Procuring smart home management and the great hardware versus software debate

Smart home device sales are at an all-time high, but IoT security and Wi-Fi connectivity are real concerns for homeowners. It’s no wonder many ISPs plan to strengthen their brand with a smart home management offering.

Procuring smart home management and the great hardware versus software debate

Smart home device sales are at an all-time high, but IoT security and Wi-Fi connectivity are real concerns for homeowners. It’s no wonder many ISPs plan to strengthen their brand with a smart home management offering.

But with so many vendors in the market, operators must take care to avoid costly procurement mistakes. Continuing my series of blog posts on the five key questions to ask when evaluating such systems, I’m tackling the pros and cons of hardware and software-based approaches.

The challenge for today: Addressing the existing installed base of routers

Many ISPs have a wide range of customer premises equipment (CPE) installed in the field, ranging from basic routers to advanced home gateways. In some markets, subscribers may supply their own hardware purchased through retailers. Naturally, operators would prefer to offer their entire subscriber base the same smart home management offering from day one.

Systems based on proprietary hardware can be deployed no matter which existing CPE is in use, but procurement and distribution costs for this extra equipment may rapidly outstrip any predicted new revenue. It’s also important to consider the likelihood of push-back from consumers who don’t want additional gadgets or cables cluttering their home.

Integration considerations for software solutions  

A hardware-agnostic, software-based solution will allow operators to roll-out their smart home management service remotely via firmware update to any existing devices that support integration. Timescales and costs for porting software to each CPE model will vary by vendor, so ask for evidence from their existing integrations. It’s also crucial to check the size of the software as most devices already in the field have little storage space so any software should be extremely lightweight.

If you have a wide range of hardware already in the field, you’ll want software with maximum compatibility with Linux and other operating systems. Support for industry standards like OpenWrt or RDK-B may help minimize work involved in porting third-party apps to existing CPE, so they’re something key to look out for, but check whether integration needs to occur at the chipset level as well as firmware to avoid timeline and cost surprises.

Who will do the integration?

For any software-based solution, it’s important to understand who will drive the integration process and how easy it will be. Will the vendor take on this task based on a hardware SDK? Will you need an in-house team, or will there be a large effort involved for the hardware manufacturer to issue new firmware on existing CPE?

Controlling costs to maximize smart home revenue

Whether a hardware or software option is chosen, operators will need to consider additional support costs associated with roll-out. Ask vendors to describe the ease of on-boarding for consumers without technical skills. Is the hardware plug-and-play? Can the software be downloaded silently to existing routers during regular firmware updates? Have existing operators using the system seen support call volumes and truck rolls rise temporarily as subscribers get to grips with it?

Is that investment in Mesh Wi-Fi really worth it?

Many hardware-based smart home management systems come with mesh Wi-Fi built in. Mesh is an attractive option for many larger households, but if your average subscriber lives in a small apartment, a quality gateway router will perform better than repeater, and you may be paying heavily for mesh features they just don’t need.

A software-based solution could be more cost-effective, with the option to integrate with third party mesh hardware for sale (at a premium) to households that really need the wider Wi-Fi range.

The challenge for tomorrow: Keeping all procurement options open

The final consideration is whether your organization wants to avoid hardware vendor lock-in. Opting for a software-based solution based on open standards will allow operators to remain hardware agnostic and maintain scope for competitive tendering in later procurement cycles. Where significant capital investment is required to subsidize expensive CPE, particularly in lower ARPU markets, flexibility to choose hardware and drive costs down may be critical to future profitability.

Four more key evaluation questions for smart home management systems

Here’s a reminder of those other questions to ask in your smart home security procurement process:

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Bengt Jonsson | SVP Sales