Loss of Connectivity in the Smart Home

12 June 2019

Parks Associates, a consumer electronics market research firm, released a report highlighting the problems that owners of smart home devices experience.

At the top of the list is “loss of connectivity”.

Stating the obvious, problems in smart home devices are not a good thing for the smart home industry. They lead to customer frustration, to product returns, to increased support costs, and to reduced enthusiasm to buy additional smart home devices.

But assuming that the initial installation was successful and that the network parameters have not changed, what’s causing loss of connectivity?

One obvious source is a dead battery. Many smart home devices use batteries and these batteries need to be replaced often. As much as manufacturers work to reduce power consumption, there is finite capacity in the battery and when it runs out, there is no more connectivity.

This dovetails with what we’re hearing from providers of home security systems that offer a service contract. They say that the most common reason people call for service is ‘low battery’ and the second most common reason is ‘sensor offline’ which usually means ‘no battery’.

Another possible source is a weak signal. In an effort to save power, manufacturers might reduce the signal level their devices are emitting. Depending on the location of the smart home device relative to the network hub, this signal level may have been borderline during installation but over time dropped below an acceptable threshold.

A third possible source is the use of Zigbee or Bluetooth. Because WiFi is power-hungry, some manufacturers opt to use a low-power and short-range communication protocol and then to augment it with some kind of powered gateway or repeater that then amplifies the signal. This extra gateway is another possible failure point.

Wireless power can certainly help. It can provide a never-ending supply of energy, thus eliminating the need to replace batteries. It can provide plenty of power to send out a stronger signal as well as to eliminate the gateway and directly send WiFi (or, in the future, 5G) signal. Beyond better customer experience, eliminating the gateway can also reduce equipment costs and simplify installs.

Manufacturers would be well-advised to explore wireless power option as a way to improve the customer experience in two ways: 1) eliminate avoidable problems and 2) add much-desired features that were left out because of power constraints

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