The Changing Landscape of Alarm Communications
At ESX 2010, a panel titled “Barbarians at the Gate: Preparing for Alternative Carrier Technologies” was presented to attendees. It was a fascinating discussion of not only where the industry has come from and where it is going with the use of technology for alarm signal transmission, but also why communications businesses are motivated to drive the changes that they make. A similar panel was presented at the December 2010 California Alarm Association convention. It was recorded and transcribed by SDM, and is presented on the following pages in condensed form, accompanied by a few of the dozens of slides that were presented live.
The panel was led by Lou Fiore, chairman of the Alarm Industry Communications Committee (www.csaaul.org/AICCCommittee.htm) and principal of L.T. Fiore Inc., consultant to the security industry. Panelists included: Sascha Kylau, business development manager, DSC Sur-Gard; Morgan Hertel, director of operations, Mace CSSS Inc.; Shawn Welsh, vice president of marketing and business development, Telular Corp.; Gordon Hope, general manager of Honeywell’s AlarmNet communications network; and George Schmitt, CEO, MB Technology Holdings.
Communication Is Changing at the Speed of LightLou Fiore
These are today’s communications choices: traditional POTS, VoIP/IP, public radio which is the cellular component, and private radio (companies like AES and Telular).
The industry goes back to the late 1800s, but about 1980, things started to change. Before that basically it was all driven by Ohm’s Law, which was copper wire between a customer and a central station. But then around 1975-1976, the digital communicator came to be and drastically changed things with the ability to send signals anywhere in the United States and the world.
In 1984 we saw the break up of AT&T and a lowering of POTS reliability. A lot of it was unknown to us, but we found little snippets here and there. In 2001, IP was indirectly written into NFPA. I say indirectly because the letters IP don’t appear in NFPA 72, but the parameters to make it work were written into that version. About the same time, we started to hear about VoIP and how detrimental that was and, of course, cellular became active.
In 2009, MFVN was written into NFPA 72. MFVN is Managed Facilities Voice Networks. This is VoIP from cable companies â€” AT&T, uVerse and Verizon FiOS. A different brand of VoIP; a bit better than the VoIP that you would get from Vonage. In fact, they would argue, a lot better.
What’s happened to plain old telephone service? It’s sunsetting. In December 2009, AT&T went to the FCC and said, ‘Hey, get us out of this. We don’t want to be in the landline business anymore,’ and these are two of their arguments: With each passing day, more and more communication services migrate to broadband and IP-based services, leaving the public switched telephone and plain old telephone service as the relics of a bygone era. [Reports say] 99 percent of Americans have wireless coverage today and 86 percent subscribe [to wireless]; most people no longer see the need for a landline phone.
This is the real reason: economically, it’s not feasible. The FCC collects funds in two different ways. They have the Universal Service Fund. This is money that’s collected from subscribers and given out for several reasons, but the main purpose is to give telephone service to rural areas. The phone company is not going to make a lot of money from these few subscribers, but they have to provide the service so they’re being paid by this Universal Service Fund to do that.
Also, the Federal Access Charge is the monies that are paid to the local carriers for carrying long-distance phone calls. When a phone call terminates at a POTS line, there’s a fee that is paid from the long-distance carrier to the local exchange carrier. The FCC wants to get rid of these. So this is going to make it economically unfeasible to maintain this service.
Plus, nobody’s using it. The next generation of customers is comfortable with the Internet. The vast majority has portable devices. This generation will not be tethered.
There is an insatiable appetite for mobile radio spectrum: An additional 500 MHz will be needed by the year 2014 [according to] a recent report (October 2010) from the FCC. And they’re looking for that spectrum right now. They’ve just found 15 MHz from the military and 100 MHz from the Navy radar and there are more discussions going on.
Cooper’s Law: The number of “conversations” both of voice and data has doubled every two-and-a-half years for the past 104 years. Marconi, when he first did it, had one. He had his smart gap transmitter and he blanketed the whole radio spectrum trying to get a signal out. In 1901, 50 conversations basically took up the whole radio spectrum. But now, you’re seeing a greater acceleration.
Alarm Signaling Over IPSascha Kylau
As Lou said, everything is moving to IP, so what is IP? IP stands for Internet Protocol and it is a protocol that allows you to take data and put it over the Internet. We’ve been using IP for alarm signaling for probably 12 years now. It’s just in the last four or five years where it’s really started to pick up.
Alarms can be received much, much quicker over IP. If we look at an alarm signal going over the phone line, that typically takes about 30 seconds. With IP you’re talking about 1 to 2 seconds maximum for roundtrip transmissions.
There are a lot of different IP systems within our industry today. Some go through clearing centers, and some are direct. Some are using GSM to send IP and some are using DSL or cable to send.
Some of the advantages of IP: It provides fast transmission. Things you couldn’t do with a phone line, like high-security polling of the devices, can be done over IP. And it can be wired or wireless.
