Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis
Internet of Things
If I had a dollar for every time my wife asked me “what is that new….. tech box for?” I’d be a very rich man. “Tech box” is her generic for all of the hubs, gateways, bridges, access points, and — more recently — smart speakers I’ve installed at home through the years. Never mind finding my asus router ip address, it will take me long enough to find the correct router in the mess that is our “tech box”. Her nomenclature may be off, but she’s spot on with all of the smart things in the house: They really cause a lot of clutter.
Ever since I suggested that Google should make a smart home hub, I’ve been thinking about all of this clutter. Why aren’t there more combination devices for the smart home that incorporate some of these features? An easy place to start would be putting some extra radios and smarts in new mesh router systems so they can act as hubs too.
To be fair, you can buy a gaming router or two that doubles as a smart home hub. These kinds are good to get as they prioritize download and upload speed, keeping your connection as fast as it can be. Almond has been selling them for a few years now. And in 2017, we saw the debut of Samsung Connect, a mesh network system available in several configurations.
In addition to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the main router in the Samsung setups has Zigbee and Z-Wave radios, plus Samsung SmartThings software, so they’re hubs as well. A single Samsung Connect AC1300 Wi-Fi unit has a suggested price $130 while the same unit with two mesh extenders has an MSRP of $300. If you need more bandwidth, Samsung sells an $200 AC2600 unit for double the wireless throughput.
Other than those, however, it’s slim pickin’s, although TP-Link just announced a tri-band mesh network system with some limited smart home functionality. I’m back to using a Wink hub these days after testing the Samsung SmartThinks Link USB stick in my Nvidia Shield TV box. That means I have to have a separate router and the Wink hub.
Luckily, the Wink Hub 2 works over Wi-Fi so it doesn’t need a hardwired connection to my home router. That’s great because it frees up an ethernet port on the router but it’s bad in a way too: With a hub wirelessly connecting to a router two floors away and then back to devices throughout the house, that hop from voice assistant or smartphone app adds latency. If I could reduce that latency even a little, the lights might turn on a smidge faster, for example.
But there isn’t a router with Wink hub functionality built in. Or with support for Fibaro, WeMo, Nest or even HomeKit, for that matter. And if you’re going all in on a smart home, you probably want a hub: That’s where the automation smarts happen. Well, in the cloud too, but some people don’t like that idea, which is why “cloudless” hubs like Hubitat exist.
Frankly, I’d like to see Wink and the other companies I mentioned partner with router makers to integrate their hub technologies directly into routers. Obviously, this would mitigate some of the “clutter” problem and keep my wife happy. But it also provides an opportunity for additional revenues from the hub makers; they could license their home hub software to the router companies, for example. And there might be other benefits too: That latency reduction I mentioned, for one, and potentially new network security models to keep hackers away from our smart home devices.
It’s time: Let’s get more routers on the market that double as home hubs.
Filed Under: Analysis, Featured
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I’m not sure I understand what you believe this would achieve. Application hubs like SmartThings and Wink don’t really play a major role in the physical Z-Wave and Zigbee networks since they are based on the client devices forming a self-organizing mesh network. So adding Z-wave (for example) doesn’t eliminate the need for a SmartThings hub (for example). It might make the physical network slightly stronger but it doesn’t reduce the number of boxes as far as I can tell.
Or are you suggesting that router manufacturers should either be making their routers into SmartThings competitors or doing deals with the major IoT players, e.g. “Netgear Now with Wink!”?
I'm suggesting the latter: Router makers adding hub capabilities to their devices either on their own or by working with/licensing hub technology from existing players in the hub market.
I have to disagree. Remember the terrible cable modem/router combinations? It would settling for a lead than ideal router because it has the IoT radios you need, or giving up useful protocols to get desired router functions. Better to have stand alone hubs with multiple radios and the processing power to control them, run complex automation scripts, and something like nodejs for your lug-ins.
Why is the hub software tied to the hardware at all? Thats old skool embedded computing mindset. What's needed is enabling embedded virtualization. The hubs are simply various Linux builds that can run in micro-VMs (Qubes, tiny VMs, Unikernels, etc.). Why not leverage embedded virtualization at the edge and make a single, multi-radio hub run as a multi-tenant device? Oh wait, someone would have to created a the virtualization and management that could deploy the software to these virtualized edge devices…
Things like Zigbee, Z-wave, and Insteon have their protocols that need to be attached to their respective radios. You cold build a command interface on top of each one; or build one interface to rule them all.
Hey Kevin, Good article!
I've worked on this precise problem and it's a tough one because there's a conflict between WiFi and Bluetooth, BLE or Zigbee that also operate in the same radio band (2.4GHz). This problem is called Coex – short for “coexistence” and basically means the WiFi needs to stop while the other radios do their stuff. WiFi is is “loud” compared to these low power radios and drowns them out easily. Now, this is a solved problem – its done all the time on your smartphone because you can stream over WiFi and listen on your Bluetooth earbuds, but the conflict comes in the affect it has on WiFi performance when it is done in an access point/router (AP). The best way to service IoT devices would be to listen all the time, because they often blerp out data unpredictably. But if your AP listened all the time, WiFi transmissions in the 2.4GHz band would drop to zero. That is a bad thing for WiFi devices because although some use 5GHz, a lot still use 2.4GHz, especially when range is required. Also, WiFi access point vendors are ranked and rated on their throughput so there's a disincentive to sacrifice a band just on the off-chance IoT devices might be around.
There are other issues too – such as the fact that IoT innovation is occurring a lot faster than WiFi and there are nowhere near the standards in place yet (or ever?) so AP vendors would be making an big gamble by trying to fit something in there. Today's hot IOT system could be dead in a year and then all those AP's are out of date. There are also competitive issues – for example, why would Google ever put HomeKit support into their box?
Some AP vendors have put Bluetooth in, but it's often used just for setting up and then disabled, or as a fallback if something goes wrong. Others use clever Coex to try to mitigate the issue or shift as many devices onto the 5GHz band as possible. But there's no getting away from physics unfortunately.
One result is that we have IOT hubs. They are placed away from the main WiFi access point (ideally 6 feet or more) to avoid interference and they do the job for their bit of kit. The best long term solution in my mind is that IOT gadget makers get out of the hub business and adopt an open or de facto standard for low-power device connectivity so there could be just one hub for all devices! There are far too many makers reinventing the wheel out there in this regard. Hub software can also be put into smartphones and other devices, like fridges so that dedicated devices are not required. Further, with appropriate security (end-to-end, hardware root-of-trust), hubs could service any IOT device, even your neighbor's if they are in range. Think like Comcast's Xfinity WiFi – a similar coverage for IOT devices could be available.
Full disclosure – I work for Afero and we offer this solution for any IOT vendors out there.
I agree with Robert above. Combination devices tend to do many things poorly. I haven't exactly heard good things about the Samsung mesh product mentioned in the article, and it sells at a discount. Likely it falls into that category.
But beyond that, routers fail and technology changes. It would be a PITA to have to re-setup all your smarthome devices every time you changed a router.
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Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis