/Smart homes will turn dumb overnight as Charter kills security service

Smart homes will turn dumb overnight as Charter kills security service


A Charter Spectrum service vehicle.
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/ A Charter Spectrum vehicle.

Charter is killing its home-security service and telling customers that security devices they’ve purchased will stop working once the service is shut down on February 5.

The impending shutdown and customers’ anger at Charter—a cable company also known by the brand name “Spectrum”—has been widely reported over the past month. Over the years, some customers have spent large sums on products that will no longer work.

One user posting on a DSLReports forum said they spent $1,200 on sensors and IP cameras, which will be essentially useless in a couple of weeks. The devices won’t connect to other alarm-monitoring services, and Charter will no longer offer the ability to remotely manage the system and view security video. (We’re guessing a Charter alarm would still be able to make loud noises when someone breaks into a house, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work with an alarm-monitoring service.)

Charter partnered with Amazon’s Ring and Abode to give customers a free equipment bundle if they buy a year of monitoring, but those deals may not be enough to compensate customers who purchased a lot of devices from Charter over the years. Charter is not providing refunds.

No interoperability

A big question is why there’s no way for Charter customers to keep using these devices, given that they rely on the Zigbee specification that allows multi-vendor interoperability for smart-home products. Why can’t Charter customers connect their security devices to a Zigbee-enabled smart-home hub, or use them with another alarm-monitoring service that supports Zigbee? One user on DSLReports pointed out that years ago, Spectrum devices “were firmware coded to prevent them from being seen and usable within the normal universe of Zigbee devices.” But could Charter issue a software update that lets these products work with other Zigbee systems?

We haven’t gotten a definitive answer, but it seems that a Zigbee hub alone isn’t enough to ensure that Charter’s security products work with alarm-monitoring systems offered by other vendors. We asked Charter, and a company spokesperson initially told us the following: “My understanding is that other service providers who use Zigbee have their own devices/software/certification that make those devices non-transferable to someone else’s home security solution. That isn’t something specific to Charter.”

We then contacted the Zigbee Alliance, an industry group that develops standards and certifies products to ensure multi-vendor interoperability. The first answer a Zigbee Alliance spokesperson gave us made it sound like the Charter products should be re-usable with other vendors’ Zigbee-enabled systems:

Our team looked into this and the involved Zigbee devices [used by Charter] were sourced through Icontrol and were Zigbee Certified and Icontrol certified. Via a factory reset they can be joined to another hub—so a re-pair process is possible.

(Icontrol Networks’ business lines were purchased by Comcast and Alarm.com in March 2017.)

So can Charter customers simply do a factory reset, join their security products to any Zigbee hub, and sign up for another security service? Not quite. Even if there is a factory-reset method available on a particular device, that doesn’t mean the reset will make the device compatible with other vendors’ systems.

“The answer varies by exact device,” the Zigbee Alliance told us. “Each device will have a factory reset method, but what that is varies by manufacturer.”

The Zigbee Alliance is trying to solve this problem with its All Hubs Initiative announced in May 2019, which aims to improve interoperability, the spokesperson told us. But it appears that effort won’t help Charter customers keep their products running after February 5.

Factory reset won’t help

After the Zigbee Alliance answered our questions, we asked Charter if it’s possible for customers to perform a factory reset and pair their devices with non-Charter Zigbee hubs.

Charter’s answer included some good news for customers, but not much. What Charter calls “lifestyle devices,” such as thermostats and lighting devices, “will work on hubs that support those devices and can be defaulted and re-paired with that hub,” Charter told us.

But Charter security devices can’t be joined to other security systems, even if they use Zigbee, the company told us. While those thermostats and lights will work with other vendors, “that isn’t the case with the security devices such as window and door alarms, which account for the majority of Spectrum Home Security devices,” Charter said. “Other home security providers have their own security/alarm devices, software and certifications and those systems wont accept a security device that they haven’t tested or certified.”

ADT says that its security hub works with Zigbee lights, cameras, thermostats, door locks, and other products, but that “only ADT-monitored security devices can be used for security monitoring with the ADT Security Hub.” Charter’s system appears to be similarly restricted.

“In this case, Charter probably has hard-coded these devices to only work with its security services,” Ars IT Editor Sean Gallagher told me when I asked him to help me make sense of the problem. Although certain products like light bulbs and smart locks are widely compatible across different vendors’ hubs, Gallagher also noted that “Zigbee is famously nonstandard as a standard.”

Customers lose

While the question of why the products won’t work after February 5 is hard to answer, one thing was immediately clear: Charter customers are getting a bad deal.

Charter noted in a statement that it “inherited” the home-security business from Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks when it bought those companies in May 2016. Those acquisition made Charter the second biggest cable provider in the US, but Charter apparently never wanted the home-security service that came with the greatly expanded cable business.

“Spectrum stopped marketing the Home Security product after that transaction in 2016 but has continued to maintain the service for the past 3+ years,” Charter told us.

Charter is giving customers a couple of options to soften the blow. Charter partnered with Amazon’s Ring to offer a free security kit (with an alarm base station, alarm keypad, three contact sensors, one motion detector, and one range detector) when customers purchase one year of Ring monitoring for $340.

Charter also partnered with Abode on a similar deal that includes an 8-piece kit with four sensors, a gateway, key fob, keypad, and streaming camera when customers buy one year of monitoring for $179.

“We are dedicated to making this a smooth transition for our Home Security customers and have partnered with Ring and Abode, two leading home security providers, to bring our customers exclusive offers and discounts on replacement security service and products,” Charter said in a statement.

It’s not clear how many Charter customers use the home-security service. The company said that the shutdown “impacts a very small number of Spectrum’s customers” because Charter stopped marketing the service in 2016. (Charter has 28.7 million total customers across its cable TV, broadband, and phone businesses.)

The Ring and Abode deals are probably enough to satisfy at least some Charter customers. But some say these deals won’t replace all the equipment they’ve purchased over the years.

Steve Rottinghouse, a longtime Spectrum security customer who was profiled by KSBY News in Central California this month, said he “spent almost $900 for cameras, motion sensors, door sensors, window sensors, and a thermostat.” But he said the deals offered through Ring and Abode would replace only “a fraction of the setup he has here in his house, and [that] he will have to spend hundreds of dollars more to build a similar Ring security system,” KSBY reported.

“I called [Charter] and asked if I can get a credit toward my phone bill or cable bill,” Rottinghouse told the news station. “And they said no.”

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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