Cellular Alarm Communications Goes Mainstream
No longer just a solution for remote accounts, cellular now is the preferred alarm communications method for many alarm dealers. Here’s what dealers need to know about their cellular choices — and what’s new with the technology.
How people communicate with one another has undergone enormous changes in the last few years — and as a result, the home phone line that for decades was a cornerstone of customers’ alarm systems has begun to seem like an endangered species. According to the Federal Communications Commission, about two-thirds of U.S. homes now have a broadband connection such as DSL or a cable modem. And increasing numbers of Americans are also using that connection to support voice service using VOIP. Combine this with the near-ubiquity of cell phones and we now have a situation where many households have no traditional telephone. Even if households haven’t made that choice yet, alarm dealers increasingly want to be prepared for the possibility that they will.
For the alarm industry, this has meant rethinking how the alarm system communicates with the central station and has led to increased use of alarm systems that rely on the Internet — or, more commonly, on cellular for communications.
According to a survey of alarm dealers conducted by Telguard, a division of Chicago-based equipment manufacturer Telular, about 70 percent of new alarm installations now use cellular communications, with traditional phone lines comprising the vast majority of the remaining 30 percent and Internet communicators barely registering among survey respondents.
Communicators that use the Internet for communications can play an important role when used in combination with another technology, particularly for high-security applications. But in the residential market, Internet communications has not been as well received as cellular communicators for several reasons, the Telguard survey showed.
Top concerns were reliability of the Internet, the lack of battery backup and what Telguard vice president of marketing and business development Shawn Welsh calls the “fickleness” of the homeowner. It’s not uncommon for someone in the home to unplug the router or to change the router configuration, not realizing the negative impact that his or her actions have on the alarm communicator.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Telguard research is that the alarm industry hasn’t embraced cellular to an even greater extent. The reason most likely refers to cost.
Cellular alarm communicators have their own connection to the cellular network which is based on a unique rate plan that takes into account the nature of the connection. Instead of being charged like a traditional cellular voice or data plan starting as high as $30 a month or more, these plans typically cost a few dollars per month per customer. But unlike with a traditional alarm communicator that piggybacks onto the homeowner’s phone line, connectivity doesn’t come for free.
Tom Karl, vice president of business development for Amityville, N.Y.-based Napco, notes that alarm dealers often position cell phone service as a means of providing protection against phone line cuts — and although many customers are willing to pay a bit extra for that capability, others watch every penny and are unwilling to pay the extra charge.
GPRS or SMS?
When a decision is made to install an alarm system with cellular communications, there are several other factors that the dealer must consider.
One of these is the type of cellular communications to use. Virtually every alarm equipment manufacturer has opted to use GSM technology, the type of cellular technology offered by AT&T and T-Mobile. But GSM supports several types of connectivity — and while some systems use short message service (SMS), the same technology that underlies text messaging, others use GPRS, a higher-speed data service. A key advantage of GPRS is that, depending on the manufacturer, it may be able to support programming downloads, while SMS cannot.
Welsh argues that SMS is more reliable, because SMS networks experience fewer outages than GPRS networks. Although some people may perceive just the opposite based on experiences with text messaging, Welsh argues that such perceptions often relate to delivery problems to the cell phone receiving the SMS message.
Alarm communications use SMS quite differently. “When you send an SMS message you know immediately if the network received it,” Welsh says. “And for the security industry, the way SMS is implemented is we directly connect to the cellular carrier. The minute the message is in and we know the network received it, it’s delivered over wires into our message center.”
The NOC-less Approach
Welsh’s comments reveal another factor that dealers should consider as they move to cellular communications. Whether the panel uses SMS or GPRS communications, a cellular connection cannot send alarm signals in the way that central station receivers are designed to accept them. The reason is that both SMS and GPRS use digitized communications rather than the analog communications used by traditional alarm communicators.
Some manufacturers, including Telguard, solve this problem by designing their cellular communicators to send alarm signals to a network operations center (NOC) operated by the manufacturer or its business partner, where the signals are converted into a form the central station can accept. Other manufacturers eliminate the need for a NOC by using communications formats designed to work over a cellular connection between their panels and their central station receivers. Toronto-based Tyco Safety Products Canada — manufacturer of DSC control panels and Sur-gard central station receivers that support the second approach — has submitted the communications format that it developed for this type of communications to the Security Industry Association as a proposed standard, with the goal of encouraging other manufacturers to use it.
Mark Hillenburg, executive director of marketing for Springfield, Mo.-based Digital Monitoring Products (DMP), another manufacturer that uses a NOC-less approach to cellular communications, argues that such an approach eliminates the possibility of a single point of failure in the communications link. In addition, he says this approach facilitates the downloading of complete programming information to the panel — a task that is more difficult to achieve when the central station does not have a direct connection to the customer.
The NOC Approach
Meanwhile, manufacturers that use a NOC-based approach to cellular alarm communications argue that their approach enables capabilities that a NOC-less approach cannot support.
For example, Kirk MacDowell, residential sales leader for Bradenton, Fla.-based Interlogix, notes that the NOC is a critical element supporting an alert capability in Interlogix panels that he calls “snatch and grab.” The term refers to attacks in which an intruder pulls an alarm panel off the wall before it has a chance to communicate an alarm. The way the feature works is that when the NOC detects through a contact trip that an exterior door has been opened, it retains that information and waits to receive a disarm signal. If the disarm signal is not received, the NOC then sends a special alert to the central station to indicate a “snatch-and-grab” attack may have occurred. This capability is not available on NOC-less systems because there is no mechanism for the central station receiver to receive and retain the open-door signal, MacDowell explains.
