Cirrent’s Plan to Solve Smart-Home Connectivity Problems

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The startup plans to leverage existing technology in consumers' homes to make adding devices to their Wi-Fi networks a seamless, secure task.

It all started when Rob Conant was helping his mother-in-law set up a new printer back in 2014. Having worked for Dust Networks, an early developer of wireless sensor networks for IoT applications, and then Trilliant Networks, which provides wireless networking for the energy industry, Conant's world was enterprise IoT. But if his mother-in-law was struggling to connect a new printer to her home Wi-Fi network, he reasoned, millions of other consumers must have similar struggles.

That year, Conant left Trilliant to launch Cirrent (pronounced SIR-ent), a startup with a mission to make onboarding—the process of connecting smart products to home Wi-Fi routers—smarter and more secure. "People don't want to be IT managers for their homes, and that is a big challenge for the [smart home] industry," Conant explains. So instead of requiring a consumer to link and register a new product to her home's Wi-Fi router by selecting or entering the correct network name and keying in the network password—and then, perhaps, having to perform troubleshooting to figure out why it's not working as intended—Cirrent automates the process, while also decoupling the product's connection to the homeowner's network password. Thus, if the consumer later changes the password or obtains a new Wi-Fi router, the thermostat, door lock, video camera or any other smart-home device residing on that network will not be impacted.

Rob Conant

When Accenture's 2016 Digital Trends Survey polled 28,000 consumers in 28 countries, 64 percent reported that they had experienced challenges while setting up IoT devices. Eighteen percent of this group was unable to connect the device to the Internet, while 14 percent said the setup did not proceed properly.

Cirrent's technology does not require special hardware. A home Wi-Fi router broadcasts multiple service set identifiers (SSIDs), or network names. There is one that the homeowner uses, along with a password of his choosing, to connect the router to the internet, plus one or more additional SSIDs, which are generally used to create additional hotspots (these IDs may or may not be visible to the homeowner, depending on how that person's internet service provider [ISP] operates the router, assuming that the router was provided by the ISP, and not the homeowner). Cirrent uses one of those additional SSIDs to connect Wi-Fi-enabled devices to the home's router. This is made possible through a partnership with the homeowner's ISP, as well as firmware that runs on the product the homeowner is connecting.

In 2014, according to a 2015 report from research firm his, 66 percent of Wi-Fi routers or gateways in homes around the world were provided by ISP providers. But as the number and type of devices consumers add to their Wi-Fi networks is quickly growing, ISPs consider issuing and managing home routers an increasingly important role to take. By 2019, HIS expects that 90 percent of home Wi-Fi routers will be provided by ISPs, globally.

Cirrent has secured partnerships with enough ISPs to make its technology accessible to a "substantial" portion of the United States and Western Europe, according to Conant, who says it's too early to divulge the names of the ISPs or the quantity of homes that currently have the potential to access Cirrent's technology through their ISPs. However, he adds, the first round of smart-home products (including Wi-Fi video cameras and wireless speakers) with Cirrent's firmware will be available this summer. In addition to the firmware, these product manufacturers establish an account with Cirrent's suite of cloud-based commissioning tools. Combined, this allows a homeowner to simply power on a new device and, using either that device's companion smartphone app or a web browser, respond to an "add to network" prompt.

To ensure that the user does not add the new device to a neighbor's network, the Cirrect software detects the router to which the smartphone is linked and adds the new device to the same network by means of a Cirrent-supported SSID. If the user is setting up a device via Cirrent using a product web page on a computer, he or she can select which private network to link it to. Clicking "yes" automatically adds the device to the network. Conant says Cirrent will not use Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS)—a security measure that utilizes a PIN to authenticate a device to a network, but which is also vulnerable to brute force attacks—while adding devices to a home's network. Instead, he says, Cirrent encrypts the SSID before transmitting it between the device and the router.

Whether the homeowner changes the network password, orders a new router from its ISP or moves to a different home (serviced by an ISP that also partners with Cirrent), the smart-home products will remain networked to the homeowner's Wi-Fi network, since their connections are managed by the device manufacturer, through the ISP, and not configured by the consumer.

"We figure [onboarding] should work just like cellular technology does in terms of ease—but it needs to be done at Wi-Fi prices," Conant says... by which he means, for free.

Conant says he is unable to name the manufacturers to which Cirrent is providing its firmware until those products are available, but that those companies will provide consumers with over-the-air firmware upgrades so that products that they are already using can be re-commissioned to the home network via Cirrent. To use Cirrent, those manufactures set up an account with Cirrent for each product they sell. If the consumer's ISP supports Cirrent's technology, then when the consumer adds the device to his or her home network, it will be onboarded to the network automatically via Cirrent's cloud-based software.

Cirrent will earn a fee from the manufacturer every time a device is onboarded using Cirrent, Conant says. That is the only revenue stream that Cirrent will enjoy, but given the volume of Wi-Fi-connected products sold each year, he adds, the opportunity is substantial.

Last month, Cisco released its latest estimates of global IP traffic, reporting that globally, machine-to-machine (M2M) connections will grow nearly threefold, from 4.9 billion in 2015 to 12.2 billion by 2020, at which point they will represent nearly half of the total pool of connected devices. Cisco expects smart-home products will account for the largest volume of M2M connections during the forecast period, with 2.4 billion in 2015, growing to 5.8 billion by 2020.