The market-leading chip maker, Broadcom, recently announced that it would offer a new Wi-Fi module that would allow manufacturers to add a wireless component to their products. Essentially, the idea is to use the popular technology platform to link appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines to existing home networks.
Given the considerable presence that Wi-Fi has in homes throughout the world, the concept can’t be easily dismissed. In some circles, it’s even regarded as the only viable option for networking all the varied energy-consuming devices found in the home. Take the following comment, for instance, which was left in response to one of GigaOm’s highly insightful articles on the wireless standards war.
Certainly Z-wave is gaining share against ZigBee. But overall neither ZigBee or Z-wave is a real mass market solution. The reason is simple. Deploying these requires a new “base station” or access point that speaks Z-wave or ZigBee. Let’s focus on home power automation or demand response control. 80% of U.S. households that have internet have 802.11 (WiFi). From a practical standpoint, it’s hard for vendors to sell another overlay network.
However, there are several arguments one might be able to make against the expectation of a sudden onslaught of Wi-Fi enabled home electronics.
A key component of the smart grid initiative is energy savings and, according to the consumer appliance giant, GE, the Wi-Fi chips simply aren’t the most efficient. In a 2010 comparison of suitable technologies for the future energy grid, GE found that Wi-Fi chips used nearly twice as much power during a 24 hour period as Zigbee modules (Notably, the results in GE’s study were met with harsh opposition from the Wi-Fi Alliance). Whether the difference is as marked as they claim is somewhat irrelevant if we consider that even an incremental increase in power consumption will have dramatic effects when multiplied over the potentially billions of networked devices.
Whether it’s security, lighting control, or energy management, utilities and service providers also need an app to sell in order to get consumers on board with the HAN and smart grid scenarios. In this respect, Wi-Fi doesn’t have a lot to offer. To present, Z-Wave is the most widely utilized home networking standard with over 500 certified products and counting. Zigbee also enjoys a wide level of support from manufacturers and utility providers. So, despite there being a Wi-Fi station in an overwhelming number of homes, there are few available products that can directly leverage the connection.
Now that devices like Actiontec’s SG400 Service Gateway are starting to feature built-in support for multiple networking standards, the incentive for manufacturers to convert existing devices to another standard is considerably lessened.
Not insignificantly, Wi-Fi does enjoy the endorsement of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, an industry group responsible for nearly 95 percent of all home appliances sold in North America. But there really is little appeal for the consumer in a connected appliance that doesn’t operate as part of a useful home management system and, presently, one just can’t be constructed around Wi-Fi.