Home automation, a concept that dates back to the utopian fantasies of the 1950s, is often still regarded in the public imagination as a sci-fi collection of smart appliances, with robotic washing machines and elaborate mechanisms for controlling room lighting. It’s a vision that has often been ridiculed by home-automation skeptics -not entirely without justification. In reality, though, “smart” appliances are but one small part of a technology revolution that will forever change the way we live just as profoundly as the advent of the telephone or electricity did. And, as with those two revolutions, this revolution will be centered on networks – not devices.

As it turns out, it’s not automation that will be the most important component of automated homes – it’s networking. What’s more, the power and influence of this networking will extend beyond individual homes to embrace entire neighborhoods. That’s why, in the long run, home automation is just one piece of a much bigger picture – neighborhood automation.

Neighborhood automation was never featured in any 1950s science fiction prognostications simply because no one could have foreseen or imagined the kind of broadband connectivity that makes it all possible. In a nutshell, neighborhood automation is the ability to link content to physical activities inside your home and your neighborhood. This allows service providers to bring the benefits of broadband connectivity to entirely new dimensions of a consumer’s home life. Previously, whereas a consumer might “access” the Internet from a single point within the home, the entire home now becomes a part of the Internet. At the same time, the connective power of the Net is extended to the entire neighborhood – allowing additional interactivity between Neighbors. In other words, the networked neighborhood helps define the community. After all, the Internet wouldn’t be nearly as useful if you couldn’t interact with other netizens. By the same token, the value of automation is greatly enhanced when it extends to communities as well as individuals.

Homeowner Advantages

From the homeowner’s point of view, neighborhood automation, can offer many innovative and useful services that simply wouldn’t otherwise be possible. And, contrary to the popular image of technology as a force that isolates people from one another, neighborhood automation also promises real benefits in community building. This can happen in a number of ways:

Neighborhood automation systems can be used to provide communities with news and information directly from local schools, merchants, and businesses. This can be anything from the local Little League schedule to arts events to a PTA meeting. In essence, networked neighborhoods can have their own intranets – electronic hubs where they are able to share information and reinforce their sense of community.

Home security is often cited as a prime application for home automation but it’s even more suited to neighborhood automation. The success and popularity of neighborhood watch programs is based on that fact that no one is more vigilant or more likely to notice something unusual happening in a neighborhood than the people who actually live there. When tied to neighborhood automation, though, neighborhood watch programs become much more powerful, as residents get the advantages of both an automated alarm and the sharp eyes of their neighbors, who can be alerted whenever a neighbor’s alarm has been tripped.

Public safety is another ideal application for neighborhood automation. Residents could be alerted to emergency situations ranging form tornados to gas leaks. It’s good to know that the emergency broadcast network exists to alert you to a hazardous situation, but what if your television or radio isn’t on? With neighborhood automation, the television and radio can be activated automatically to deliver the life-saving message.

Perhaps most exciting are those applications that no one has imagined yet, but that will flower when neighborhood automation reaches maturity. After all, no one envisaged eBay when the Web first began to gain popularity. The medium will discover its own applications.

Keeping Customers

Another important reason why neighborhood automation will be successful is that it makes tremendous sense from the standpoint of service providers. The battle for the most attractive customers has already begun as cable providers, telecommunications companies, and others race to deliver broadband access to mass consumer markets. Neighborhood automation services are exactly the kind of offering that can help service providers reduce customer “churn” – switching from one provider to another.

To date, only about 2.5 million U.S. households have the high-speed access to the Web that effective neighborhood automation demands. However, with the number of connected households expected to increase tenfold in four years, this market will evolve rapidly. As it does, several things will happen. First, as broadband availability increases and consumers are given more choices, “basic service” will become commoditized, much as long-distance telephone service did after deregulation, resulting in lower prices and narrower margins. Second, as consumers become accustomed to the power and convenience of “always on” connections, they will be more receptive to new services that such connectivity enables. Third, at the same time, broadband access providers will rush to provide those services, both to differentiate themselves from competitors and to generate income beyond basic connection fees. Those companies that market the most compelling services beyond the basic connection, such as neighborhood automation, will be the ones that succeed.

Creating Customers

Neighborhood automation also offers tremendous opportunities to extend the convenience and power of e-commerce to local communities. Automated neighborhoods can receive advertising that is tailored to local needs and desires. At the same time, local merchants will be able to direct their own advertising and customer outreach to highly targeted audiences within their own communities. The old-fashioned Yellow Pages achieved their ubiquity because they served a useful purpose for both merchants and consumers. The kind of advertising that will be made possible by neighborhood automation will be even more powerful, convenient and useful for both parties. This powerful advertising model will be very attractive to service providers who are looking for ways to monetize their broadband services.

One thing is certain: The availability of an “always on,” high-speed home connection will extend the Internet’s reach far beyond the traditional home computer platform. This will bring fundamental and profound changes in how we live, how we entertain ourselves, how we raise our children, and how we interact with both our physical and virtual neighbors. The future for neighborhood automation is a bright one.