What can integrators do to serve clients who have had to turn their homes into makeshift offices and family entertainment hubs?
One of the many challenging lessons the global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed is the need for robust, buttoned-up, and reliable home network capabilities. Integrators — who were classified by the federal government as "Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers," in large part because of their expertise in residential networking solutions — sprung into action to keep a massive, swiftly assembled home workforce online. Now that the initial hectic and often confusing days of adjustment are behind us, what can integrators do to serve clients who have had to turn their homes into makeshift offices and family entertainment hubs?
For answers, we turned to three experts in home technology and systems integration: Texas-based Pytheas Enterprises President and CEDIA Tech Council Chair Michael Maniscalco (www.pytheasenterprises.com), Tennessee-based Access Networks Director of Training and Development Nathan Holmes (www.accessnetworks.com), and New Yorkbased Sound &Theater President Shawn Lemay (www.soundandtheater.net).
Each agrees that a more massive spotlight is now cast on the stability, security, and speed that comes with a well-crafted home network system, and during a recent episode of the CEDIA Podcast, shared insights into opportunities integrators can capture. The network forms the backbone of any smart home technology in the home, from the home office, to connected gaming systems, to innovative home gym technology, to indoor and outdoor speakers, sensors, and beyond.
Keeping America Connected
Maniscalco likens the heightened attention for cybersecurity and network performance brought on by the onset of the work-from-home movement to an amplifier. "We're seeing people work from home, we're seeing people learn from home, we're seeing medicine be delivered to and from homes, right? Physicians are remote in their homes while the patients are remote at their homes," he said.
These situations rose from aspirations to expectations during the pandemicdriven lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders, and Masniscalco says one previously accepted limitation was Internet Service Providers' (ISPs') insistence on data caps and constraints for residential customers. "They've said our infrastructure cannot manage and cannot maintain unlimited data caps for everybody and fast speeds for everybody, but, what we're seeing is — in reality, once this work from home thing happened — all the caps were lifted, all the speeds were increased for free, their Wi-Fi hotspots around the country were turned on," said Maniscalco. "'Keep America Connected' was the FCC request, and it's worked out pretty darn well."
Essentially, we've all now seen the full picture of connectivity - and integrators are well-positioned to play a key role in delivering the expertise, technology, and long-term solutions for the broader, inhome needs of clients. "We don't need as much bandwidth as we think we need for most of the applications and everything we're doing " as Holmes put it adding that it's time to move forward in a reality where ISPs possess enough of a data pipeline to "support everybody, if everybody does everything."
What are the manufacturer's specifications on certain equipment designed to keep your home network secure?
Lemay says it's critical for integrators to design systems with the full suite of cybersecurity and other protection technology in mind to guarantee peak performance. Maniscalco says Lemay has an answer for a common situation where a client might say: "My $129 router — right on the box — says it's gigabit and will do XYZ for network or for Wi-Fi throughput. What's the deal?" A good professional integrator can provide analysis and options by assessing the effects of firewalls, remote network performance-monitoring technology, and other security features on the real-world execution of the network - especially because home systems are being used more now than ever before.
Integrators and homeowners must be on the same page with a particular home setup's true capabilities, factoring together all the hardware, software, bandwidth, and cabling. Maniscalco laughs, and adds, "The marketing joke is 'well, if it's 51% true, it can go on the box.'" He continued, "A lot of it is you're paying for processing capability. You're paying for processor, memory, so that that device can function at its optimal performance level, and there's a big difference between an entry-level processor and a cutting-edge processor. And the same thing is true with networking."
"For us, for example, our entry-level router/ firewall is a $400 device... That's our entry level device and then we build up from there," Lemay said. "If you want the extra speeds —key word: speeds — you want that extra speed, it's going to cost you more and it could very easily be a several- thousand-dollar firewall."
Holmes suggests diving deep into a system design to match how the client wants to protect their home network and those who use it. He recommends integrators take a "top-down" approach when discussing the gear needed for an installation, which is to say: sell networking equipment the way speakers are often sold. "When you start asking... questions — not based on product, but based on features — it helps drive (clients) to the one that's going to support them, regardless of if it's most expensive or not... The products kind of reveal themselves based on these features."
Additional discussions integrators can have with clients, Holmes suggests, include:
• annual subscriptions that relate to the level of protection
• monitoring offered in a given system or in pre-determined tiers of equipment and infrastructure packages
• pro-active support and firewall maintenance options
• follow-up communications with clients as their needs change and technology evolves, which are also critical.
Lemay urges integrators to focus on educating the consumer on all facets of security and how they can avoid pitfalls. Holmes adds that a comprehensive approach to up-front training and a focus on best practices by the end user will lead to happier clients who can troubleshoot issues when they inevitably arise. "One of the top areas of focus is awareness. It's build more awareness for your technicians," Maniscalco urges, "because it's not just your clients, it's your technicians that need to be aware of what good and bad habits are, but it's also (key to) build awareness for your clients and their families."