LED lights, which are far more versatile than their incandescent and fluorescent cousins, also benefit far more from being connected into building-wide “smart” lighting networks. Think of controlling every light in the building to save energy by turning them off when people leave the room or dimming when daylight shines through the windows. Then, add data collection and analysis, on everything from which lights are starting to fail to which parts of the building are showing signs of energy waste or misuse, and the light fixture becomes the new node of an energy-smart building.

But we’ve got a long way to go to get there. Fewer than 10 percent of the buildings in the world are networked for smart lighting of any kind, according to industry rule-of-thumb estimates, and those that are tend to use a mix of semi-standard and proprietary technologies. Even the latest crop of wireless lighting network startups like Daintree Networks, Enlighted, Digital Lumens and Adura (bought by Acuity earlier this year) tend to have different tweaks and twists to how they get lots and lots of lights to communicate.

Combine that with the fragmented and slow-to-change lighting industry, and you’ve got a recipe for a very complex path to broader adoption of smart, networked LEDs. To get beyond the current method of project-by-project integration and get to commercial scale, LED chipmakers, driver and controller vendors, fixture integrators and other players must work together -- perhaps by offering customers a package they can deploy with a minimum of fuss, and with some guarantee of future-forward compatibility.

Big Silicon Valley semiconductor maker Marvell announced two LED integration partnerships on Monday, one for homes and one for businesses, that help underscore how chipmakers are playing their role in bringing disparate lights into a more energy-aware, networked whole. With the annual Lightfair lighting industry trade show only a week away, expect more announcements like these from the chipmakers playing an integral role in the LED revolution that may, finally, be getting underway.

Office Lights With Built-In Networking, Courtesy of Marvell, Daintree and Orama

Marvell’s first announcement is with LED driver manufacturer Orama and Silicon Valley startup Daintree Networks, whose ZigBee-based communications and software now networks lights for about 10 million square feet of commercial space. Until now, that’s all been done via retrofitting Daintree’s wireless control nodes to lighting ballasts, drivers and controllers from the factory.

But Monday’s announcement changes that with the news that the company will be installing Marvell’s chips into Orama's drivers and controllers straight off the factory line. Those then go to market ready to connect to Daintree’s networking and control platform, at a cost that is radically cheaper than the retrofit alternative, Kishore Manghnani, Marvell’s vice president of green technology products, said in a Friday interview.

A typical retrofit costs about $100 per lighting fixture, he said. What's more, unless it's an LED, it's likely to include only a one-way analog interface, with simple on-off controls and voltage-controlled dimming -- hardly the stuff of which "smart" devices are made.

Combining a $2 ZigBee chip with the functionality of the LED driver itself cuts the integration costs from $100 to $2, right off the bat, he said. From there, “Now you’ve got digital interfaces, directly into the driver,” which can include everything from color control and motion-activated dimming to status monitoring and energy measurement, he said.

“You’re end to-end digital and end-to-end wireless,” is how he put it. Orama plans to make the same technology available to fixture OEMs or value-added resellers to help spread it up the industry chain, he added. All of it is based on ZigBee Alliance protocols for both home and commercial environments, he said. Marvell is also a big provider of Wi-Fi chips for other industries like video game platforms, and has its eye on compatibility with evolving standards for IPv6 mesh networking, Manghnani noted.

In the meantime, there is plenty of competition in the commercial lighting sector, where paybacks are pretty clear-cut on both energy efficiency and sensor data collection fronts. Startups like Lunera and Digital Lumens are building their own fixtures in various formats to serve specific markets, such as high-end commercial spaces or warehouse lighting. Players in the space, including Philips, Osram, GE, Cree, Bridgelux, LGPanasonicSamsung and Sharp, have LED plans in the works that involve networking in one way or another.

The Smart Home Light Bulb, Courtesy of Marvell and Samsung

Marvell’s second partner is Samsung, which announced Monday that it has built Marvell’s chips into its retrofit line of residential and small commercial LED bulbs, including the classic A19 bulb, as well as bigger PAR and BR form factors. Besides being one of the first (though not the only) LED light bulbs with wireless networking smarts built in, Marvell is promising better dimming capabilities -- a sore point in some previous residential LED models -- as well as a reduced component count and resulting tiny size, which can allow it to drive bulbs as small as the 1.5-inch long E-17 LED bulbs in use in Japan, Manghnani said.

Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings giant that’s pledged to go all-LED by 2016, is already selling Marvell’s LED controller at some stores, he said, which discovers and connects the networkable lights in the home, via a gateway device. Other LED makers of both the name-brand and white-label variety are working on integrating Marvell’s chips into their products, he added, though they haven’t announced products yet.

In the meantime, network-enabled light bulbs are coming out in a wide variety of networking flavors, including ZigBee, Z-Wave and Wi-Fi on the wireless front. In October NXP Semiconductor and GreenWave Reality launched a light bulb with built-in IPv6-compatible 6LoWPAN mesh networking capabilities, along with a smart thermostat and home gateway that plugs into GreenWave’s energy management software. Google and Lighting Sciences Group announced plans for a Wi-Fi-connected LED bulb to run over Google’s Android@Home platform last year, though we haven’t heard much on that front since then.

The business case for connecting light bulbs in homes is as yet unproven, though for high-value installations, like retail space or luxury homes, the value of LED systems’ qualities might find earlier traction. Still, with incandescent phase-outs underway across the world, and LEDs continuing to drop in price while improving in quality and efficiency, we may be approaching the moment when it becomes worth everyone’s while to build some level of networking smarts into bulbs for the mass market. Stay tuned for next week’s Lightfair show to hear how the lighting industry plans to make that sale.