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Can we talk? Internet of Things vendors face a communications 'mess'

Patrick Thibodeau | April 21, 2014
Vendors will tell you that the Internet of Things (IoT) has arrived. We're here to tell you that it hasn't.

Matt McGovern, marketing manager at Nexia, says the company is agnostic about communications protocols and is watching the market. If Nexia has to expand protocol support, using the cloud as a bridge to other protocols is a possibility. But for now, "we know what works for us and what works for customers," he said.

The communication protocol that may get the most attention over the next two years is Bluetooth Low Energy or Bluetooth Smart, its marketing name.

One potentially disruptive technology could come from CSR, a semiconductor company in Cambridge, England, that announced in February that it had developed a mesh technology for Bluetooth.

Paul Williamson, CSR's director of low-power wireless, said the intent was to expand Bluetooth Smart capability beyond just a few devices to broad network of them, allowing a single smartphone or set-top box to address "thousands of nodes within a large building infrastructure."

In principle, "there is no need for a bridge if you are directly in the environment controlling the device," said Williamson.

What drives the need for bridges is a desire to give people the ability to control products from a distance, such as when they're at work or on the road. But even in that case, Williamson doesn't believe consumers will necessarily have to purchase separate bridges; he expects bridges to more likely be something like set-top boxes or other devices that already exist.

Indeed, the companies that may have the biggest impact on home networking are familiar ones. Cable TV set-top box providers could embed home automation radios in their devices. (In 2012, Comcast said it was incorporating ZigBee technology.) Google could do that in Chromecast. And router makers could support the technologies.

To control costs, these vendors may set a limit on how many wireless radios they support in set-top boxes and routers, but it's possible for hubs to support multicommunications devices. Smart Things, in its hub, includes support for both Z-Wave and ZigBee.

Frank Gillett, an analyst at Forrester Research, said the fundamental question is whether any of the communication protocols out there "do anything dramatically different" from what LTE, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth Smart do.

All these technologies are in smartphones, which ship by the billions, Gillett noted. "The question is [whether] there's room for anything else to survive," he said.

Whether CSR Mesh, as it's called, turns Bluetooth into a mesh that competes directly with Z-Wave or ZigBee remains to be seen.

Then there's Insteon. In addition to being a wireless network, it also offers power line communications that send data over existing power wiring. "When you combine power line and radio in a mesh network like we have [done], that reliability is dramatically different," said Dan Gregg, CTO of Insteon.


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