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Promotion, Real Product Push Lead Internet Alliance's Agenda

6/11/2001 02:00:00 AM Eastern

SAN RAMON, CALIF. — When the Internet Home Alliance announced itself to the world last October, the economic skies were considerably sunnier than they are today. Weathering economic slowdowns in both the consumer and high technology markets, the not-for-profit alliance appeared vulnerable to funding cuts as its founding members — Cisco, Best Buy, Sears and Sun Microsystems — took a beating in the stock market.

Not so, said Kristine Stewart, Alliance VP and Cisco's market development director. "I would say one of our biggest successes to date is that while our members have been battling fires on the home ranch, they've become even more committed to our mission," said Stewart, whose alliance was scheduled to hold its first member meeting this month in Coronado, Calif.

That mission, to promote home networking technology and the "Internet Lifestyle," received an unexpected boost recently from the emerging energy crisis. In April, the Alliance and member utility New Power Co. announced a pilot program that would allow 500 Houston residents to control their thermostats via the Internet. The program began in June and will run through September.

"I wish I could say, or maybe I don't, that we saw this energy crisis coming," and leveraged it to promote home networking, said Stewart. "This just happened to be the first of our pilot programs to get underway."

The program, which is expected to garner participants a 10 percent to 15 percent savings on their utility bills, will let users remotely control their thermostats from off-site PDAs, cellphones or personal computers.

To maximize the potential energy savings, New Power will ask customers for the right to remotely adjust their thermostat settings a few degrees between the weekday peak hours of noon and 5 p.m. The adjustment, which New Power claims will barely be noticed by most consumers, has a substantial effect on peak energy demand and costs. By reducing usage a small amount during periods of peak demand, customers can save additional money and help conserve energy resources.

However, the customer is allowed to override the adjustment at any time from the Web or a wireless device.

New Power will also offer numerous "concept" products to the pilot participants. As part of the pilot, households will be asked to complete a number of short surveys about how they use the system and their feelings about new product concepts.

Sears will install and service the Energy Management System during the pilot program. The retailer's installers will complete the system installation in a matter of hours and provide user instruction. Coactive Networks will provide the heart of the system: the residential gateway and telemetry e-services network. This technology uses home networking to enable real-time monitoring and control of devices over the Internet without requiring any new wires in the home.

This program, said Stewart, is a prime example of the Internet Home Alliance's mission in action and is indicative of a refocusing of its efforts.

"Initially we were very concerned with marketing and educating consumers on the virtues of the connected home, but now we're really focused on our pilot programs and developing the products for people that have real value in their lives. I think that actually showing people products and solutions is a good way to break down the barriers" inhibiting the technology, said Stewart.

Future pilot programs, expected to be announced later this month, will focus on wireless networking, entertainment on demand, and structured wiring for security and home HVAC applications.

As the products enter the retail market, Stewart said, the Alliance will work with its retail members (including Best Buy and Sears) to furnish market research and help them "put together the right consumer focus" for moving the products. The last word on how products are sold, however, will lie with the individual retail company."