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smartphone_technology(MCT)—Every day Larry Schweber can see his 8-year-old daughter come home from school, even while he’s at work. He gets a text message with a video clip every time someone walks through the front door of his home in Georgia’s Ansley Park neighborhood.

The thermostats on the first floor of that home start to rise automatically at 5:30 a.m. every day and then lower the temperature at 8:30 a.m., once everyone has left the house. The thermostats adjust again when Lily Schweber comes home after school and at night they rise to warm the bedrooms upstairs while the family is sleeping.

Welcome to the “connected home,” the new way of managing your home’s security system, lights, temperature and entertainment systems. By using an app on a smartphone or tablet, consumers now can turn lights on and off, let in a delivery person or see whether their kids are doing their homework — from anywhere in the world.

Programmable sensors and cameras help monitor movement, detect rising carbon monoxide levels and signal if there’s rising water so consumers know about possible burglaries, water leaks and other emergencies immediately. Companies are touting peace of mind as well as lower homeowner’s insurance and utility bills because of the extra layers of security and energy management.

AT&T Mobility developed its Digital Life system in Atlanta and has been testing the system there and in Dallas. The nation’s No. 2 wireless company will start selling the packages in those cities and six other markets next month. The company is pushing the concept of having everything in your home remotely accessible from anywhere at any time, CEO Ralph de la Vega says.

“This way you know if the (coffee) pot is off, the garage doors are down and what the weather is like,” de la Vega says, no matter where you are.

For companies like AT&T Mobility and Comcast, already giants in the telecommunications industry, pushing into home automation is one way to expand their services and raise the competitive stakes.

AT&T is selling its package to any consumer, regardless of his or her wireless provider, giving the company the widest market options available.

Customers of Comcast’s XFinity Home system also must have the company’s broadband Internet. But Comcast’s connected systems offer wider entertainment options that include Facebook and Pandora apps for your TV and the ability to download movies and TV shows and watch them on a smartphone or tablet.

“It’s about taking your services with you or being at your house when you can’t be,” says Charlie Herrin, Comcast’s senior vice president of product design.

Home automation has been around for years, but the systems used to cost thousands of dollars, making them affordable only for the richest homeowners. Changes in technology and the ability to control the systems using smartphones and tablets have helped bring down the price and make them more widely available.

“It’s something that will grow initially slowly,” says Roger Entner, a telecommunications analyst with Boston-based Recon Analytics. But, he says, once you’ve seen it, “you’re thinking, ‘I can use that, and it’s not that expensive.’” The systems — typically a package of cameras, sensors and other devices — range from $200 to $400 to buy, but can be more expensive depending on additional features. Service fees can start as low as $30 a month for some basic packages but can run more than $100 for premium services.

“The moment that the savings are really showing (on insurance and utility bills), that’s when this really becomes a no-brainer,” Entner says.

Insurance companies offer discounts for additional home monitoring systems. The amount customers save depends on the type of monitoring service and features that are included, an Allstate spokesman said. Users of traditional home security systems are slow to add the “connected features,” says Jim Callahan, CEO of Atlanta’s Ackerman Security, which has transformed its systems from using traditional wires and landline phones to a wireless one that can be controlled by a remote device.

About 25 percent to 30 percent of new customers want the additional thermostat monitoring systems, remote lock devices and cameras.

“Not everybody we’re talking to is clamoring for it,” he says.

Still, he says, Ackerman installed about 350 connected systems last month.

Analysts say it’s too early to have widespread reports of security breaches, which consumers say are a top concern as things become more wireless. Each of the providers has customers type in a log-in, passcode and sometimes a PIN number to access their information — making it difficult for someone else to do so in the event a smartphone or tablet gets lost or stolen.

For now, the reports from users of the systems are good.

An AT&T Mobility employee testing the Digital Life system at his home helped Atlanta police nab a thief who was taking UPS and FedEx packages from neighborhood porches last December, de la Vega said.

The employee aimed a sensor at the front door step and programmed it to send a text message every time there was motion. The employee then left a fake package in front of his house, and at 6 a.m. his phone lit up with a text message and photo of someone swiping the package.

One phone call to the police, and the thief was picked up 30 minutes later, de la Vega said.

“He took a system and was able to change it to work for him. It was that easy to program from an iPad,” de la Vega says.

Schweber, who had Comcast’s XFinity Home system installed about a year ago, shared additional stories. Parents of teenagers use the monitoring sensors to detect when the liquor cabinet is opened, he said. A friend of Schweber’s put a water-level sensor next to the washer and got a text message that the appliance was leaking.

And then there’s the TV, which changes channels by voice command.

“The 8-year-old kids love it,” he says.

©2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
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