Preparing for the Future

Recommendations for Creating a Robust Home Technology Integrator Channel
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Authors Note: At the beginning of this year Mary Hill, the executive director of the Internet Home Alliance (www.internethomealliance.com), asked me to author a white paper on the state of the home integrator channel and to prepare recommendations on how to best promote its growth. Over the course of about six months, the white paper was written (with extensive contributions from Helen Heneveld, prinicipal of HDCI and David Edwards, founder and CEO of Zanthus). Although it can be read in its entirety at www.internethomealliance.com/channel_development/index.asp, I thought that our recommendations and conclusions would be of particular interest to the readers of Residential Systems Magazine.

There are nearly one million vendor-neutral certified professionals nationwide, but less than one percent (about 3,523) are certified for the residential market. Building up this channel to meet the collective demand from homebuilders, product manufacturers, retailers and of course, consumers, will require a concerted, cross-industry effort. As a start, the Internet Home Alliance recommends the following steps:

1) Develop a thorough understanding of data systems, specifically, home networks, as the initial basis for distinguishing home technology integrators from other low-voltage certified installers. Home technology is becoming increasingly complex. Most consumer electronics and many major appliances have gone digital with the inclusion of the latest computer chips. If the history of the commercial market is any indication, more and more, consumers will depend on a channel of certified professionals to select, install and maintain their homes technological infrastructure. Regardless of how this infrastructure will evolve, today there are two standards that suggest a corresponding baseline curriculum for training and certification: TCP/IP protocol and structured wiring (Category 5e/6).

Due to the near-ubiquity of the Internet, the TCP/IP method of communicating with intelligent products inside and outside the home has become a de facto standard. The requisite hardware for the homea distribution panel, structured wiring, residential gateway and client computershas become standardized over time. The ongoing challenge concerns the client nodes of a connected home. Devices and systems for audio and video, telephony, security and the like continue to evolve at a rapid rate and accordingly, involve manufacturer-specific design and installation considerations. Standards for most, if not all, of these systems are in the future, but right now, TCP/IP can serve as a common denominator.

Data, phone, video, audio, security and HVAC systems in the home can communicate via Cat-5e/6 wiring. According to a February 2004 survey conducted by eBrain Consumer Research on behalf of the CEA, about 76 percent of homebuilders offer structured wiring as standard or as an option. Among these builders, Cat-5e/6 is the accepted standard. While a lot of proprietary cabling still exists in the home, more and more digital information can travel fast and reliably across Cat-5e/6 structured wiring. Moreover, the quality of the information carried by this standard has yet to be matched by a rival wireless option.

We understand that in todays market, knowledge of data systems is important, though not essential for home technology integrators. For the purposes of our analysis, we have assumed an understanding of architecture, home construction and various analog sub-systems are threshold requirements. These are requirements that must be met for any professional to be considered a qualified home technology integrator in the present market.

One reason the current channel is so fragmented is because of the breadth of knowledge necessary to be considered a highly qualified home technology integrator. Right now, few professional installers understand the digital side of the business, so thats where we have placed our emphasis. The point here is that data systems represent the next step. In the future, when more and more systems are digital, an understanding of TCP/IP and Cat-5e/6, will be essential.

Consequently, we believe a fundamental understanding of TCP/IP-based home networks connected by Cat-5e/6 wiring should be an integral part of training and certification in the residential market. Again, we make this recommendation with an eye toward a future in which homes have both analog and digital sub-systems. In this future, training and certification in key data systems would be a prerequisite for subsystem- and manufacturer-specific coursework.

Moreover, once the wireless standards currently in development by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) are announced, they could be added to any baseline program.

2) Adopt a few clear and consistent marketing messages regarding the value of training and certification for both the larger industry and consumers. To date, the considerable number and variety of consumer channel options has precluded any one organization or group of organizations from effectively championing home technology integrators.

Consumers can purchase products directly from manufacturers, on third-party Internet sites, from local or national retailers and from various resellers and systems integrators, among other means. Because of this broad diversity of consumer options and the associated range of industry influencers (including homebuilders, architects and designers), home technology integrators alone cannot legitimize the channel among consumers. In the absence of a coordinated, industry-wide marketing campaign, the time and costs associated with training and certifying technicians will have limited value in the eyes of consumers and, consequently, will be difficult to recover by product manufacturers or others along the value chain. What is required is a marketing campaign designed to make certification as much of a business model differentiator for home technology integrators in the residential space as it is in the commercial space. More specifically, we recommend industry leaders take the initiative to adopt and deliver the following key marketing messages:

The home is rapidly becoming digitally connected, necessitating technical standards and vendor-specific requirements that can best be met by trained and certified integrators.

The universal language of connectivity is TCP/IP and the ideal transport mechanism is structured wiring with Cat-5e/6, which demands the expertise of a trained and certified technician.

Various home systems are convergingphone, data, audio, video and HVACand the integration of these systems can best be implemented by a service provider that hires trained and certified personnel.

Hiring a company that employs certified technicians best ensures that the job will be done right the first time, and consequently will become a cost-effective and rewarding experience for the consumer. As part of the campaign designed to communicate these messages, we further recommend that the target audience include IT professionals, VARs, residential security installers, residential electricians, residential HVAC installers, interior designers, architects, builders, realtors and the public at large. The latter will be addressed, in part, through the launch of a home technology integrator listing service by CNET Networks (http://reviews.cnet.com/Home_Integrator_Directory/8750-9325_7-0.html?tag=glnav). Using this service, consumers will be able to locate the nearest service provider. Especially as the service listings proliferate, demonstrable training and certification will help consumers with their vendor selection. Successfully implementing a campaign of this type requires the cooperation of industry-leading standard setters like Microsoft and Cisco Systems in promoting home technology integrator training and certification through CEDIA, CEA and CompTIA. And industry partners must help educate companies along the value chain, especially homebuilders and developers, about the value of trained and certified technicians as a business-model differentiator.

3) Better align connected home initiatives between the residential building trades and the home technology integrator channel. Builders and their sub-system providers often support different training and certification requirements than connected home product manufacturers and their channel partners. This lack of alignment has led to needless competition among service providers and contributed to consumer confusion about the value of training and certification in this space. As part of the marketing campaigned described above, we recommend focusing on architects, homebuilders and developers, in part, to accomplish the following:

Educate them on common revenue and profit opportunities.

Identify common training and certification requirements and programs.

Clarify the differences between the channels, such as those between a licensed line voltage electrician with possible union requirements and a low-voltage certified installer, so that distinct value propositions may be developed and marketed across the value chain.

These recommendations constitute our proposed first steps toward building a robust channel with clear benefits for both industry and consumers. While our collective tactics may change, the goal of fostering a strong nationwide network of home technology integrators remains.

Gordon van Zuiden (gordon@cybermanor.com) is president of cyberManor, an Internet Home Solutions company in Los Gatos, California.

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