for homes that have multiple access points.
For its part, Lennar is using networking gear from Ruckus, a brand known for commercial-grade quality.
The company expects to deploy the new Wi-Fi Certified architecture in more than 25,000 homes per year, beginning this summer.
Over-Reliance on Wireless is Bad
Home-technology integrators and the industry at large are cautiously applauding the Wi-Fi Certified initiative and Lennar’s implementation.
“It’s a great start,” says Walt Zerbe, senior director of Technology & Standards for CEDIA, the trade group that represents home-technology installers. “But I'm concerned 'certification' gives builders some kind of 'permission' to exclude wiring altogether.”
“On the one hand, it’s great to see home builders finally prewiring for wireless applications,” he says. “But even if Wi-Fi works fine today, it may not do so well when new products, services and applications like 4K video enter the home. Running category cable to strategic locations like Lennar is doing, may provide a level of assurance that Wi-Fi works … but only in the short run.”
Eventually, says Zerbe, RF interference could overwhelm the Wi-Fi network, given the already-crowded spectrum, noise-generation from within the home (e.g., microwave ovens), and competition from neighbors.
Wireless communications could become so prevalent – from many different sources – that the signals in any given household will be crippled by interference.
When the Wi-Fi fades, it might be tempting to simply install more powerful WAPs, says Zerbe, but “it’s a race to zero, as everyone else will turn up the power on their access points as well.”
So while home-technology experts appreciate the fact that Lennar and others are running a couple of Cat 6 cables to the ceiling, they worry that production builders will rely too heavily on wireless at the expense of a more reliable and future-ready wired infrastructure.
Their concerns are well founded.
Goodbye Cat 5/6 and Speaker Wire
For its part, Lennar will “value-engineer wiring runs in deference to more robust wireless,” Kaiserman says. “We’re at a point where wireless is robust enough.”
Lennar and other homebuilders are reducing prewires to the bare minimum. While Lennar used to run several Category cables throughout the house, the home builder is now running them only to one or two WAP locations and possibly the front door to power a video doorbell, according to integrators involved with the home builder. (Lennar was not ready to discuss the specifics of its home-technology roadmap, and plans certainly might change.)
Lennar is no longer running Cat 5/6 to home office locations or entertainment centers, where users might want to plug into reliable Internet for work, or stream 4K video content for fun.
Technology & Standards
As for those “additional Ethernet ports,” says Kaiserman, “we frankly have found that people use them less and less.”
Lennar will dispense with “wiring runs to locations that people originally thought they would use to plug in computers,” he says.
Bad call, according to Zerbe: “As more people ‘cut the cord’ they are relying on streaming content. Ethernet can handle the job far better than wireless, especially when it comes to higher resolutions like 4K.”
As for the home office, says Zerbe, “Telecommuters use video conferences, webinars and other demanding services that don't do well with quality of service over wireless. When it comes to doing business, you really can’t afford Wi-Fi dropouts.”
There’s also no accommodation in Lennar's plans for access points or IP cameras outside of the home. According to the 2017 CE Pro State of the Industry Study, outdoor technology is the seventh-fastest-growing product category among home-technology installers.
These installers provide security cameras in 54% of their outdoor jobs; under-eaves speakers in 42%; and outdoor access points in 38% — the top three outdoor technologies installed by low-voltage integrators, according to a recent CE Pro report.
“I don't want to carry a speaker in and out every time I want to hear music outdoors,” Zerbe says. “Give me some wires at the very least, and preferably some mounted speakers so I can move in and enjoy outdoor entertainment right away.”
That’s not going to happen in new Lennar homes, where speaker wire – both inside and outside – will be a thing of the past.
Lennar used to run speaker wire to in-wall locations for multiroom and surround-sound applications, but now the builder is omitting these wires and moving to all-wireless with Sonos.
When multichannel object-oriented sound (e.g., Atmos) and high-resolution audio become more popular, the wireless network could be sorely taxed.
