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NXTcomm08: Pet care among the possibilities of home networks
By Ed Gubbins

Jun 19, 2008 11:42 AM

LAS VEGAS--In the future, will telecom providers care for your dog when you travel?

It’s one of the many possibilities posed by speakers on a home networking panel conducted by ATIS at the NXTcomm08 show this week.

Mulling the potential untapped services of a future networked home, Peter Linder, director of end-to-end network solutions and business unit networks for Ericsson, recalled a home-made automatic dog-care system invented by a tech-savvy friend that activated an automatic feeder, delivered video via the Web and sent text-message alerts when the dog went outside.

“It might sound peculiar,” Linder said, but it’s an example of how broad are the possibilities for carrier services once devices in the home are fully networked.

“Ten years ago, we were happy just to have the PC, with the network not in place,” he said. “All these devices [in the home] will be way more valuable to users when they’re connected in the same way the PC was more valuable connected to network.”

SureWest Communications, also represented on the panel, works with a third party to offer Web-based remote home monitoring to its broadband customers. For $10 per month, the self-installed service allows customers to check on their homes while away using inexpensive video cameras. Launched in March, SureWest is already thinking of expanding the service to allow, for example, video of the front door to show up automatically on the TV when someone rings the doorbell.

“What about programming your DVR from your cell phone?” said Bob McIntyre, chief technology officer for Cisco Systems’ service provider group (and the former CTO of Cisco-acquired home networking vendor Scientific Atlanta), who also sat on the panel. “Or streaming video to your cell phone from your DVR? Where does it end? You want to have phases, to say, ‘If you’re willing to pay more, there’s other things you can do.’”

Another possibility, he said: automatically adjusting heating, cooling and power levels while home owners are at work to conserve energy.

Of course, in order for carriers to start creating these new services, they need common standards to link the devices in the home, which today operate using a cacophony of incompatible interfaces. Not only do those devices need a more universal lingua franca, their installation and operation must be simple enough that the less technically astute won’t find it too daunting. Calls to the help desk from the mass market can quickly eat away at home-networking profits.

McIntyre held Apple as a model to follow, since his home is filled with a variety of Apple-built devices networked wirelessly using an Airport base station -- all of it set up by a non-tech-savvy member of the household. What’s needed, he said, would be a similar environment made up of devices from multiple vendors. And carriers might provide the necessary simplicity by taking on, into their own networks, the work of networking and managing devices in the home, fixing problems remotely through the network before customers call a help desk. McIntyre imagined home devices sold with pre-loaded kernels of application software that automatically reveal themselves to the network once installed by consumers.

“Smart devices at the edge would take control,” he said. “There would be enough kernel software to do queries and pinging. They would have been trained to work with service provider devices in the network. So the consumer takes care of the capex a little. Those kinds of concepts are in process.”

Carriers will also need to discover the right business models for home networking. Some applications might yield incremental revenue. Others might yield savings. “If we can proactively respond to issues in the home so the customer doesn’t have to call us and we don’t have to roll a truck, it could be a tremendous cost savings,” said Bill DeMuth, CTO of SureWest Communications.

Home networking might also draw interest from third parties willing to pay for certain services. For example, some home power meters in Sweden are connected to cellular networks for remote reading, Ericsson’s Linder said.

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