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Your smart-home network will be a mess

Plan for stress and confusion as smoke detectors, power meters, security cameras, fridges and more gain brains and then try to interact

Light bulbs, refrigerators, sprinklers and door locks soon will be a lot smarter. Too bad they'll have trouble talking to each other.

Welcome to the chaotic underside of the smart-home vision, once all those humble devices start trying to communicate over a hodgepodge of wireless network standards. Some you've heard of, like the Wi-Fi that links your laptop to the Internet and the Bluetooth that connects your wireless headset to your phone. Other standards you probably don't recognize include ZigBee, Z-Wave and Thread. And for the most part, they don't get along.

At this week's CES tech show in Las Vegas, backers of various network technologies promised improvements to make it easier to tie everything together. Except for an alliance between ZigBee and Thread, however, none of that progress included compatibility among the different standards.

That means your power meter from one company might not be able to dim your lights from another, your smoke detector may not be able to shut off your toaster, and your car may not be able to open your garage door -- at least not without extra equipment that bridges networks.

"It's going to be extremely messy," said Forrester analyst Frank Gillett.

Still, he's bullish on smart homes and the broader concept called the Internet of Things, a grand unifying theory in which all manner of everyday objects can and should be connected and constantly communicating with you and with one another. As computing and network technology gets smaller and cheaper, it's extending all the way to street lights, refrigerated trucks, toys and much more.

Until things shake out, consumers likely will have to deal with what IHS analyst Lee Ratliff calls the "wild west period of smart-home connectivity." This could mean buying multiple network routers, purchasing newfangled routers that bridge one standard to another, or making do with smart-home devices that just don't work together.

Turning to Bluetooth

At CES, backers of different networks touted advances to their technologies. One is startup Cassia Networks, which hopes to boost Bluetooth beyond its current gadget-to-gadget role of pairing earbuds to phones and keyboards to laptops. At the tech show, the company revealed its technology and first products: a $100 hub that can link many Bluetooth devices, a $100 speaker, a $30 LED light bulb with tunable colors and a $30 power plug switch that controls non-smart devices plugged into it.

Cassia's Bluetooth-powered smart-home products include, from left, an emergency help pager, a hub that can broadcast and detect Bluetooth signals, a speaker, a remote-controlled power switch and a light bulb. Cassia Networks

Bluetooth has limited range, especially when blocked by walls and other obstructions, but Cassia's hub overcomes those limits by broadcasting radio signals at higher power and with antenna and signal-processing technology to receive signals from Bluetooth devices. It's a stretch, but "with our new technology, Bluetooth actually has a little bit better range than Wi-Fi at home," said Felix Zhao, Cassia's founder and chief executive.

The reason the company picked Bluetooth was its extremely low power consumption, Zhao said. "Bluetooth will become the enabling standard for the Internet of Things, just like Wi-Fi became the enabling technology for high-speed communication at home."

Low-power Wi-Fi

Meanwhile, the Wi-Fi Alliance, which promotes the 802.11 family of wireless networking standards and certifies devices that use them, has a new low-power alternative to Bluetooth. At CES, it began promoting HaLow, its name for the 802.11ah standard that should be finished by mid-2016.

The 802.11ah standard, being branded as HaLow, sends radio signals over the 900MHz frequency band that penetrates walls better than today's higher-frequency Wi-Fi signals at 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Qualcomm

HaLow carries Wi-Fi signals nearly twice as far as conventional Wi-Fi today by using a lower frequency of radio broadcasting. Crucially, it consumes so little power that a Net-connected smoke alarm could use it for years on one battery, said Kevin Robinson, vice president of marketing Wi-Fi Alliance.

It's slower than the modern Wi-Fi in laptops and phones, but its range extends to all corners of most houses, and it lets devices connect directly to the Internet. HaLow is geared for smart-home and Internet of Things devices, but also it's a good supplement for today's Wi-Fi for businesses and schools that need network access on patios and between buildings, Robinson said.

Other options

ZigBee isn't as well known a standard, but it's got some advantages, including "mesh" networking that shuttles messages from device to device. That can help extend a network to corners of a building that a central network router's radio signals can't reach.

One fan is lighting and electronics maker Philips, which uses ZigBee to control its Hue lights. ZigBee, though, isn't built into phones and laptops the way Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are, raising a barrier to adoption. At the same time, the Bluetooth standards group is working on adding mesh networking support too.

At CES, the ZigBee Alliance announced a move to accommodate another lesser-known option, Thread, backed by Samsung and by Google's Nest, among others.

"Those two standards getting together could create something better than either of them," said IHS' Ratliff.

But rarely is technological progress orderly. In the 1990s, the Web wiped out online destinations like CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online. In the last decade, smartphones powered by Apple and Google software stole the limelight in a computing world previously dominated by PCs built on Microsoft and Intel products.

"I'm afraid we're looking at many, many, many years of many standards, consumer confusion, market confusion," Ratliff said of today's smart-home network options. "That, however, is a healthy process. It's natural selection."


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