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Connected Homes August 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Solutions for Improved Indoor Cellular Coverage

Why is this topic significant?

Households can choose from a number of available remedies for poor indoor coverage. Needs for such solutions could grow as cities densify and the increasing use of modern building materials impedes signals.

Description

Residents and property owners can choose from a number of technologies that improve indoor coverage:

  • Femtocells are router-size devices that connect to a home-broadband modem, typically via an Ethernet cable. Many cellular services distribute the devices, which can be free of charge for residents who have poor outdoor service. The devices resemble ultraminiature base stations, with a home's broadband service providing backhaul.
  • Passive repeaters have an outdoor antenna and an indoor antenna connected by a coaxial cable. They require no electrical power and are more common for cars than for residences. Home users tend to be do-it-yourselfers and radio amateurs.
  • Signal boosters have an outdoor antenna, indoor antenna, and powered indoor amplifier. Representative suppliers include Nextivity, SureCall, Wilson, and WeBoost. SureCall has a unit for renters that uses no outdoor antenna. Instead, the product has a second indoor antenna that can sit on a windowsill.
  • Small cells with wireless backhaul have become an option for customers of Sprint, which has deployed more than 100,000 units in US homes and envisions use of 1 million units. So far, Airspan is the sole supplier of the window-mounted devices.
  • Wi-Fi first services automatically route calls through Wi-Fi when a user is in range of a home router. If the user starts a call indoors and exits the home, cellular handover occurs. Services from Google Fi and Republic Wireless assign special preferences to Wi-Fi links.

Implications

A number of factors favor growing use of electronics for solving indoor cellular-coverage problems in residences. Residents of new buildings can discover that concrete and reflective windows pose increased obstacles to radio signals. Fashionable materials such as metal and brick can also block indoor coverage. City dwellers might also discover they are in the shadows of a radio signal when nearby new construction increases urban density. And introduction of 5G networks might not offer a remedy. Such networks are likely to operate in microwave- and millimeter-frequency bands that see increased attenuation from modern building materials.

Impacts/Disruptions

Despite years of technical developments, Wi-Fi first services remain immature. Republic Wireless has a superior technical solution that makes for relatively smooth handovers; other carriers seem not to have followed through with required investments. The main alternatives—mass deployments of femtocells and signal boosters—can be somewhat costly for mobile services and for users. Sprint's use of Airspan's devices is an attempt to transform the cost into an investment in improved coverage, considering that any nearby Sprint customer can connect through the devices. However, like SureCall's window-mounted antennas, Airspan's small cells obstruct windows noticeably.

Researchers have suggested that new construction could make increased use of engineered passive repeaters, and that new semi-reflective window materials could mitigate signal losses. Surface-engineered reflective glass can pass radio signals while still preserving energy efficiency; glass makers could etch frequency-selective patterns in the reflective metal-oxide materials. A potentially superior approach could rely on advanced research in solid-state physics. In a 2016 report, researchers from Huazhong University of Science and Technology described glass coatings that serve as photonic bandgaps and that promise to improve radio propagation, energy efficiency, and even transparency.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Mobile communications services, customer-premises equipment manufacturing, radio-frequency electronic-component manufacturing, software development, building-materials manufacturing, construction services, materials-science research

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Home-Robots Update

By Sean R. Barulich
Barulich is a senior research analyst with Strategic Business Insights.

Why is this topic significant?

Large technology firms and various start-ups are developing and improving home robots. Advanced home robots may be able to complete various household tasks autonomously on behalf of their owners.

Description

Home robots have generally struggled to achieve mainstream success. Only one segment—robot vacuums from companies including iRobot, Ecovacs, and Eufy—is popular with consumers. Although robot vacuums have been more successful than home robots for other household tasks or social interaction, new developments and investments in home robot technology may help enable less expensive systems that can complete a more general set of tasks for users. Earlier in 2018, multiple companies introduced home robots for home and personal assistance. For example, Aeolus Robotics introduced a wheeled robot for completing housework. The company claims the robot can recognize objects in the home and put them away, move furniture, mop, and put away dishes. Ubtech—the company behind the Lynx humanoid robot—also introduced a new home robot: the Ubtech Walker. The Walker is a bipedal robot equipped with a touch screen that can walk around users' homes and provide features common in some virtual-assistant-integrated devices such as calendar scheduling, email assistance, and video calling.

Some companies are developing advanced robotic systems that may see use in the home. For example, Boston Dynamics recently announced that it is testing its SpotMini robot in various industries, including security, delivery, construction, and home assistance. The SpotMini has technology that enables it to traverse various terrains; however, it may lack the dexterous capabilities necessary for many household tasks. Boston Dynamics plans to begin selling the robots in 2019. Some large technology firms are also showing interest in home robots. Companies including Amazon, Huawei, and Alphabet are investing in or are developing home robots. Most notably, Amazon is reportedly developing robots for the home that can navigate room to room and integrate with the Alexa virtual assistant. The company reportedly plans to test systems sometime in 2018.

Implications

Developers will likely need to reduce the cost of home robots significantly and improve dexterous capabilities before home robots can become disruptive. Consumers will likely prefer one robotic system that can complete a range of tasks rather than specialized systems. Companies developing home robots such as Ubtech, Sony, and LG may focus on social features and software interoperability, but until these home robots are capable of robust locomotion and object manipulation, their functionality will likely be similar to that of conventional smart speakers.

Impacts/Disruptions

Companies with virtual assistants such as Google and Amazon may have advantages over competitors as home robots develop because they can integrate their assistants and Internet of Things interoperability directly in home robots. Although home robots will likely take many years to develop the dexterous skills necessary for housekeeping, some robots that provide social functions may gradually become more popular with children and the elderly. However, robots with limited social features have generally struggled, as demonstrated by Mayfield Robotics' recent cancellation of the wheeled Kuri home robot. Home robots will require more functionality to encourage more users to purchase the relatively expensive systems that are currently available. South Korea and Japan may be good initial markets for social robots, because citizens are interested in the novelty of robots. In comparison, US citizens are largely interested in robots because they might perform household chores.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Robotics, electronics manufacturing, sensors, actuators, software development

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: