Ten years ago when wireless started knocking on the smart home door it almost looked like all those messy cables and wires were quickly headed for extinction.
Certainly all those ads saying, “look ma, no wires”, and headlines suggesting the end of Ethernet cables helped push the impression, particularly for consumers, that our homes wouldn’t need a lot of extra infrastructure.
Not any more. Despite major advances in what wireless can do at home and on the go, there now appears to be a growing consensus that the networked home works best with a combination of technologies.
“We always suggest our clients put in the wiring if at all possible,” Len Wallis says. “But the reality is most of our projects end up being a combination of wired and wireless.”
Len Wallis Audio is one of the country’s oldest home networking specialists, having recently celebrated its 31st anniversary.
“I think there’s a perceived sexiness surrounding wireless by customers, but it always seems to be playing catch-up with wire.
“The technological demands being put on our homes keep changing and a wired backbone gives a much better chance of being able to accommodate what’s coming.”
It’s an opinion shared by a lot of other people with an interest in home technology. A quick poll of IT, home automation and home entertainment companies across the country finds a similar take on today’s smart home: wireless provides the convenience and mobility, but wires still deliver the best performance, security and reliability.
The signs that the networked home was never going to be built around just one technology were obvious years ago.
One of the world’s first, detailed reviews of the future home was undertaken in 2004 by the Copper Development Centre and the University of Sydney’s Warren Centre, based on a series of high-level workshops around the country.
The subsequent ‘road map’, which has now been replicated in other countries, found that home connectivity would become the single, biggest housing trend by 2020, but delivered, it said, over both wired and wireless options.
Australia’s leading science agency, the CSIRO, agrees pointing out that their research into more intelligent living spaces is being done over a range of technologies.
“We don’t care how it’s done, just so long as we have the ability to embed home intelligence,” a spokesperson said.
It’s not hard to see why wires and cables haven’t gone out of fashion, given that the technology for how we work and play at home keeps on shifting.
For a start, our homes will soon need a lot more capacity to handle high-bandwidth streaming media. The phenomenal success of sites like YouTube, which after only four years now has more than 70 million visitors each month, will soon feel like a mere glimpse of what’s coming.
Internet TV, HD video, consumer telepresence, teleconferencing and visual networking are the next major trends and will require houses to have a much higher capacity to receive and distribute rich digital content.
In fact, Telstra says it will soon start delivering speeds of 100Mbps in major cities over its hybrid fibre cable, while its Next G mobile network promises to lift speeds to 42Mbps from the current 14.4Mbps.
Even the much scrutinised, and hyped, National Broadband Network announced in April this year is expected to deliver a minimum of 12Mbps to 98% of the country by 2013.
While Japan already has average speeds of 63.6Mbps and South Korea 49.5Mbps (Korea is aiming for 1Gbps by 2012), it’s clear the world is rushing to embrace much faster communication technologies at home.
All of that creates a challenge for wireless, which traditionally has not been able to deliver the same sorts of performance as wire, although that can depend on who you ask or which media release you read.
Up until now, wired speeds have been roughly four times faster than wireless depending on a range of factors, like distance, but it’s a rapidly changing scene with both technologies continuing to make incredible advances.
Certainly that was true of the existing copper telephone network, which got its first cyber boost with ADSL and then jumped 20 times faster with ADSL2+.
Just recently, an Australian PhD researcher discovered it was possible to deliver broadband speeds up to 200 times faster over the existing telephone line.
We’ve also seen Cat5 home cabling morph into Cat6, and then Cat7. New research in the US is even promising Cat8, and the recent appearance of 10Gbps ‘advanced’ Ethernet chipsets and hardware has added yet another layer to the speed debate.
But wireless is no slouch. The latest wireless networking standard, known as the decidedly unsexy IEEE.11n, may not have been approved yet but is obviously faster and more adaptable than its predecessors.
And it doesn’t look like stopping there. Wireless open-access research platform (WARP) can transfer data 100 times faster than 3G, according to its developer Rice University’s Centre for Multimedia Communication.
The sheer proliferation of wireless formats is also a sign of healthy innovation. WiFi and WiMax might be the most well known in terms of product support and roll out, but there’s a whole host of other wireless-based options including Zigbee, Z-Wave Bluetooth and ultra-wide band increasingly being embedded into home components.
Market analysts ABI Research estimates wireless connectivity products will hit 700 million by 2013 and that 802.11n Wi-Fi access points will grow from 6 million to 88 million in the same period.
While led by smart phones, with 44% percent of smart phones already having access to WiFi, and increasingly laptops, the number of home networking products and other appliances using wireless keeps on growing.
In the last twelve months we’ve seen a raft of control, lighting, security and home entertainment components enter the market, such as Lutron’s single room wireless controller, Black & Decker’s security system and Cisco’s new wireless music system, to name just a few.
And of course smart phones like Apple’s iPhone now come with applications that let you manage and control many of these components remotely.
The recent Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas acted as a showcase for a range of products in which WiFi seemed to come embedded in nearly everything, from radios to media servers to digital photo frames, a trend that industry analysts say is just going to accelerate.
“Wireless has great portability, as well as convenience, where having wires just isn’t possible,” Clipsal Integrated Systems sector manager Simon Wehr says.
“But for all the new features that we will access at home, like the continual improvements in high definition video, a wired solution is still our recommendation.
“Increasingly, though, a lot of home networking and home entertainment will be done via IP and that will mean complete flexibility about how to manage and control components.”
It probably means that the new networked home will come with a lot more ability to adapt to new technologies, trends and, most importantly, individual tastes. It also looks like mixing technologies will allow residents to access their homes wherever they might be.
Certainly that’s how Telstra sees the way we’ll live at home evolving.
According to Telstra product management managing director Holly Kramer, ensuring a mix of technologies at home is the big trend.
“Most homes and families want a hybrid mix of access technologies,” she says.
“While a fixed wired access is ideal because of reliability, the use of wireless routers and products around the house provides flexibility and mobility. And that’s what consumers want now.”