Some of the disadvantages of IP: It’s more expensive. Last-mile reliability issues from the Internet service providers. Battery backups on the customer premise side for routers and so on. That’s why it’s taken off commercially more than it has residentially. And then, each manufacturer has a proprietary protocol so if you want to use a NAPCO IP, you have to have a NAPCO receiver; Bosch, you have to have a Bosch receiver; DSC, you have to use a Sur-Gard receiver.
This is going to start to change. DSC is in the works of releasing their IP protocol to SIA as a standard. A lot of manufacturers are already on this standard, so these manufacturers are starting to be able to use to use our protocol so they can talk to a Sur-Gard receiver.
Voice over IP describes a family of transmission technologies that delivers voice communications over IP. It’s taking analog voice, putting it into data packets and sending it across a data transmission of some sort.
You’ve got what cable companies have called their digital phone or facilitated voice over IP, which is under the MFVN classification. Then you’ve got Internet voice over IP â€” like the Vonages of the world and Skype. Now you’ve also got AT&T and Verizon; instead of providing a circuit switched PRI or T1, they’re now giving a packet switched service called the Flex Service, which is really an IP voice service for your T1.
Everything we do to communicate is going to go IP. It’s just how that IP gets delivered that will be different. There’s going to be hard connections like DSL, cable, fiber and you’re going to have wireless connections like Wi-Max, Wi-Fi, GSM networks, 4G, satellite.
Voice over IPMorgan Hertel
We’ve gone from a network where â€” if you remember the original ads, you could “hear a pin drop” across the country â€” to the advertising campaign: the network with the least dropped calls. And if you don’t think that affects your alarms, well, this is where we’re at today with voice over IP.
We’ve got some 30 million subscribers today who are on dial-up. Whether you like it not, you’re going to have to deal with this one way or the other. If you don’t start today, you’re going to be in a bad state in a couple of years when this really starts to fall apart.
Voice over IP in a nutshell is a software-based method. And what happens to software every day? It evolves, it changes. You’re seeing, in terms of voice reliability that it’s much more dependable. Where we struggle with it is we’re trying to take antiquated technology from the ‘70s and shove it over today’s phone networks.
When a voice over IP call gets placed, that call gets run through what the industry calls a codec, which is a software module that decides how they’re going to compress it, where they’re going to send it, how they’re going to send it. It has to analyze on the fly what the network conditions are. It’s going to try to give that call the best quality it can.
In POTS lines, we had a separate pair of wires that went to every subscriber. Voice over IP is all running down the same pipe. When the pipe starts to get full that codec that’s made to handle your voice call can shift gears on the spot. So now that compression ratio that started as a big fat call all of a sudden gets cut in half. And if your ear doesn’t hear it, it’s considered still a good call.
Where do people’s normal hearing range lie today? The middle range of a male’s voice might go around 50 Hz. A high-pitched woman’s voice is around 250 Hz. Alarms start at about 1,000 Hz. So guess what happens when voice over IP has to compress? It’s going to throw away the stuff that’s not the voice call.
When you start getting network congestion, where those packets are stopping and starting and not making it and having to be resent, you get all kinds of funky stuff. You end up with conditions that work today, don’t work tomorrow.
This is an important distinction and one of the reasons why it got accepted into NFPA: If we’re talking about managed fiber networks from your cable company, in theory they have control from end-to-end of where that call goes. Within that network, they can prioritize voice calls and try their very best to keep those conversations up all the time. But we also know from real world experience that that doesn’t always happen.
That’s the difference between facilitated and non-facilitated. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with non-facilitated voice over IP for voice calls â€” not so much for alarms.
Update on CellularShawn Welsh
All the manufacturers up here and throughout the industry have products that offer cellular as a suitable option for every aspect of monitoring. We obviously have residential; we also have commercial both for primary and backup. With the latest revision of NFPA we can now monitor your fire systems with cell as the only path; no landlines are required.
Some of the benefits of using cellular: most important would be the flexible installations. The ability to come into a home that has already had a landline installed and to be able to very easily either snap in or plug in a module or product into a panel, and have the signal seamlessly transmitted to central stations.
Cellular as a primary path is oftentimes a pretty cost-effective solution for the amount of effort that you have to go through to pop that in. Also now it does support enhanced services so you can have your iPhone, your BlackBerry, etc., offered to the homeowner.
I think I’m speaking for most of the manufacturers up here â€” we’re all using GSM, by and large, as our technology. Most of us, I believe, all are using it from AT&T. Verizon tends to have better coverage in the nooks and crannies and fields and plains of America. But the reality is the GSM coverage that we have today is only getting better in the areas where people actually live and want things protected.
The unavoidable sunsets: that’s probably where we should spend the bulk of our time when we talk about cellular.
The point of the GSM technologies that we’re using widely today: It does the work, it’s not blisteringly fast, it’s not broadband speeds, but it allows us to get where we’re going and carry the data that we need to have carried.
