Less than a year is left before U.S. wireless service providers are likely to begin turning off their analog cellular service. The security industry is simultaneously scrambling to try to get the analog sunset date of Feb 18, 2008 delayed and to convert customers that currently use analog cellular service for alarm transmission to other alternatives.
Wireless service providers are not required to shut down analog service â€” also known as AMPS (for Advanced Mobile Phone Service) â€” on the sunset date. However, in major metropolitan areas they are almost certain to do so, experts say, because they can re-use the wireless spectrum to provide more efficient digital service, which can handle many more calls.
Sources estimate that as many as one million alarm systems installed in the field today use AMPS communication. “It could be three-quarters of a million to a million systems,” notes George Gunning, who is president of the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, as well as CEO of USA Alarm Systems, Monrovia, Calif.
When a wireless service provider shuts down analog phone service, any analog cellular communicators in the territory will cease to operate. For the majority of these affected systems, the cellular connection is used to back up a traditional phone line to help ensure communication in the event of a phone line failure such as a cut line or storm damage. But increasingly, some customers are relying solely on wireless for voice communications, which means that they also end up relying solely on wireless for alarm system communications. “A lot of people are abandoning their phone lines and using cellular as the primary communications for their alarm systems,” notes Lou Fiore, a consultant with L.T. Fiore Inc. who also chairs the alarm industry communications committee of the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA).
Dealer OptionsAlarm dealers have several options for replacing analog cellular communicators. One is to install a communicator capable of working with more modern digital cellular networks. Among the manufacturers offering products of this type are Honeywell Security & Custom Electronics, Napco Security Co. Inc., and Uplink. Some of these use wireless carriers’ short message service networks for sending alarm signals, while others use GPRS (for General Packet Radio Service), a dedicated wireless data network operated by wireless carriers such as Cingular whose networks are based on Global System for Mobile Communications, or GSM, technology.
Alternatively, some alarm dealers may opt for a wireless communications solution that does not rely on cellular service providers. Such solutions require dealers to build and operate their own local wireless networks, although modern mesh technology can simplify this task by enabling each customer’s transceiver to act as a network repeater. Among the manufacturers offering alarm communicators based on private wireless networks are AES-IntelliNet and KP Electronic Systems.
Manufacturers such as Honeywell and AES-IntelliNet say they will have no trouble producing sufficient product in time for dealers to meet the sunset date. But Gordon Hope, Honeywell vice president of marketing and business development, expresses a different concern. “We don’t have a problem, but the industry has a problem,” he says. “The issue is not the manufacturer. The issue is the labor capacity to swap out the systems.”
Concerns such as these have driven the CSAA’s Alarm Industry Communications Committee to petition the Federal Communications Commission to push the date when cellular carriers can shut down their analog networks to later in the future. But, Fiore predicts, “If there is an extension, it’s unlikely it will be long. We might get six months, perhaps at most a year.”
Recognizing this, Gunning says, “We’ve advised everyone to start changing their systems out now. Don’t wait.”
Private WirelessDoyle Security Systems Inc., a Rochester, N.Y.-based alarm dealer, has about 400 analog cellular communicators in the field. But that number is considerably smaller than the number of AES-IntelliNet radios the company has installed. For a number of years, Doyle primarily has installed the private radio option for customers wanting a backup to their traditional phone line. The company’s policy has been only to install cellular communicators in areas that the AES-IntelliNet product doesn’t cover, explains Doyle chief operating officer Kevin Stone. As a result, the analog sunset clause will have substantially less impact on Doyle’s business than it might have otherwise.
Doyle has not yet experienced a decline in analog cellular service. Nevertheless, the company has begun to replace some of its AMPS communicators. If technicians go on a service call for a customer that has one of them, they replace it. Before putting in a GSM communicator, however, the company first tries an AES-IntelliNet product â€” and more often than not, that product works, even though it may not have been an option when the system was first installed.
The reason that situation occurs relates to the product’s wireless mesh approach. Each customer’s radio becomes a node on the network and can act as a repeater â€” an approach that helps to minimize the initial investment required and offers an extra level of redundancy by providing customers multiple paths through the network. Over the years, as Doyle has added more customers, its total coverage area has expanded significantly.
This year, Doyle plans to do a mailing to all analog cellular customers to advise them of the impending problem and to continue to replace the communicators with AES-IntelliNet radios wherever possible. Sooner or later, Stone anticipates that the company will run into some AMPS customers that the AES-IntelliNet network still doesn’t reach and when that time comes, the company plans to use GSM communicators to serve them.
One alarm dealer that already has made some swap-outs is AE Security of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Although Canada has not yet set a sunset date for analog cellular service, AE Security president Randy Larkam says, “We’re starting to have some issues. Wireless service providers are shutting down analog towers here and there and we get the odd ‘failure to communicate.’”
When a customer’s analog cellular communicator fails as a result of such network problems, AE Security has converted them to a communicator from Uplink that uses short message service for communications. Within a few months, however, Larkam hopes to begin using a GPRS-based communicator from Honeywell. That panel is already available in the U.S., but has not yet reached the Canadian market.
Larkam primarily uses Honeywell panels and, when Honeywell’s GPRS-based communicator is used with them, they will communicate alarm information by zone. The Uplink product, like some other communicators that work with today’s digital cellular networks, communicates only burglar or fire signals. It does so by attaching to the bell output of a panel, which enables it to function with virtually any make and model of panel. (Honeywell’s offering also can use that option when connected to a non-Honeywell product or to certain older Honeywell panels.)
Hope adds that GSM was chosen over CDMA, a competitive digital cellular technology used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint, because the cost to use CDMA would have been prohibitive. “Qualcomm owns the technology and gets exorbitant royalties through the chip makers,” he says. As a result, he says, “The whole industry has ended up with GSM.”
When a conversion from an analog cellular communicator to a digital one is necessary, AE Security charges customers around $500 Canadian ($428 U.S.) for the new equipment. Customers aren’t happy about the charge, Larkam says, but view it as a cost of doing business. Ninety-eight percent of AE customers that have cellular communicators are using them for backup, he says, and typically those customers are businesses with Underwriters Laboratory of Canada (ULC) approved fire alarm systems or high-end residential accounts.