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Chris Monroe/CNET

5G is here. Does it matter for your smart home?

5G cellular service isn't showing up in smart lights and plugs yet, but you might start to see it at the fringes of smart home tech.

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The 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 might seem like it has the potential to alleviate some of the confusion around smart home connectivity.

I asked various smart home device makers this question back in 2018 and received a tepid response, along with a lot of "no comments." Those willing to go on the record described some potential for 5G as a boost to delivery of services such as security monitoring, as well as generally making it easier for people to get their smart-home devices online.

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If the enthusiasm for a 5G smart home in 2018 was limited when the network was still emerging, the responses I received this week were even less bullish. That runs counter to others in the tech world, who are embracing 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 on the industrial level. 

When I first wrote this story, AT&T was on track to be the first carrier to launch a 5G network in the US. Now all the major carriers in the US have flipped on 5G support. Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Google and pretty much every other smartphone-maker has a 5G phone available at multiple price points. You can also find 5G mobile hotspots from the various carriers. 5G is officially here. Now that it is, will the smart home use it?

An ocean of standards

Smart home connection tech is getting better, but it can still involve a hodgepodge of networking standards. 

If you're using Philips Hue bulbs from the last few years, you'll likely know that they connect to their own hub via Zigbee, and from there to your home Wi-Fi router. Until the release of its Wi-Fi version this year, an August Smart Lock might use Bluetooth to connect the lock to a separate August Connect Wi-Fi bridge device. Smart plugs from companies like Belkin and TP-Link often create their own Wi-Fi networks for their initial setup, then require you to switch them over to your home's Wi-Fi network to use them. 

Recent streamlining like the Wi-Fi-only versions of the August Lock, Philips bulbs and other devices, and an integrated Zigbee receiver in the new Amazon Echo smart speaker has made things easier, but for the typical consumer, creating even a basic smart home setup is a daunting proposition.

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The August Smart Lock and its Connect WiFi bridge accessory.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

"What would guarantee a paradigm shift would be the ability to effortlessly bring disparate devices together," Blake Kozak, senior principal analyst at Omdia told me back in 2018. "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."

When I reached back out to Kozak for this update, he had a different take. 

"Although 5G would alleviate consumer pain points around fixed wireless internet speeds, connectivity to the home has less impact than connectivity inside the home from a smart home perspective, because consumers running heavy bandwidth products, like 4K security cameras, remains a small part of the market. Consequently, Wi-Fi 6 would likely have more impact on smart home reliability compared to 5G. Meanwhile, smart home service providers and device makers are actively looking to expand and enhance locally controlled (edge-based) devices, meaning more processing of smart home data is being done in the home and on devices, rather than the cloud. If this trend to reduce cloud-based processing continues to strengthen, then I would expect the impact of 5G on the smart home market to be stymied even more."  

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What about 5G providing consistency across smart home networking standards? George Yianni, Head of Technology for Philips Hue sums it up for his products thusly.

"We do not expect 5G to be transformative for consumer smart home devices like smart light bulbs in the short term since the lifetime cost will be prohibitive compared to local or personal area networks such as WiFi, ZigBee or Bluetooth. These technologies do not need to leverage carrier networks but are fully self-contained to users' immediate surroundings or home. This removes the need for service charges, and the technologies are currently cheaper on a chip level.

Technologies such as ZigBee also use mesh networking technology, which turns every device into a signal repeater, meaning coverage is not an issue even in large houses. Finally, the amount of data these devices need to operate is extremely small, so the speed benefits of 5G are not relevant. 

If, over time, 5G drives consumers away from have a central Internet connection to the home, then it could create the need to adopt cellular connectivity in a central bridge device in the home. But it is high unlikely it will end up in light bulbs directly."  

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Don't expect to see a 5G in a Philips Hue smart bulb any time soon.

Dale Smith/CNET

Can I borrow a cup of bandwidth?

"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 when I asked him in 2018.    

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. Amazon Sidewalk, the networking technology rolling out later in 2020 from the Echo speaker maker, is perhaps the most public example. 

Sidewalk is designed to bridge the gap between devices around your neighborhood. The idea is that if you have a security camera that's a little too far away from your router for a strong connection, Sidewalk's 900Mhz signal can transmit the signal to a Sidewalk enabled-device, an Echo speaker, for example, to get it more solidly on your network. It can also slice of a portion of your neighbor's Wi-Fi signal and connect to the cloud that way, all while keeping your data and your neighbor's data separate. With that kind of range, Amazon imagines whole Sidewalk-enabled neighborhoods boosting devices signals for each other. 

A diagram of Sidewalk's data transmission process from Amazon's September product event. 

Amazon

Sidewalk, in other words, addresses some of the problems that 5G might solve, using existing Echo and Ring devices at no additional cost to Amazon's customers. That doesn't mean Amazon isn't interested in 5G. "We want to bring services to more customers inside and outside of the home, and those experiences will all benefit from faster, more reliable networks," told me a person familiar with the company's plans. "It's not exclusive to smart home, but one example would be for entertainment, where we're looking at ways in which 5G can work for things like cloud gaming and embedded connectivity."

When I asked about 5G and Sidewalk in particular, this blog post came up, which refers to 5G as "incredibly important when you need reliable, long distance, guaranteed delivery of data, but it can be complex." It goes on to promote the virtues of Sidewalk. 

5G as a backup system

As Dow pointed out in 2018, "access points can get unplugged and internet service can go down or be intermittent." Adding 5G to smart-home devices could ensure uptime, which helps consumers as well as providers of services, like alarm monitoring companies. 

The catch here is power consumption. Dow underscored that 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 a Bluetooth LE radio. For that reason, Dow and August see 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. It's also not great as battery-powered solution in case of a power failure, but it might be appropriate on a device with constant power like a hot spot, or a router with cellular back-up capability.

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The Arlo Go LTE security camera.

Chris Monroe/CNET

It 5G does have a role to play in the smart home, I expect now as I did in 2018 that it will 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. Amazon Sidewalk promises that same functionality, but if your Wi-Fi network goes down, or your the network in your neighborhood is disrupted, it would likely take your smart home down with it. A cellular back-up would keep you online. That's a niche that could be important for some consumers. For now, that's probably where 5G will stay.

Originally published two years ago. Updated with new commentary and analysis. 

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