Another advantage of the NOC-based approach is that it can support a wider range of communications formats — a capability that can be particularly important when cellular communications is added to a pre-existing system, typically because a customer cancels landline phone service. According to Telguard’s research, about 80 percent of the installed base of alarm systems uses a conventional phone line.
Telguard does not manufacture its own alarm panels but instead offers modules that add cellular capability via SMS to other manufacturers’ panels. As Welsh explains, the Telguard product is designed to appear just like a phone line to the panel and to appear just like a traditional alarm communicator to the central station — and the NOC is critical to achieving that transparency.
One other consideration worth noting about alarm panels with cellular communications is that some of them do not support two-way voice capability. As noted earlier, the alarm industry uses a special type of cellular service that is more economical than what is available for normal consumer use. This service typically does not support voice communications — although at least two manufacturers, Telguard and Interlogix, have introduced voice support for their cellular offerings through special arrangements with their cellular service providers. Those arrangements allow voice calls to be placed to one phone number only. In Telguard’s case, the phone number goes to a special call center that connects the call to the dealer’s central station.
Beyond Alarm Reporting
One advantage of new methods of alarm communications, including cellular and Internet communications, is that they let the alarm system communicate with more than just the central station — and they can communicate more than just alarm signals. Certain customers like the idea of being able to remotely arm or disarm a panel through a browser interface or to have a message automatically sent to their computer or cell phone to advise them that a child has arrived home. And dealers like the fact that they can generate additional recurring monthly revenue by offering these capabilities, which can be supported through manufacturer NOCs or back-end software. Several manufacturers also have released smart phone apps that provide a simple interface to control customers’ alarm systems.
At least one manufacturer — DMP — offers remote arming and disarming using SMS. Homeowners simply text “arm” or “disarm” to the cell phone number associated with their alarm systems, Hillenburg explains. Hillenburg argues that this approach is more versatile than a smart phone app because while only 25 percent of cell phone users have a smart phone, 100 percent have SMS capability.
Nevertheless, some end users are gung ho about apps. Accordingly, DMP recently released an application programming interface enabling dealers to create a unique web portal or application server to arm and disarm the panel. Dealers likely would need to use a developer to create the application, but the net result would be an app unique to the dealer with a look and feel unlike what other dealers offer, Hillenburg says.
|Wireless Mesh Is Another Communications Option|
Cellular and Internet are not the only alternatives to a traditional phone line for alarm communications. Another option is wireless mesh communications.
Wireless mesh communicators act as transceivers and repeaters, working with other wireless mesh communicators installed in a metro area to create redundant communications paths between customer sites and the central station.
“It doesn’t take a lot of subscribers to make a very reliable network,” notes Jim Lynch, product manager for wireless mesh equipment manufacturer AES Corp. of Peabody, Mass.
Wireless mesh systems, like their cellular counterparts, can support interactive capabilities such as remote arming and disarming. But unlike with cellular, no wireless service provider is involved — which means dealers pay no monthly service fee.
Another reason some dealers choose wireless mesh is because they view it as a more future-proof alternative to cellular systems. Eventually cellular network operators may phase out GSM service, just as they did with AMPS — although that is expected to be many years down the road.
|Addressing the VoIP Problem at the Source|
Fairfield, N.Y.-based manufacturer Bosch Security Systems has a different take on the VoIP problem than some other companies. If a customer converts to VOIP, Bosch says it may not be necessary to install a new type of communicator.
The company has developed updated firmware for its central station receiver that it says is able to compensate for the problems caused by most VoIP offerings. As Bosch product marketing manager Tom Mechler explains, central station receivers traditionally look not only at data but also at timing and pauses between signal pulses — and the inability to match the timing and pauses of traditional phone service is a key issue for VoIP.
“Our software uses digital signal processing to ignore the formatting,” Mechler explains. “We don’t care how long there is between pulses or how wide the pulses are. If it looks like contact ID to us, we will process it as a contact ID signal.”
In internal testing, Bosch has found 75 percent acceptance of VoIP communications by the central station software with the updated firmware — and there is a “high probability” that calls that do not go through on the first call will go through on the second attempt, Mechler says.
The new firmware is available at no charge for central stations with Bosch receivers that have a line card purchased within the last six or seven years.
|Alarm Panels Play Increasingly Important Role in Energy Management|
Now that alarm panels have been opened up to new forms of communications, the possibility also has been released for the panels to support a wide range of new applications. One application that is seeing a great deal of interest is energy management.
Advances in alarm panels come at the same time that energy companies are planning smart grid deployments aimed at enabling customers to minimize energy usage — and costs — through a deeper understanding of their energy usage. Utility companies would like to be able to charge different prices for energy at times of peak and non-peak energy consumption and to enable customers to know when price levels change and to be able to adjust their energy usage accordingly. Some people envision the alarm panel playing a key role in enabling this capability.
“We see the opportunity to harness data, bringing it into a rich network experience and empower consumers to manage and use that data,” comments Gordon Hope, general manager of Honeywell’s AlarmNet unit. “There will be ways that the protected premises can pull data off the meter. It could be ZigBee or Z-Wave.”
Hope argues that systems will need to make energy management as easy as possible for homeowners in order to be successful. Honeywell is taking the first steps in this direction with new Total Connect 2.0 software for its control panels scheduled for launch by mid-year, which will enable homeowners to schedule how electricity is used at different times.
As utility companies begin to roll out smart grid capabilities within the next three to five years, Honeywell plans to continue to add more sophisticated functionality to the platform — and other equipment manufacturers say they also plan to pursue this market.