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Smart Home

5G and the promise of a smart home makeover

5G has the potential to reduce complexity and improve performance across the smart home. But not every company is ready to talk about it.

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The smart home isn't going 5G anytime soon. 

The coming move to 5G will affect phones, cars, movies and even small-town American government. What about the smart home? A pervasive, high-bandwidth, low-latency network sounds great on paper. With all those connected locks, light switches and other smart household products fragmented both by software platforms and wireless communication standards, 5G seems like it has the potential to alleviate some of the confusion around smart home connectivity.

But the smart home players aren't ready to feed into the hype quite yet. 

Judging by the many "no comments" I received when I asked various device makers about 5G, not everyone is ready to commit to a path ahead for the next-generation technology in the smart home. Those willing to go on the record described some potential for 5G as a boost to delivery of services like security monitoring, as well as generally making it easier for consumers to get their smart-home devices online.

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The reaction runs counter to others in the tech world, who await 5G with open arms. The technology, which promises a faster and more responsive network, is seen as a foundation for other trends such as self-driving cars, streaming virtual and augmented reality and the internet of things. 

AT&T is expected to launch the first mobile 5G network later this year, with other carriers going live next year. The service will be more broadly available in 2020 as the carriers race to turn on these networks in each city. 

Cleaning up an ocean of standards

A relatively straightforward smart home configuration can involve multiple networking standards. 

Philips Hue bulbs connect to their own hub via Zigbee, and from there to your home Wi-Fi router. An August Smart Lock uses Bluetooth to connect the lock to a separate August Connect Wi-Fi bridge device. Smart plugs from companies like Belkin and iHome often create their own Wi-Fi networks for their initial setup, then require you to switch them over to your Wi-Fi network to use them. For the typical consumer, creating even a basic smart home setup is a daunting proposition.

"What would guarantee a paradigm shift would be the ability to effortlessly bring disparate devices together," said Blake Kozak, principal analyst at IHS Markit. "A large proportion of consumer complaints stem from installation challenges to devices not being reliable, e.g. scenes not working, high latency even in local control and lack of control when scenes are performing but broken."

5G, with its ability to handle more connected devices, could be an answer down the line. 

But while 5G could provide some consistency across smart home networking standards, it's not a panacea due to a familiar problem: battery life. 

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The August Smart Lock and its Connect WiFi bridge accessory.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

"The part of 5G that's most relevant to IoT product and smart locks are the low-power, wide-area network [LPWAN] proposals," said Christopher Dow, chief technology officer of August. 

LPWAN is a way to connect sensors and other devices with minimal power and bandwidth requirements directly to the internet, bypassing a consumer-managed home Wi-Fi network.

"Access points can get unplugged and internet service can go down or be intermittent," said Dow. Adding 5G to smart-home devices could make the smart home more reliable, which helps consumers as well as providers of services, like alarm monitoring companies. It could also make setup easier. A 5G-enabled device could automatically configure itself to a reliable, pervasive cellular network with minimal user involvement. 

The catch here is power consumption. As Dow pointed out, the transmission power for the various proposals ranges from 100 to 500 milliwatts -- that is, somewhere between two and 10 times the power consumption of the Bluetooth LE radios in August Smart Locks. For that reason, his company sees the potential only being realized for devices connected to power sources that can handle that level of consumption for a reasonable amount of time. And at the moment, that doesn't include devices that run on consumer-installed replaceable batteries.

"They simply don't store enough energy to handle that amount of power consumption and be convenient for consumers," he said.

In other words, 5G wouldn't be a good fit for August Smart Locks due to the power draw, but it might work on a powered device like the August Connect Bridge. 

A lag-free experience

Beyond potentially streamlining at least some of the connectivity hassle, some smart home device makers also see 5G enabling improved performance for smart home devices. 

Discussing 5G and its impact on home security cameras, Naveen Chhangani, senior director of product and services at smart home camera maker Arlo, said, "This technology [offers] very low latency." Network latency is a measure of the time it takes for a server or some other connection on a network to respond to a transmission from another device on the network. "Let's say somebody's at your front door and you want to get a notification. every single second there counts." 

5G can technically hit around 1- or 2-millisecond response times. A home wireless connection to the internet will usually be 10 to 100 times less responsive. That faster response time would let your smart home devices trigger notifications and device-to-device automation routines in a more seamless fashion, giving you more time to respond to the real-world events triggering those notifications, or otherwise helping your connected home function more smoothly.

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The Arlo Go LTE security camera.

Chris Monroe/CNET

I reached out to seven or eight hardware manufacturers for this story, and only Arlo and August were willing to go on record. That doesn't negate the input from August and Arlo. Rather than hearing a simple request to discuss a technology broadly, sometimes PR people hear a request to probe about specific future unannounced products, which is verboten. 

Fair enough, but if their competition has an answer, eventually those companies will need to have one of their own, too. 

It will also be a while before 5G takes over in any broad fashion for any category. We still need the infrastructure in place before device makers are willing to roll out new products. When it does come to the smart home, I expect we'll see it at first replace the 4G LTE-based functions we have today, like backup communication for security systems in case your Wi-Fi network goes down, or in cameras. 

Arlo uses 4G LTE in some of its home security cameras, letting you install them in places your Wi-Fi network may not reach. The best thing 5G could do for the smart home category as a whole would probably be a combination of the "paradigm shift" Kozak mentions in its potential to simplify the mess of connectivity standards, and making setup easier along the lines of Dowd's automatic device recognition scenario.

We'll know more once more device makers are willing to talk.

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