No go for smart homes without good wireless links

July 15th, 2015 | by Alfred Siew
No go for smart homes without good wireless links
Source: iStockp

Source: iStockphoto


It wasn’t too long ago when people talked up the idea of a smart fridge that automatically “phoned” your neighbourhood supermarket to order milk when it detected that you were almost out of it.

Thanks to the buzz around smart homes these days, the idea doesn’t seem so silly after all.

Possible too are feats once too costly or difficult, like remotely turning on your air-con before your reach home, or checking things like air quality on your smartphone.

All these, however, face a stumbling block. Even as millions of devices are set up to connect from smart homes everywhere, the weakest link could be the Wi-Fi network installed in your living room. It is facing the same old issues.

Congestion is one, especially in dense areas such as Singapore. Fire up your laptop’s Wi-Fi and be prepared to find a dozen networks competing for the precious airwaves in the neighbourhood.

Yet another issue is blind spots. If your apartment is configured such that some bedrooms are far from the living room, where most Wi-Fi routers are situated, then you’ll need repeaters or structured cabling to get past several thick walls.

The design of apartments matters a lot to how wireless signals can travel within it. Yet, this is often neglected.

While a lot of thought has been put into building smart features, such as home sensors and the like, apartments should be designed to be wireless-friendly. That is, a network can be set up with minimum fuss.

For example, having a network point holed up in a bomb shelter-like storeroom isn’t ideal. Any router placed there will not be able to transmit through the thick walls.

I know, I live in such an apartment. I have a main router cum gateway in the living room, which I patch to two other wired switches to hook up the dozen of so devices at home.

Most of them are linked up via a network cable, because wireless coverage is pretty bad in most parts of my home. But while this works fine with printers and PCs, which come with Ethernet ports, what of smart sensors that depend mostly on Wi-Fi?

The poor connectivity would reduce their effectiveness, if it doesn’t force you to embark on a frustrating exercise in network planning and build-out. It’s a task that most home users can’t handle.

In the past, they only needed a simple Wi-Fi router. Now, they have to plan for a network as their new apartments are being built and renovated, if they want great connectivity.

All these issues mean it won’t be so easy to roll out smart homes filled with sensors and intelligent devices, as the industry would have people believe.

The global market for the smart homes is expected to grow to US$71 billion by 2018, up from US$33 billion in 2013, according to consultancy firm Juniper Research.

Yet, roadblocks exist. We are not even thinking of the connections that these smart devices will need – and whether existing Wi-Fi gear can provide them adequately.

There have been efforts to prepare for the surge of devices turning up at home, for example, through new Wi-Fi technology known as MU MIMO or Multi-User Multi-Input Multi-Output.

It essentially allows multiple devices like your smart lights or air-conditioner to connect at the same time without getting into each other’s way (see how it works).

However, the technology is also just emerging. It is out on just one home router from Linksys now, with other manufacturers still preparing theirs.

And it is just fixing one part of the issue. For smart homes to be truly smart, the multitude of other Wi-Fi problems plaguing users now have to be overcome.

Solving them will involve carefully networking the “last foot” of a long Internet link connecting millions of sensors in the world.

Cities such as Singapore may have great “last mile” access to buildings and even apartments at speeds of 1Gbps or more, but they now face the challenge of getting that very last link at home solidly engineered. It won’t be easy.

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