After earlier attempts to crack the smart home market failed, it appears that Verizon is ready for another go with its own smart display. Protocol reported the news late last week based on FCC filings showing the radio internals and user manual of the display.
I spent some time reviewing the filing documents and came away with more questions than answers. Even so, there are a few reasons Verizon might be jumping back into the smart home market now.
What we know about Verizon’s smart display
Here’s what the filings tell me about the device.
For starters, it has an 8-inch display with 1280 x 800 resolution. It supports Dolby Atmos sound and has a USB Type-A port. There’s a microphone, camera, with a privacy shutter, that supports video conferencing on Verizon’s own BlueJeans service.
So far, that sounds like almost every other smart display you can currently buy. Here’s where it gets a little different though.
In addition to WiFi and Bluetooth radios, this display also packs an LTE Cat M1 radio. And it uses a custom wake phrase of “Hey Verizon”. This customization appears to be an implementation of Amazon’s Alexa Custom Assistant service that debuted earlier this year.
Indeed, Verizon’s smart display is heavily tied to Amazon’s smart home ecosystem. It can be used for Amazon Alexa announcements, calling, and messaging services, according to the relatively barebones user manual.
Why is there an LTE radio in the Verizon smart display?
Although the FCC filings tell us about the device itself, there are still many questions remaining. I reached out to Verizon yesterday with some of them but haven’t received a response.
For instance, what’s the purpose of that Cat M1 radio?
It’s possible that the LTE radio is meant for backup connectivity in the case of a home internet outage. I don’t see that as a big value add, personally. If you have a smartphone on hand, you can just use it for any digital assistant needs in that case.
Using that LTE radio for anything more than basic information requests is also a stretch.
Even though Verizon is using 700 and 1700 MHz spectrum (the former is great for getting signals through walls) for that radio, the bandwidth of Cat M1 is quite limited. You can expect peak uploads and downloads of up 1 Mbps, meaning you won’t be watching videos and listening to them in Dolby Atmos over LTE on this screen.
That’s because Cat M1 is really designed for the IoT. You can deploy low-powered sensors that run on batteries, for example, that use a Cat M1 network to get their data to the internet. The Verizon smart display is not battery powered, nor is it likely to be an edge sensor that needs its own IoT network radio.
So the inclusion of a Cat M1 radio suggests that Verizon has some other usage in mind.
Amazon Sidewalk hopscotch?
Is it possible that Amazon is considering the addition of this low-powered LTE radio for its Sidewalk effort? Maybe.
If you haven’t been following along, Amazon is hearing from its customers that they’re not happy about automatically being opted in to the Sidewalk network. And the biggest complaint is that Amazon is sending Sidewalk sensor data over the customer’s own home internet connection. The company says it won’t use more than 500 MB a month of bandwidth, but even that small amount could put some people over any data caps they might have.
It’s possible that Verizon’s smart display with its Cat M1 radio can resolve this situation.
In its current implementation Sidewalk uses unlicensed 900 MHz spectrum to get Sidewalk device data online from products that are too far from WiFi and Bluetooth networks. However, there are only a few Sidewalk products such as the Ring Mailbox sensor, Ring Car Alarm, and Tile trackers.
While I don’t see any 900 MHz radio mentioned in the smart display filings, it may not matter. Amazon Sidewalk devices can send their data to a Sidewalk bridge using 900 MHz and that data could then be piped to Verizon’s smart display over WiFi. From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump back to Amazon over the Cat M1 IoT network.
This would create a win all around. Customers won’t have to let Amazon use their home networks for free, although it would require a new device like the smart display for this to occur. Amazon would nearly eliminate the backlash that its Sidewalk implementation has caused. And Verizon comes out on top too: It gets to add more subscriber numbers to its quarterly earnings report plus it gets a foot back in the door of smart homes.
Of course, someone has to pay for that LTE bandwidth. I could see Amazon and Verizon strike a deal where the former pays a discounted rate while the latter gets to easily join the vast Amazon Alexa ecosystem and try to push its BlueJeans video conferencing services.
Another reason for the inclusion of low-bandwidth LTE in Verizon’s smart display could have nothing to do with Amazon at all.
Previously, Verizon sold a smart hub that acted as a landline replacement for voice calls. It’s possible that the new smart display will have a dedicated phone number since the Cat M1 radio needs a SIM for provisioning. Indeed, the unit tested by the FCC has an IMEI number, just like your phone or tablet.
Essentially, you could receive phone calls on the smart display from people who know your “home” phone number. Just like in the old days! Voice is supported on Cat M1, even though it’s not specifically designed for that use case. If it’s a reliable method, this could add incoming and outgoing cellular calls from the display. And it could even originate the calls on Cat M1, failing over to VoIP on WiFi if needed.
How smart will it be and will there be monthly fees?
Presumably, Verizon is doing a “full integration” with Amazon on its smart display.
By that I mean you’ll be able to voice control connected home devices that are part of the Alexa ecosystem. There’s no mention of that in the manual but it makes sense. Well, unless Verizon thinks people want a smart display that isn’t all that smart.
So that’s still an open question. And so too is if there will be any subscription fees for that LTE radio.
I doubt many smart home owners will be keen to add to their monthly fee budget unless they get some value from Verizon that they can’t get elsewhere. It could be that dedicated phone number for calling or some future services. Or maybe Amazon picks up the tab as I suggested earlier.
Either way, it makes for an interesting scenario for what initially seems like a “me too” device.