The battle for the 'smart home' heats up

Frank Purcell with Comcast demonstrates how can use his IPad to see live video of the front of his house.
Frank Purcell with Comcast demonstrates how can use his IPad to see live video of the front of his house. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

What if the cable guy was also your home security guy?

Maryland consumers are about to find out. Comcast Corp. has launched a marketing blitz this month to sign up customers for its new "Xfinity Home" package, which features a residential alarm system, video monitoring, and temperature and lighting controls, among other features — all manipulated from a touchpad, mobile device or computer.

It's not enough for major telecom and cable companies to sell you services for your television, computer and smartphone. They're now also competing to help you operate a "smart home." Comcast and others — from home alarm incumbent ADT Security Services to wireless and broadband competitors such as AT&T and Verizon — are all jockeying to supply technology and services in the burgeoning smart home market.

"From a business sense, it's relatively straightforward," said Bill Ablondi, director of smart home strategies for Strategy Analytics, a consulting firm based in Newton, Mass. "These companies have a variety of entertainment communication services already, but it's leveling off and they're looking for new growth opportunities."

A number of factors have coalesced in recent years to bring smart-home technology to consumers' doorsteps. The cost of hardware, such as Internet-connected remote video cameras, has plummeted. Consumers have rapidly adopted smartphones and tablets, and have grown increasingly accustomed to using applications to manage their lives.

Meanwhile, Internet broadband and wireless connectivity has become ubiquitous and faster, enabling such features as remote video monitoring directly from a home to a consumer's smartphone.

Comcast and others in the cable and home entertainment and telecommunications business see a multi-billion dollar market before them — one they can pitch to the millions of customers they already have.

The companies want a piece of the home monitoring business, an $8 billion to $10 billion-a-year industry in which the dominant player, ADT, boasts more than six million customers.

Today, only about 20 percent of U.S. homes pay for monthly professional monitoring, according to Strategy Analytics. But the new smart home systems have the potential to enlarge the market, according to industry analysts.

Last year, 800,000 American homes were smart homes, said Ablondi, who added that by 2017 roughly 11 million U.S. dwellings would have Internet-based systems. Such networks promise to allow home media, utilities, appliances, windows and doors — and gadgets — to be controlled via computers and mobile devices.

Years ago, a fully connected home — with video cameras and remote Web access — could cost thousands of dollars to configure and monitor.

But major companies have brought prices down to a consumer sweet spot of around $50 a month or less.

Comcast's Xfinity Home package is $39.95 a month, after a $199 installation fee — and $29.95 for existing Triple Play customers, who pay for Internet, phone and cable TV service. You have to be a Comcast broadband Internet customer to subscribe to the Home service.

Mitch Bowling, senior vice president of new business at Comcast, said the company has been eyeing the home security sector for five years. It surveyed its customers 18 months ago and found that 42 percent were aware of smart home concepts and technology.

Another recent survey showed that customers' awareness had jumped to 78 percent, Bowling said.

"The idea of a smart home is becoming something that consumers want to understand more," Bowling said.

At the moment, Xfinity Home consists of a touchpad that can operate an alarm system, thermostat, lighting and cameras, with access as well to weather, news and sports reports. Users can also plug gadgets, such as a coffee pot or lamp, into a wireless adapter that enables remote control.

In the near future, customers will be able to access email, listen to voicemail and control their DVRs through the home system.

Existing customers of Verizon's Internet broadband service pay an extra $9.99 a month for home monitoring, energy control and remote door-locking features. That price does not involve paying for professional service to monitor the security system.

AT&T said this month that it planned to launch a smart-home service — called Digital Life — this summer in two test markets, Atlanta and Dallas. AT&T's service is completely wireless — the home system will connect to the company's 3G network. Company officials did not announce pricing.

"We feel like the market is ripe for this right now," said Christy Jones, director of marketing for Digital Life. "Customers are embracing the technology more than ever. The [Internet protocol] technology has matured."

Julie Jacobson, editor and publisher of Electronic House and CEPro magazines, said the industry estimates for growth in smart-home technologies are largely based on the promise that major providers, such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, can sell the service to their customers in coming years. But the companies' sales forces are also busy selling many other products, from cable subscriptions to Internet connectivity to cellphone plans.

"It's a very hands-on product; it's a close-touch sale," Jacobson said of home security and automation technologies. "Can they install it? Probably. Will consumers trust them? Maybe, maybe not. But I think it'll be more about can [their salespeople] sell the stuff and get it done."

The big player in the home security market, ADT, has its own smart-home offering, called Pulse, which has been on the market for almost two years. The company has 6.4 million customers nationwide, and Pulse represents one in three new systems sold by the company, ADT said. Pulse starts at $47.99 a month.

It remains to be seen whether homeowners will trust home security to their cable and Internet providers. ADT officials, for their part, are betting that customers will stick with them.

"Security is what we are known for, and our 6 million customers place a great deal of trust in us," said Bob Tucker, an ADT spokesman. "We help protect them and the things they value most."