Technology in the Home: US vs. the World

How do the technology services provided to the average home in the U.S. compare with those of other countries in the world?

US vs World Tech

The U.S. prides itself on being the world leader on a variety of fronts, but is technology in the home one of them? Home electronic devices and products like televisions, computers, and plug-and-play home automation devices don’t know borders. Generally these goods are available to anyone, anywhere (though there can be lag-times and/or compatibility issues that delay or prevent arrival). But home technology services like high-speed broadband access, integrated services, and the infrastructure that carries them can be unique to each country and limited or hindered by each country’s policies and regulations.

Few would dispute that Internet use is on the rise, both in terms of time spent surfing and the purposes for using it. Whether it’s downloading music, shopping for a new car, accessing the home’s security system, or placing a phone call through a VoIP (voice-over-Internet-protocol) provider, the average person finds him/herself clicking away at a mouse or touchpad for more and more minutes of the day. But how does our usage compare with those abroad? Are we wasting time twiddling our thumbs as files sluggishly download while our European neighbors access movies in a matter of seconds? Do our remote home control abilities even begin to compare with neighboring countries? Most importantly, are we leveraging the Internet for energy-savings the way, say, Denmark is? Here we take a look at a few ways in which we could use some catching up.

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Not-so-High Speed Internet
American consumers get their buzz on when service providers like Verizon FiOS start talking about 30 Mbps download speeds, but let’s face it: this is basically the fastest speed available to U.S. consumers, and a very small percentage have access to it. Let’s compare that to Japan, where the median Internet download speed is 63 Mbps. It gets worse. The 30 Mbps may be the best we can do, but our median download speeds hover around 2.3 Mbps, way behind Japan, South Korea (49 Mbps), Finland (21 Mbps), France (17 Mbps), and our neighbors to the north, Canada (7.6 Mbps). According to SpeedMatters.org, a Strategic Industries Fund project by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the United States is falling behind because we don’t have a national policy that promotes universal access to high-speed Internet. SpeedMatters.org recently issued the median speeds listed above as a result of an online survey of more than 230,000 users. Citing a widening digital divide, the project ranks the U.S. 16th internationally for high-speed-Internet subscribers, blaming economic and geographic factors for the disparity in access to this service.

Can universal access to high-speed Internet be achieved? Certainly the sheer size of our country presents a challenge to those charged with laying the infrastructure. Japan and Finland don’t share this problem. More to the point, however, is our country’s lack of policy to establish goals and timelines for increased capacity and population served. If it could be done with affordable telephone service, why not affordable high-speed Internet?

Whose Home is Smarter?
The convergence of controllable systems and sub-systems in the home was meant to usher in the age of the “Smart Home,” yet the average U.S. consumer is still walking to the wall to flip the light switch. Where’s the affordable, reliable home control system accessible by cell phone? South Korea, for starters. Thanks to Samsung’s “homevita” home automation system, thousands of everyday folk living in multi-family housing units in South Korea enjoy remote access and management of their appliances, lighting, security systems, and utilities. While we’re hot-to-trot about browsing the web on our 3G iPhone, South Koreans are using their cell phones to remotely set their washing machine spin cycle and check to make sure the gas to the stove is shut off.

This technology is accessible to us in the States, but it has been slow to integrate into the average household. Why? “When it comes to home control, the consumer needs products that are available, affordable, and easy-to-use,” says Mark Walters, chairperson of the Z-Wave Alliance. Z-Wave’s growing group of member-companies includes manufacturers of lighting fixtures and controls, HVAC products, and numerous additional products and systems for the home. By including Z-Wave technology into these products, a wireless “mesh network” can be created in the home, whereby systems and products can all be controlled from a single point, and in turn accessed and managed remotely through the Internet.

According to Walters, the Z-Wave enabled devices available through member companies have hit the “available, affordable, and reliable,” stage. The next step is to “engage the consumer, and communicate the value of these services,” says Walters. To do this, Walters believes that the past association of home automation and control with a life of luxury and convenience needs to go, and a new association with energy-savings (see more below) and time-savings needs to be established. “When it’s 9:05 in the morning and I’m rushing my two kids out the door to get to school, I don’t want to have to send one of them back upstairs to make sure all the lights are off,” Walters explains. “I want to be able to check with my cell phone or from my laptop at work and turn the lights off that way.” “With the price of energy these days,” he continues, “it costs more to be forgetful.”

Deploying these affordable, reliable, and available home control products to the consumer is the other challenge. The solution may be partnerships with utility companies and service providers such as the telcos and MSOs (Comcast, Cox, etc.). They could offer home automation and control capability in addition to the digital television, Internet, and phone services provided. Currently in a trial phase, this expansion of a service provider’s offerings would see installation of a home gateway that would provide a bridge between the home’s Internet connection and home control devices and management of the application used to control these devices. “Providers could offer, sell, and install starter kits with light switches or thermostats, and charge a monthly fee for the application that allows the consumer to control their home using a cellphone, computer, or the TV,” says Walters. Although it’s too early to determine just what that monthly fee might be, a $10-20 per month cost is not out of the realm of possibility. “Service providers are looking for ways to increase their ARPU (average revenue per user), and home control is an option they are strongly considering,” says Walters.

How long will we have to wait before the Comcasts and Verizons of the country start offering attractive home control services to bundle in with everything else we get from them? “We’re hoping to see it offered in major metro areas by late 2009,” says Walters. Until then, we’ll be watching our advanced friends in South Korea with envious eyes.

The Internet and Energy-Savings
Our homes make serious contributions to our individual carbon footprint. The rise of the Green Home and all of its energy-saving and environment-friendly features is suggestive of an increased awareness in, and a move to reduce, the energy consumed by our homes. There is no question that the EnergyStar program has had a major impact on how we shop for appliances, but a look across the Atlantic reveals that more, much more can be done.

Consider the Danes. Thanks to the Danish Electricity Savings Trust (DEST), a database containing the blueprints and specifically energy usage of every house in the country is being compiled. Homeowners will be able to access information on their home’s energy usage by logging onto their “MyHome” site; this will enable them to make updates when new appliances or devices have been added or removed, and get valuable, real-time energy-saving advice. This is made possible by utilizing advanced meter reading technology, incorporating the technology into every home, and leveraging the Internet to enable access and control. When energy is at a premium and the cost is about to peak, the utility company can send a message to the individual meter, and that message can get relayed to the homeowner or the home itself, advising that unnecessary energy-consuming appliances be shut off. “The home itself can be programmed to take action, shutting off the AC and lowering the shades,” says Walters.

Smart meter implementation initiatives by both Sweden and Italy have projected 100-percent installation of smart meters in each country by as early as 2009. One research site suggested that 40-percent of all homes in Europe will have smart meters in place by 2012. With regards to advanced meter reading, we (the U.S.) are way behind Europe, and will continue to be so until consumers make demands or energy becomes so expensive that we run out of options. Fortunately, a number of pilot programs are already underway in this country, like the PowerCentsDC smart metering and pricing pilot in Washington, D.C., where 1,200 customers will test out new two-way meters and a new pricing structure that rewards reducing power usage during peak times. Clearly, the technology to enable and empower the consumer to monitor and manage the home’s energy usage in real time is available. Now it’s a matter of making its implementation a priority.

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