Pandemic leads to smarter homes


When the pandemic hit last year, many households found out they didn’t have enough bandwidth to support two parents on work-related video conferences, one child doing research on the Internet, another FaceTiming with Grandma and a third kid gaming in the basement. 

For those who could afford it, the rush was on to upgrade their home network — the infrastructure that brings in megabits at a fast enough rate to feed the many connected devices we now have in our homes. After the initial need was met — making sure working parents could work remotely, kids could join virtual classrooms, and everyone could show up for telehealth appointments with their doctors — a new frontier opened. Once you upgrade your network, a whole world of gadgetry awaits. Samsung, for example, has a real-life Rosie in development. Like the Jetsons’ maid, Bot Handy is programmed, using artificial intelligence, to recognize and pick up stuff around the house — and you thought robot vacuums were cool.

For now, it’s unlikely anyone you know has a Bot Handy, but Adam Smith, owner of Audio Obsessions in Albany, is busy installing the current level of smart home technology — home automation that controls lights, heat, blinds, security and more, all of which require a great network. Educating the public is part of the job. For example, say you’re humming along on a project for work and suddenly a website won’t work. You throw up your hands and say, “my Wi-Fi isn’t working.” 

Wi-Fi is a method for your device to connect with your home network. It’s your home’s router that brings the Internet to your device. Smith said to think of it as a landline phone with extension numbers. There’s one number from the outside: That’s your external IP address. Inside, there are 10, 20, 30 devices — each is its own department. The router directs the call to the right department. When a website doesn’t load, it’s likely the Internet connection has dropped, not that the Wi-Fi has failed.

As our devices have become more and more complex, they make greater demands on the networks they’re connected to, Smith said. In recent years many people bought basic plug-in network extenders, but those merely rebroadcast Wi-Fi, Smith said. Lately, he’s been installing mesh Wi-Fi. The mesh system is a group of devices that act as a single Wi-Fi network, supplying multiple sources of Wi-Fi instead of just one source from the router. They have what’s called a dedicated backhaul to communicate with each other. Mesh systems, just like all wireless devices, have drawbacks — concrete and other building materials degrade or block the signal.

As dependent as we are on the convenience of Wi-Fi, hard-wired lines are crucial, says Walt Zerbe, senior director of technology and standards for CEDIA, a global trade association for companies that design, manufacture, and integrate technology in the home. 
“Ethernet is what you should have for intensive uses — education, working from home and entertainment,” Zerbe said. “Look at Wi-Fi as a convenience and Ethernet as reliable. If you’re streaming video or watching a movie, something stationary, it should be wired.”

John Penney, a strategist for HBO, STARZ, and 20th Century Fox, as well as a content-provider entrepreneur, described the home of the future as a fully-networked one. Programmable thermostats and robot vacuums that start with an order delivered remotely were just the start — but it’s likely to widen the divide between the haves and the have-nots. According to a Microsoft analysis of FCC data, broadband is not available for 14.5 million people in the United States.


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