The smart home device and home automation market is exploding. According to a 2013 report from NextMarket Insights, the current home automation systems and services market totals about $3.6 billion. By 2017, it will grow to around $14.7 billion. Other analysts and forecasts have forecast the possibility of 80 billion connected devices by 2020. Regardless of the exact figure, this is a big market that is opening up for device developers.

So why after years of hype and promises is the smart home finally happening now? The world’s leading cable multimedia service operators (MSOs), broadband service providers, and telcos have recognized the potential of the home services market and are starting to offer a wide variety of new home automation and connected home services. These include security, elderly care and baby monitoring, temperature monitoring and control, remote locking and unlocking of doors and windows, turning lights off and on, water and gas leak monitoring, and smoke and fire detection.

These technologies have existed for many years. But until recently, their use mostly has been restricted to early innovators who were willing to go the extra distance to make the various disparate services, hardware, and components function together. There was no easy way to make all the various components talk to each other and to integrate the applications! Yet with the emergence and global acceptance of the ZigBee communication standard, there is finally a standardized wireless communication technology that enables easy installation and communication between the various devices and applications.

ZigBee’s Role

In many ways, this process is repeating the path that Wi-Fi took to become accepted. At first, various incompatible technologies were battling to be the accepted technology for wireless networking. Eventually, though, a single worldwide standard emerged—802.11. It enabled different industries to start developing and manufacturing products that not only could talk to each other, but also would operate worldwide.

This is what is happening now with ZigBee for the smart home. In fact, in many ways ZigBee can be considered the low-power version of Wi-Fi. It is an open standard that uses a similar radio technology and operates in the same worldwide available 2.4-GHz band. It also transmits through walls, floors, and furniture. And, it can cover a good sized home. The big differences are data rate and power requirements.

Whereas Wi-Fi is optimized for high data rates, ZigBee is optimized for small bits of information. Wi-Fi is very effective for transmitting video, music, and voice throughout the home, while ZigBee is optimized for carrying very small on and off messages from sensors. So even though ZigBee has the same basic range and performance as Wi-Fi, because it carries so much less information, it requires much less power to operate.

Like Wi-Fi, setting up a ZigBee network should be easy. With a battery embedded inside, all the consumer has to do is to turn it on and let the network find the new device for pairing. Of course, depending on the device and its function, there might be some kind of configuration process or online Web dashboard to facilitate installation and setting it up to work the way the user wants. The point is that the communication process with the existing home ZigBee network will be seamless and almost automatic, in the same way that hooking up a new Wi-Fi device to your home network is today.

Because of ZigBee’s low power requirement, many devices won’t require any power source at all. Light switches, already on the market, are a good example. Flicking the on/off button on the switch produces enough power to send a simple on/off signal from the switch across the room to a lamp with a ZigBee receiver, turning the light on or off. The switch signal also could transmit to the home’s central set-top box or home control unit, controlling multiple lights and even other devices, as programmed by the homeowner.

With Comcast and other cable operators leading the way, almost all operators have decided to embrace ZigBee and are rolling out set-top boxes with ZigBee radio chips inside. Even though many of the first-generation boxes are primarily using ZigBee to provide a reliable and robust connection for remote controls, the ZigBee connection also serves as the means for adding many other smart home and connected devices. Once the ZigBee network is firmly entrenched in homes worldwide, the next surge will occur as device makers begin to embed ZigBee in a diverse spectrum of edge devices, appliances, and sentrollers.

Cees Links is the founder and CEO of GreenPeak. Under his responsibility, the first wireless LANs were developed, ultimately becoming household technology integrated into PCs and notebooks. He also pioneered the development of access points, home networking routers, and hotspot basestations. He was involved in the establishment of the IEEE 802.11 standardization committee and the WiFi Alliance. And, he was instrumental in establishing the IEEE 802.15 standardization committee to become the basis for the ZigBee sense and control networking.