Sometime around five or so years ago, they launched systems 3G. We all know what that is â€” it’s faster, right? Well, at that time, essentially in that two-lane highway they decided to turn one of the lanes into a lane for cars and left one of the lanes for horse-and-buggy traffic to still move down the road. We’re all manufacturing those GSM communicators that would be in the slower lane, but nevertheless it’s conveying the signals that need to be conveyed and doing that reliably.
Sometime in the future they’re going to get rid of that horse-and-buggy lane and they’re going to say, ‘Ok, everything needs to be cars.’ At that point, everything will move to 3G. That could be sometime out beyond 2015. So we’re all looking at technologies that will make this transition seamless given your typical attrition rates for your customers. We’ll all have, I’m sure, 3G products in the future and should be well ahead of any hard and fast sunset date.
In the cellular industry we need to be focused on being aware of 4G that is developed on something called LTE, which is long-term evolution. The initial versions of it that will be launched by t-mobile, AT&T, Verizon, these technologies are actually pre-4G, to be honest. They have a real standard for 4G that’s called LTE Advanced â€” none of the technologies that are being currently being rolled out are actually true 4G, but it’s a matter of semantics.
Cellular Radio vs. Private Radio: Apples to OrangesGordon Hope
This is cellular radio versus private radio and to me it’s like comparing apples and oranges. For the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to use the apples as cell-based and oranges as private network.
Apples are very interesting. They form cliques and they appoint a social leader to talk with. If the clique loses an apple, the other members stay in the clique and are unaffected. Now look at oranges: There’re tightly spaced sections; they’re a social fruit, they talk to everyone. A single orange can sometimes lose its way. They get lost and sometimes it could affect the other oranges.
Here’s a bunch of cell towers, and there’s a bunch of oranges. You see a lot more oranges together. You don’t have to necessarily have that many apples together. And so you have a pretty nice network. The oranges talk together, lots of different paths communicate freely. Apples kind of hang out in their own roost â€” talk to their own people. The challenge is, if you have a loss of an apple, the other guys just keep talking. Every now and then you could lose an orange and most times it’d be ok, but sometimes you could strand an orange out here.
Imagine over here if the clique leader decides he’s going down, you’ve got a lot of pissed off apples. So that’s the fundamental difference that you’re going to see between them.
On cost of an installation: There’re a lot of farmers that cater to making apples, plain old red apples, so you can get them pretty cheap. Once an apple seeks the social leader, he joins that clique immediately. Oranges are a little different. Not as many farmers grow oranges, thus the prices tend to be a little higher than apples of the same size.
The reason I prepared this presentation this way, was having a little fun with it, but also to share with you that there are different costs and it truly is like comparing apples and oranges. The trade-offs are different. It’s where you choose to be comfortable.
Networks & PrioritiesGeorge Schmitt
I’m not here to disparage the telephone companies or the wireless companies. But one of the big problems that you’ve had all along with all of us â€” no matter if they were the old fixed networks or wireless networks today â€” is what it cost you. I’ll tell you, network operators don’t wake up in the morning worrying about the security industry. And so inadvertently, sometimes, you get whacked.
You were whacked with AMPS when you trusted what is now AT&T and Verizon, both, when they told you they would forever have a slow-speed data service available for you. You got whacked inadvertently when they went to 2G networks and 3G networks. Nobody did that to you deliberately. But you never have had control of your total business. You’ve always had to depend on some big company.
Now particularly when we look at what you get for quality of service â€” nobody deliberately messes up their network to mess up your business. It just happens. And it happens because you don’t have any priority in the business. And I don’t mean that be pejorative.
The last time I was in this hotel was in October of 1989. The Giants were playing the As in the World Series at Candlestick Park [when] an earthquake [caused] the Bay Bridge to go down. That was a very difficult time for me. It was a very difficult time for you, for your business, because you got cut off. The reason you got cut off is that inside every wireless company and every telephone company, they prioritize what happens in an emergency and you ain’t it. No. 1 is the policemen. No. 2 is the firemen. And then the medics, and then people who are in senior positions at the phone companies. If there’s any capacity left you might be able to get an alarm signal through.
You need to think about owning your own network. One of the biggest expenses of operating a network is buying the spectrum from the U.S. government. There are, however, some free frequencies around that are very good for wireless technology. In the 900 MHz band, from 902 to 928, the FCC 30 years ago assigned that to baby monitors, garage door openers and any other spectrum use that anybody wanted to use. But it’s free. So I think if you can figure out a technology that might work for you, you might find a way to do that.
Sometime in September, the FCC put out some rules for some of the spectrum that got freed up from the move from analog television and they gave chunks here and there. There’s one chunk in the 700 MHz, which is a very fine frequency for what you do. But they said it has to be used for cognitive radios. It’s also supposed to be free.
For some people in the alarm industry it may be worthwhile looking at that and thinking about what you might be able to. You do have ways now that you’ve never had before to take control of your business from one end to the other.