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Connected Homes May 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Christian Feest

Low-Power Sensors in the Home

Why is this topic significant?

New technologies could enable low-power smart sensors that rarely, or possibly never, run out of energy. Such sensors could expand the range of commercially viable connected-home applications.

Description

Smart sensors take inputs from the environment for use in connected-home applications. For example, a temperature sensor can connect to a smart thermostat, so the thermostat can dynamically adjust the temperature when the environment is too hot or too cold. Motion detectors can alert occupants when guests are outside and increase security by providing alerts about potential intruders.

New technologies could increase the energy efficiency of smart sensors. For example, researchers at Stanford University have developed a sensor that remains in a near-zero-energy standby mode until a 57-kilohertz ultrasonic signal wakes up the sensor. Similarly, researchers from nine Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft institutes are developing a radio sensor that activates at only a specific signal threshold. Target Wake Time, an energy-saving feature of the new Wi-Fi 6 standard that "Wi-Fi 6 Enables More Connected Devices" in the April 2019 Viewpoints describes, could also help increase the battery life of smart sensors.

In addition to new methods for increasing the energy efficiency of sensors, new methods of energy generation could enable smart sensors that never need charging. For example, thermoelectricity—generation of power from differences in temperature—already powers some commercially available wireless transmitters in industrial applications. If manufacturers can reduce the cost of thermoelectric generators, thermoelectric-powered sensors could find commercially viable applications in the home. For example, temperature differences between hot or cold water pipes and the ambient air could enable smart sensors that are entirely self-powered.

Implications

Potential exists to integrate smart sensors into many aspects of the home, but power requirements limit the commercial viability of many of these additional smart sensors. For example, homeowners may find useful a sensor capable of detecting if a water pipe is at risk of freezing, but if the homeowner must replace the sensor's batteries regularly, the potential benefit of avoiding broken pipes is likely outweighed by the inconvenience of changing a battery in a difficult-to-access area. If companies can develop new sensors that last for years without battery replacements, they could enable many new connected-home applications.

Impacts/Disruptions

Technologies that enable low-cost and low-power smart sensors could eventually enable smart building materials and fixtures—such as bricks, pipes, and insulation—with integrated sensors. A smart brick, for example, could detect the humidity of a room and send signals to fans to increase airflow. Ultimately, advances in efficient energy generation and use will increase the range of connected-home devices, enabling greater communication and automation within the home.

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:

Smart sensors, construction, building materials, energy efficiency

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

5G Wireless Home Broadband

Why is this topic significant?

Numerous cellular companies are developing wireless home broadband services that will use long-term evolution and 5G cellular infrastructure. Wireless broadband deployments could increase competition among internet-service providers and potentially help bring broadband internet access to rural and underserved areas.

Description

Improvements in wireless-communication technologies mean wireless broadband could provide a commercially viable alternative to wired broadband for many homes. 5G, the fifth-generation mobile-telecommunication system, should enable further performance improvements to wireless broadband, with early trials of 5G networks recording data rates greater than 1.7 gigabits per second. Further, 5G potentially offers reduced latency in comparison with that of previous cellular technologies, making it better suited to applications such as cloud gaming and video calling.

Several cellular carriers already offer 5G mobile coverage in some US cities, and a subset of these carriers offer 5G broadband for the home. Verizon launched its 5G home-broadband service in October 2018. Verizon's 5G home broadband is currently available in Sacramento and Los Angeles, California; Houston, Texas; and Indianapolis, Indiana, and costs $70 per month (or $50 per month with a Verizon smartphone data plan). AT&T launched its mobile 5G network in December 2018 and has announced plans to offer a 5G home-broadband service by late 2019. AT&T's mobile 5G service is currently available in 19 US cities. In March 2019, T-Mobile announced plans to begin testing a wireless home-broadband internet service. Although T-Mobile's offering will initially use 4G infrastructure to provide home broadband, the company has promised to upgrade users to 5G hardware following its proposed merger with Sprint.

Implications

5G wireless broadband could make it quicker, cheaper, and easier for companies to bring broadband services to homes—in comparison with wired broadband, which often requires substantial capital investment and access to utility poles and trenches. In many rural areas, network operators are unable to reclaim the capital expenditure necessary to provide or upgrade wired internet access for high-speed broadband, leaving these areas with limited internet access. For example, official US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) figures report that more than 24 million Americans lack access to fixed terrestrial broadband (download speeds greater than 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second). However, Microsoft claims that the FCC's survey methodology vastly underestimates true broadband use. Microsoft's data estimate that over 162 million Americans are not using the internet at broadband speeds.

Companies deploying 5G wireless broadband will likely target urban and suburban areas first because of the high population densities. However, continued expansion of wireless broadband could significantly affect underserved areas. In theory, this should lead to better service and lower prices for customers.

Impacts/Disruptions

Reliable and high-speed broadband is necessary for many connected-home applications—including video streaming, video calling, and cloud gaming. The introduction of 5G home broadband could help increase the number of homes with high-speed internet access and thus bring connected-home applications to new markets. Further, if 5G home broadband proves successful, it could present a legitimate threat to incumbent internet-service providers and potentially even change the structure of communications networks.

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: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Network equipment, routers, smart speakers

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: