The Changing Face of Alarm Transmission
Wireless monitoring is on the rise â€” either via wireless mesh or cellular technology. Driving this trend are two different customer needs. On the one hand are customers, primarily residential, who are seeking an alternative to a traditional digital dialer â€” either because they do not have a traditional phone line or because they are concerned that their phone line might be cut. On the other hand are commercial customers who are opting to use wireless, sometimes in combination with another technology, as a more economical or efficient means of meeting Underwriters Laboratories requirements for fire or high-security burglary protection.
In this article SDM talks with security dealers that offer wireless monitoring about the requirements and benefits of that technology.
WIRELESS MESHAlarm Detection Systems of Aurora, Ill., installs wireless mesh communications for a wide variety of applications, including commercial fire (UL864), high-security (UL Double-A), and for residential fire and burglary systems, particularly for customers who do not have a traditional landline phone. Using AES-IntelliNet equipment from Peabody, Mass.-based manufacturer AES Corporation, ADS has built its own communications network in its service territory, which comprises the metropolitan Chicago market.
Wireless mesh communications are based on the concept that any individual radio at any customer location can act as a repeater for any other radio the dealer has installed. Each radio covers a few miles, ADS vice president Ed Bonifas explains, which means that virtually every radio has multiple other radios within its range. “Many can reach dozens on the first hop,” Bonifas says.
The net result is that signals can follow any of multiple redundant paths to reach the central station. If any radio is out of service, the system automatically finds another radio that can handle the signal. “The reliability of mesh is on the verge of unbelievable since every node can be a repeater,” Bonifas explains.
That reliability also enables AES-IntelliNet equipment to meet UL requirements for commercial fire protection without the traditional requirement for an additional communications link, explains AES-IntelliNet general manager, Tom Kenty. Because individual communications units are regularly checking in with each other, the network can generate alert signals if an individual radio loses communication.
“It’s our favorite form of communication for fire,” Bonifas says. ADS also uses wireless mesh for jewelry stores or other installations that require UL high-security certification for intrusion protection. AES-IntelliNet meets UL requirements for higher security AA burglar systems when used in combination with another communications link, such as a second radio unit or a dedicated phone line, Kenty explains.
Guardian Security Systems of Seattle also prefers to use AES-IntelliNet for most commercial fire installations rather than the traditional approach that dedicates two phone lines to a system. With the traditional approach, a typical fire customer might pay $45 for monitoring and $45 for each phone line every month. In comparison, Guardian charges about $75 a month for monitoring a fire system that uses wireless mesh communications, yielding a lower operating cost for the customer and higher monthly recurring revenue for Guardian. Most customers opt to lease the equipment. “They usually prefer that because if the box breaks, somebody gives them a new box,” comments Guardian Security Systems chief executive officer (CEO), Frank Close.
Another benefit of wireless mesh technology is that it is faster because it does not require the modem tone handshakes that are needed with phone communications, Close adds.
Wireless mesh technology is not cheap. Close says the installed cost is around $750 per customer. That’s a price tag that may cause many dealers to reserve the technology for jobs requiring specific UL listings or for customers who do not have a landline phone. It may make sense though to use wireless mesh for burglary protection at a site that already has the technology installed for fire protection.
And not every dealer passes its wireless mesh installation costs onto the customer. ADS, for example, “deeply discounts” the installation price for a wireless mesh installation to make it attractive to a wider range of end users, Bonifas says. Customers commit to a multiple-year contract, and ADS makes back the installation costs in monthly monitoring fees over time.
Whenever they pitch an alarm system, salespeople for Canton, Ohio-based Diebold recommend cellular communications as a backup. “If they’re on dial-up someone can cut the line and even if they’re using the Internet for their primary communications, we recommend they back it up,” explains Vince Lupe, director of channel and partner strategies for Diebold, who adds that Diebold’s customer base is primarily non-residential.
The backup system that Diebold salespeople typically suggest uses a wireless transmitter from Telguard, a unit of Chicago-based manufacturer Telular, that uses cellular communications. That system is programmed to communicate with a central monitoring location operated by Telular, and from there, the alarm messages are automatically sent over the Internet to Diebold’s central station, where operators can respond as appropriate.
Customers have a choice for their cellular service. For example, they can either go with their current cellular provider or Diebold can provide an airtime plan that is set up for low air-time usage, which can be more economical for the customer.
Diebold sells cellular for primary communications only when traditional alternatives, such as a landline phone or Internet connection, are unavailable. “Cellular towers go down and you do run the risk of the perfect storm hitting,” Lupe comments.
Smith Thompson Security, a Plano, Texas-based dealer, primarily targets the residential market. As with Diebold, its salespeople also pitch cellular-based monitoring on every sales call. If a customer has a landline connection, the company connects the system to the landline and cellular links. If not, the cellular connection is the sole link. “Cellular is so reliable we have had no problems,” comments Mark Thompson, Smith Thompson Security president.
Smith Thompson uses the Uplink cellular communications unit from Atlanta-based Numerex. As with the Telular system, signals initially go to a monitoring location operated by the equipment provider. From there, the signal is sent over the Internet to Smith Thompson’s central station. Smith Thompson pays a monthly fee to Numerex on a per-customer basis.
An impressive 95 percent of new Smith Thompson customers opt to purchase the cellular connectivity, even though there is a higher up-front cost as well as a bit higher monthly monitoring charge. “We warn them of the possible disadvantages of using just a landline,” Thompson relates. “Tampering with phone lines has always been one of the industry’s dirty little secrets.”
Thompson likens phone line risks to a crazy aunt living in the basement. “She’s always been down there, but now she’s making a lot of noise,” he says. He cites the example of two Dallas suburbs that recently experienced a rash of burglaries in which the perpetrators cut both phone and power lines.
The poor economy actually has helped fuel interest in cellular alarm communications because people are looking to save money by canceling their landline phone, Thompson adds. “When they start adding up the savings of getting rid of their landline, they realize it’s a no-brainer,” he says.
NO MORE LANDLINES
“The first thing we talk about is the phone line,” says Safeguard CEO John R. Jennings. “We show customers where the line comes in and say, ‘It could be cut.’ Then we talk about radio and then the solution.” Potential customers often get multiple bids, and when they do, they typically ask competitors about the phone line and are not satisfied when they are told it isn’t a big risk, Jennings says.
Safeguard also installs cellular communications at no charge when existing customers opt to cancel their traditional phone service in favor of voice over the Internet protocol (VoIP) or cellular service. To ask the customer to pay for the installation, Jennings says, would amount to a “loyalty penalty.”
Jennings takes the attitude that, “It’s our problem, not the customer’s problem. We had to reinvest in our account base.”
Depending on manufacturer and installation specifics, some cellular communication units also may play a role in meeting UL requirements for commercial fire or high-security burglary jobs. Honeywell and Telular both offer cellular-based systems that meet UL commercial fire requirements when used in combination with another link, such as an Internet connection or a dedicated landline. Uplink is not currently UL listed for that purpose but a Numerex spokesperson expects that to change later this year.
Protection Plus Security Systems of Middlesex, N.J., has used Honeywell’s cellular communications unit as a backup for commercial fire jobs. “If there’s a phone line already, we stick with that and use GSM as a backup,” explains Lenny DeRasmo, president of Protection Plus. He notes, however, that some customers still prefer to use two phone lines.
For brand new installations where a phone line would need to be ordered to support a commercial fire system, Protection Plus also has sold the AlarmNet iGSM product. That product includes an Internet communications unit in combination with a cellular transmitter to meet UL fire requirements. Customers choosing that option pay higher monitoring fees but can justify those costs through the savings on phone line charges, DeRasmo says.
Cellular-based products meeting UL Double-A requirements are also available. Honeywell has a UL Double-A listing for its Mobitex communications unit that operates over a specialty cellular network operated by Velocita Wireless. Springfield, Mo.-based Digital Monitoring Products (DMP) has a cellular-based product that has achieved a UL Double-A listing by working in combination with an Internet communicator.
SIDEBAR: Pros & Cons
Dynafire of Casselberry, Fla., made an arrangement with its third-party monitoring company to install an AES receiver in the central station to support Dynafire’s wireless mesh deployment. “We interface with their automation software and it looks the same to them as other alarm transmissions,” explains Dynafire president Steven Hatch. Dynafire has its own central station, but to date has not used it for dispatching – only for supervisory signals. Soon, however, Dynafire plans to add an AES receiver to its own central station and to begin handling its own dispatches, using the third-party central station as a backup.
One disadvantage of wireless mesh is that it may take time for a dealer to have extensive coverage throughout its serving area â€” unless the dealer can find a competitor that is willing to share its network on a wholesale basis. Dynafire, for example, expects to begin letting other dealers use its wireless mesh network on a wholesale basis before the end of the year. Monthly monitoring will be part of the offer.
Some dealers also prefer wireless mesh because, as Bonifas puts it, it provides more control of their own destiny. “When the telephone companies took down analog cellular service, two million alarm accounts lost communication,” Bonifas says. “If someone else can pull the plug and we have to go out and replace product, it’s a bad plan.”
Potentially a similar situation could occur after fourth-generation wireless networks, currently under development, are deployed and become more dominant. But Shawn Welsh, vice president of marketing for Telular, believes it will be many years before today’s GSM cellular technology, the type used in most alarm communications, becomes obsolete. Wireless service providers are making a big push into the machine-to-machine communications market and will not want to risk alienating those customers by discontinuing the supporting service, he believes.