Smart Home Device Communication In The Era Of Hyperconnectivity

Several wireless protocols are competing to connect home automation devices. Can they work together?


In our increasingly hyperconnected world, a fascinating area to watch is what I would call “the last 100 feet, give or take.” There are many standards like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, or Thread used for IoT device connectivity. There are very active discussions about how our smart devices should be allowed to talk to other resources, like our neighbor’s Wi-Fi. In the IoT’s municipal and industrial world, we have LoRaWan, NB-IoT, LTE-M, LPWA, Wi-SUN, and variations of 5G like 5G-NR-Lite. And then, there are several alternative technologies for broadband connections to keep homes and factories connected. How do we consumers make sense of it all? What are the implications on privacy and security?

The idea to look deeper into the topic came during a recent trip along the California coastline. We were driving up, to be precise, from Paso Robles. We found a telephone booth at Nepenthe during a stop in Big Sur. It was connected and working, and I would have tried it just for sentimental reasons, but I had no quarters on me.

Source: Frank Schirrmeister

In light of this discovery, the conversation with my tech-friend shifted from AI’s impact on our lives to hyperconnectivity. Cool phones with a booth like the one above aside, by CDC estimates, 61.8% of US adults were wireless-only in 2020.

My landline is gone too, and as to internet access, I am about to return the device I received as a trial for 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) for the home. I am spoiled by my cable provider where I’m getting 1Gbps down / 40Mbps up, so the max of 300Mbps that FWA theoretically could get me isn’t competitive in my area. And in reality, I am only getting about 40 to 50Mbps, so tethering my 5G phone as a wireless hotspot for emergencies is the more affordable option. The other cable—fiber—would get symmetric access for much faster uploads as well. The area in which my tech-friend lives actually offers that option, but two reasons held him back. First, the provider only allows their cloud-managed modem, no pre-verified custom modems, for support reasons. Second, that fiber provider does not allow you to switch off the “feature” with which the modem creates a custom wireless network for other customers. Yep, my cable provider has that “feature,” too, but I can switch it off.

So, for fixed installations like our houses, cable and fiber is the way to go, if available. But there is, of course, a significant market for FWA in areas where a cable connection isn’t feasible.

But, what about “the last 100 feet, give or take?”

Well, in the area of home automation, a lot is going on. In a recent webinar called, “IoT connectivity: Wi-Fi vs. Bluetooth vs. Everything Else,” Omdia compared four connectivity options and concluded that they are all appropriate in their own right:

  • Wi-Fi is the most ubiquitous wireless networking technology. Hence, it is a good choice for the hubless operation of IoT applications with an ideal bandwidth for video applications. Wi-Fi 4 is getting a second life as IoT connectivity for battery-powered devices like video doorbells and security cameras as they require moderate bandwidth. Wi-Fi 5 is the default for mainstream devices. Wi-Fi 6 adoption is in its early stages and uses the newly available 6GHz band.
  • Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), introduced in 2011, is becoming popular for command/control and low-rate data transfer. Classic Bluetooth remains dominant in audio streaming. BLE audio may replace classic audio over the next decade, enabling longer battery life, smaller form factors and advanced audio features.
  • Zigbee has been in use since 2003, and is most prevalent in lighting, home automation and access control.
  • Thread was created to bring native IP operation to low-power mesh networks using standardized global internet protocols. Adoption has been very slow since the release of the standard in 2014.

Architecting the smart home isn’t trivial at all. Who hasn’t had a situation in which a family member said, “Let me move closer to the Wi-Fi”? That’s where a mesh comes in, allowing better broadband throughout the home (I need to update my mesh as it limits my 1Gbps bandwidth to 300Mbps). Omdia describes a future in which you have one pod per room, and that pod also talks to all other protocols.

Source: Omdia, Qorvo, RFMW, IoT connectivity: Wi-Fi vs. Bluetooth vs. Everything Else

An abstraction layer hides the complexity from you and me, the consumers, with the technology called Matter. It leaves the network and transport layer to the core technologies above and presents the devices to the ecosystems and cloud. If done right, this means that my Ring cameras and alarm system, my Nest climate control, and my Govee temperature sensors could all talk equally well within the application ecosystems.

Matter is an evolution of Zigbee’s project, CHIP, so there seems to be a natural connection. And some tech heavyweights were involved in its creation back in 2019. Not surprisingly, this is a crowded space. Google seems to support Thread and could/would by extension support Matter. SmartThings and Hubitat are other alternatives. And a thread called “Future Hubitat CHIP support“, on the Hubitat support page, is quite instructive as to some of the potential technical hurdles of a combined system.

Only time will tell which comes out on top. I will leave the IoT’s municipal and industrial world with LoRaWan, NB-IoT, LTE-M, LPWA, Wi-SUN, and variations of 5G like 5G-NR-Lite for a future blog post. Still, different clusters like massive IoT, broadband IoT and critical IoT are emerging in this domain.

Use models, driven by consumer and industrial application needs, will drive the adoption of these different areas and their preferred communication methods. This, again, paints an exciting future for the semiconductor, EDA, and computational software industries, especially for semiconductor IP and tools that make sense of system and architecture design.

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