Couple those bandwidth-intensive audio apps with 4K video streaming, and a wireless network may not cut it.
There’s another thing: not all connected products are wireless; some require a wired connection. These products would not be (readily) usable in an unwired home.
Furthermore, Category cable isn’t just for data exchange. It can be used to power electronics via Power over Ethernet (PoE) technology.
“Without a category wire, a home can't take advantage of that technology,” Zerbe says.
Lennar's not the only one
Lennar is not the only big production homebuilder embracing wireless at the expense of hardwiring.
Meritage is touting its “Advanced Wireless Home Automation Package,” with every new home including a “centralized location for the homeowner’s Wi-Fi modem.”
We don't know Meritage's wiring strategy at this time, but the #8 homebuilder sure is talking up Wi-Fi.
Brookfield Residential is pushing HomeKit technology in its new homes. We know the builder is cutting way back on custom-installed technologies, but at least the company claims to be installing Cat 6 cable in four locations in a new “gigabit” community in Los Angeles.
Coax Disappears, Too
At the same time, CE Pro has learned, Lennar is cutting way back on coax cable, running it only to two TV locations in most new homes (this plan, too, could change).
Interestingly, this comes at a time when coax will play an increasingly important role in the home.
Broadcasters are rolling out ATSC 3.0, a new platform for delivering over-the-top (OTT) video services for those who wish to dump traditional cable and satellite services.
These providers will offer 4K resolutions with HDR support, on-demand video, and interactive services that allow users to order tickets advertised in real-time, download content, and otherwise communicate with their service providers.
To keep these services robust and backwards-compatible, ATSC 3.0 is running over coax cable.
“Coax is needed at every potential TV location, as video delivery is on the brink of change,” Zerbe says. “TVs will require set-top boxes to deliver the program material, but more importantly the two-way data communication between the consumer and the services.”
To be fair, Lennar builds a huge volume of homes meant for entry-level buyers. For the sake of these buyers, Lennar is eliminating costs by reducing prewires, while enhancing the Wi-Fi network.
A ‘Disservice’ to Home Buyers
It is true, wireless today is far more robust than even five years ago, when Lennar and other production builders were wiring more generously, especially for unknown future technologies.
Even so, “it is still a technology designed to increase convenience at the expense of performance,” says Nathan Holmes, technical trainer for Access Networks, provider of networking products and services for the custom-installation channel.
“Any reduction of infrastructure wiring will severely limit which products and technologies a homeowner could utilize in the future,” he says. “For that reason, ‘wireless’ homes could lose value over the longer term. Future buyers will want those wires.”
Work-at-homers, for example, are likely to require highly reliable connections for video conferencing and bandwidth-intensive applications like virtual reality.
Obviously, mission-critical services like surveillance and digital health would benefit from wired communications, as well.
Finally, and importantly, wired connections can be more secure than wireless (not always). In this era of cyber-hacking, we might see a backlash among consumers who demand more secure (wired) networks.
Many of the high-bandwidth applications mentioned here might not apply to homeowners living in a Lennar home, but the move to “Wi-Fi Certified” could set an unfortunate precedent among the general population of home builders and dwellers. They will likely regret decisions to eliminate wiring.
“Families who are limited to only using wireless products will most likely never be able to enjoy the benefits of future technologies,” says Holmes, “or they will be required to remodel their entire home just to add a wired infrastructure that could have easily been there from the beginning.”
Lennar promises that “Wi-Fi Certified home designs enable today’s best smart and streaming products to operate at peak performance and are ready for the future as new technologies come to market.”
Quite the contrary, according to many home-technology experts. They argue that a Wi-Fi-friendly infrastructure should be just another prerequisite for future-ready homes. Eliminating wiring, on the other hand, ensures the homes most certainly are not prepared for new technologies.
At the end of the day, Zerbe says, “A Wi-Fi Certified network is a boon for today’s homeowners, but an over-reliance on wireless technology is a big disservice to new and future home buyers.”