Moving beyond the hype

By Lawrence McKenna*
Thursday, 03 May, 2018

Moving beyond the hype

Australian homes are expected to have over 300 million connected devices by 2021, according to technology research firm Telsyte. The smart home revolution is sweeping the world, but is there more hype than reality?

Many stories are created by snake oil salesmen to target customers that do not understand smart homes. Federal and state governments want smart technology-based industries and businesses but do they know how to encourage innovation and changes to drive economic growth in the age of Industry 2.0.

Smart homes don’t operate in isolation — they are part of an integrated web of outcomes that are critically dependent on external factors. To provide a better understanding of smart homes, let us discuss — what’s a smart home; what it isn’t; what is needed for a thriving smart home industry; benefits of smart homes; hurdles of building smart homes in brownfield sites as well as greenfield sites.

Smart home vs home automation

A home with security, lighting, heating and air conditioning, door intercom, entertainment audio and video systems on separate panels and systems is not a smart home. That is simply home automation. This has been around since the 1980s. Unfortunately, this does not stop ‘used-car’ style of salespersons profiting from home buyers/home owners.

A smart home is a residence with devices — such as appliances, lighting, heating, air conditioning, television sets, computers, entertainment audio and video systems, security, and camera systems — that are capable of communicating with one another, across a single, integrated communications network (ICN), and can be controlled from anywhere, with any device. A smart home requires connectivity between all the equipment and systems in a building.

Smart home and IoT technology solutions need to be people-centric, offer safety and comfort, and improve the quality of human life. This can be achieved by automating the mundane, for example, managing people’s health, helping achieve work-life balance, helping with managing time in a time-poor lifestyle.  So what’s next?

The next stage is a cognitive home — a home where all the day-to-day household tasks, family member scheduling and task coordination, and family member-work coordination is automated and semi-managed by artificial intelligence (AI). The next generation of homes can become a reality by incorporating a smart home with ICN. All of this will happen in the 2020s.

In 2016, there were around 9 million private dwellings in Australia, each with 2.6 occupants on average. The number of dwellings is growing at 1.4% a year, ie, 126,000 a year. In the 2020s, around 10 million homes will be looking to turn into smart homes, then cognitive homes. This growing demand of smart home services and solutions would lead to creation of around 50,000 small business in Australia. But what services would these small businesses focused on the smart home industry provide? I expect successful businesses to:

  • design and install cabling and infrastructure for homes. Businesses must have electrical and registered cabler capabilities;
  • build an ICN and integrate different systems in to an ICN. These businesses must have networking capability;
  • install and configure the various appliances, lighting control, heating, air-conditioning control, television sets, computers, entertainment audio and video systems, security, and camera systems. These services can be provided by home automation and entertainment systems integrators;
  • provide smart home ‘design and construct’ services with a contract to manage/upgrade services over a fixed period, eg, five years, 10 years.

Before you start a new smart home business, you need to ask yourself, where do the opportunities lie? This brings me back to my earlier statement — smart homes are part of an integrated web of outcomes that are critically dependent on external factors. This leads to the ‘Laurie Paradox’ — that’s another article in itself, but I’ve summarised it in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

The Australian smart home industry needs Gate 1, Gate 2 and Gate 3 open for business before the environment exists for the creation of a new technology-based industry, let alone 50,000 small businesses around smart homes that can grow and flourish. Not factoring in the new business opportunities around IoT and automation innovation. It is amazing what one can do with a Raspberry Pi.

Unfortunately, only the Commonwealth Government can deal with Gates 1, 2 and 3. While ideology undermines common-sense and good engineering, Australia will be significantly behind the rest of the world in the 2020s. The damage has been done and it will take a decade to reverse course. It’s important to note that Kazakhstan rates higher in broadband throughput, etc than Australia. The modelling that I have done indicates that from 2022, 2.6% of the workforce will be impacted by automation, year on year. New industry sectors in technology will be desperately needed. Unfortunately, due to artificial intelligence (AI) and automation and the issues mentioned in the three ‘Gates’, the foundation required to create new industries will not be in place until the mid to late 2020s. It is expected that Australia may be the only country globally to suffer a digital recession, due to the compound negative effects of automation on employment.

Smart homes in brownfield sites

My two-storey home is around 20 years old and has three roof voids. As a tradesperson and an engineer, I decided to install an ICN into a brownfield environment in December. I needed to understand the issues of the smart home integrated communications network, ie, what worked; what did not work; what kind of training would unskilled workforce require; what products worked and did not work; costs etc — from a practical perspective. So, what did I learn?

J-hooks: They were used as the cable pathways. They cost around $350 per box, and it took my 9-year-old daughter and myself one day to get these done. It was easy to move the cable pathway around existing services.

Maintenance walkway: This was something that I did not consider until halfway through the project — until I found my 16-year-old son hanging through the ceiling while assisting me in hauling cable. He had lost concentration. It cost us $600 in materials and my 9-year-old daughter and I completed the project in two days.

Cabling: I have secured cabling samples, connectors and other tools from many manufacturers. I, along with my two sons, evaluated and understood the termination method, quality, simplicity and variance in termination and test results. Reichle & De-Massari were preferred for smart home ICN infrastructure — they accommodated my small order and supplied the required cable, connectors and tools.

Separation: I used F/UTP, with appropriate polyethylene (PE). The cost of running cables through the walls was in the order of $1500–$2000. This is not a viable or cost-effective solution. The impact to the home owner and the greater economy does justify routing of walls to maintain separation. The running of duct on the outside of a finished wall is not a viable solution, even though it meets current regulations. It looks terrible and devalues the property. With nine million existing residences, ACMA, Communications Alliance and industry will need to address this problem intelligently and pragmatically.

Communications room: I was fortunate that the house had store room under the stairs that could be turned into communications room. 12 RU rack solution that I filled quite quickly. I found that a small rack could not be avoided. For single-storey dwelling, a swing-down rack from the ceiling in the hallway would be my recommended solution. nbn will need to review their standards/specifications to support smart home equipment racks and communications room.

Smart home: greenfield

As fate would have it, the family is now looking to sell the house and build a new one. I wish I had known this earlier. While looking over plans, more plans and then more plans, and weekend inspections, it has become quite evident that house designs and intent have not changed in 90 years.

My first hurdle is securing a communications room in a hub location that can distribute cabling. The second hurdle is access and replacement of cables. F/UTP will become obsolete in the early 2030s. The third hurdle is getting the home Li-Fi ready. The last hurdle is space in the first floor ceiling to support PAoIP speakers and a future Li-Fi/LED lighting system etc. I have three months to sort these engineering issues out. I would be pleased to keep you updated next year on my learnings. Until then — enjoy life!

*Lawrence McKenna is the Telecommunications Section Manager at Wood & Grieve Engineers, and is also the Deputy Chair – Engineers Australia VicITEE, and Director – BICSI South Pacific. Lawrence is a highly qualified Specialist Telecommunications and ICT Engineer with over 25 years of industry experience. Lawrence’s career started with Queensland Rail as a radio apprentice. His experience includes voice networking (incl. PABXs, regional-wide networks), telecommunication and transmission networks (optical fibre and microwave radio), structured cabling designs, WAN/CANs, LANs, audiovisual systems, security systems and various radiocommunication systems. Lawrence is a member of the Standards Australia (Standards development) CT-001 (Communications Cabling), CT-002 (Broadcasting and related services), the ITU-T SG5 working group and the ITU-R ARSG-5 working group.

Top image credit: ©

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