Pros & Cons of Wireless Access Control
The experts weigh in on the latest trends, as well as the benefits and potential pitfalls of wireless access control.
Wireless technology in general continues to experience both falling prices and increasing acceptance in many areas — from consumer products, to smart home devices, to security products. The access control space has seen a surge in recent years of products designed to install or operate wirelessly. Yet many integrators are still reluctant to use them except when there is no choice. Manufacturers of wireless locks, access control panels and software that integrate with them and other types of wireless access control all agree: to ignore this trend is to risk falling behind.
What does wireless access control look like today? Depending on who you ask, it can encompass anything from an all-in-one wireless lock, to mobile credentialing, long-range RFID and more.
“There are two things that people equate to wireless,” says Charlie Erickson, executive vice president of product management, 3xLOGIC, Westminster, Colo. “One is accessing a door wirelessly via a mobile phone or credential. Wireless to others means the physical reader and strike at the door is battery powered and communicates wirelessly to the network. The door is not wired or the person is not wired.” (See “The Expanding Definition of Wireless” on page 122.)
At the reader level, not all wireless is created equally. “Wireless is comprised of the reader, the physical locking element, the monitoring points you need in order to complete that application and everything from the door-positioning sensor to the source of power,” says Brad Aikin, portfolio leader for commercial, Allegion, Carmel, Ind. “To actually have fully wireless access control you need these other pieces of intelligence around it to be wireless as well.”
The majority of applications are wireless locks and control panels, adds Mauricio Lainez, product development manager, Security Door Controls (SDC), Camarillo, Calif. “For example, you can have a wireless lock on a door using Wi-Fi to communicate to a control panel that is connected to a network. Or, you can have a door lock wired to a control panel that communicates wirelessly to a network. There are a number of different wireless architectures available.”
The increase in the number of ways to communicate wirelessly has impacted the access control market, both in options and price, says Tony Diodato, CTO, Cypress Integration Solutions, Lapeer, Mich. “Based on the increase in wireless product sales we’re seeing, opinions on wireless are changing. Although we don’t use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth in our security products, their use has led to wireless being considered more of a mainstream technology in general. Much of the change has to do with price. Once the cost reaches the tipping point where the installed cost is nearly equivalent to wired solutions, we expect to see wireless become even more prevalent.”
The increasing number of radio technologies has been a boon to the industry, says Scott Lindley, president, Farpointe Data, Sunnyvale, Calif. “Today if you take a look at different technologies such as frequency hopping, spread spectrum, data protocols and heightened data rates, [wireless] communications are much more reliable than in the past. That is in part due to the advent of different radio technologies. An integrator can now install them with real assurance that they will actually work on their site.”
Wireless is no longer the new kid on the block, says Peter Boriskin, vice president of commercial product management, ASSA ABLOY Americas, New Haven, Conn. “Wireless has become a much more commonly deployed technology. Over the last year, we have seen a drop in the need to educate customers about when and why to use wireless, and a big increase in the implementation of wireless products. Wireless is now viewed as a standard tool that integrators can deploy in a variety of applications and environments.”
As wireless access has gone “legitimate” in terms of price and reliability, the next logical step has been to incorporate wireless into the larger access control ecosystem. “Historically you had a traditional wired access control system, and a dedicated and separate system for wireless locks,” says Jimmy Palatsoukas, senior manager of product marketing, Genetec Inc., Montreal. “Today we are seeing a lot of requests for a single software solution that can handle both wireless and traditional access. We are bringing everything together.”
Rick Focke, senior product manager, Tyco Security Products, Westford, Mass., describes his company as a “consolidator” when it comes to wireless access. “We have up to five different lines we can offer customers, whether they want offline or IP or spread spectrum.” He adds that the price point per door has continued to drop. “That is good news all around. Years ago they were pretty expensive, but now we are seeing with the lower cost locksets, those economics are changing a bit.”
There is a good reason for this desire for consolidation, says James S. Duff, marketing manager, Electronic Access Control, KABA Access and Data Systems – Americas, Keyscan Inc., Whitby, Ontario, Canada. “One trend we are witnessing is the race for integration of wireless lock products (in general) with existing networked access control systems controlled under one platform. While wireless has its place in the future, existing systems are not going anywhere, anytime soon. End users are demanding solutions that will function within the system investments they’ve made and they don’t want huge expenditures to do so.”
One of the consumer trends driving wireless on the residential side is also bleeding over to commercial, in that customers now have that expectation and experience on the home side and want to repeat it in their offices and other interior workplace doors, says Keith Brandon, divisional vice president, residential access solutions, Kwikset, Lake Forest, Calif. “These locks utilize the Z-Wave wireless protocol to enable true remote locking and unlocking so homeowners can access and control their lock from anywhere in the world using their smart device…. I do think that opinions are rapidly changing, as wireless devices including locks become more widely used throughout the industry and a more accepted part of people’s lives.”
Wirelessly connected locksets are becoming more popular in today’s wireless technology ecosystem, particularly when a customer needs a near-online or near-real-time experience, says Daniel Bailin, director, program management at HID Global, Austin, Texas. “Add to this environment mobile phones working with these wireless electronic locks, and the organization can realize valuable security and user convenience benefits, today and in the future.”
Wireless today doesn’t have to be all or nothing. In most cases it can be a combination of wired and wireless and even of a variety of different wireless protocols — all in the same installation. “We are seeing places where you would want to use a BLE connected device versus a Wi-Fi versus a 900 MHz device,” Aikin says. “Some of these technologies are more mature than others, but the market is starting to understand that there is more than one type of wireless architecture and why that exists.”
Aaron Barbe, product marketing manager, Honeywell Security and Fire, Melville, N.Y., agrees. “Many of the most recent developments can be viewed as a tweaking of existing offerings to incorporate changes in reader technology such as BLE and the introduction of more focused products that directly target specific verticals and markets, versus a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. The goal is to lower the cost per door of adding electronic access control, and lock manufacturers are proactively offering a variety of approaches — from self-contained ‘smart locks’ that make the decision to grant or deny access at the door itself to locks that are controlled by an external controller, as well as networked and standalone solutions.”
All these technology trends are bound to have a positive impact on the adoption of wireless, says Brian Matthews, director of sales, Feenics, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. “Wireless reader/lock units have been in the security industry for almost two decades. It has really been a glacial adoption pace. But I think you are starting to see the more innovative integrators really start to consider wireless on more mainstream projects, rather than in the past where it was only where the wireless company managed to drive the interest with the customer.”
The Good & Bad
With all the advances, improvements and options available, there is still one major hurdle for wireless access control: getting integrators to use them. Whether they had a bad experience in the past, don’t think they have the reliability or experience of wired, or simply don’t like them, wireless locks can have a downside.
“I think that many integrators were early to adopt some of the initial wireless technology and felt the pain of implementing some of these solutions,” says Chris Wilson, product manager, Paxton Inc., Greenville, S.C. “They ran into communication problems, reliability problems, and installation troubles. But I think that wireless technology has advanced greatly, not only in the communication but also in being more robust and secure, providing a great solution for integrators and end users alike.”
Then there are the applications in recent years where all-wireless solutions have been installed, only to have the customer be disappointed in the performance. “There is an assumption that the features they are used to on the traditional hardwired side will of course be there on the wireless lock side,” Focke says. “In most cases they aren’t. They are just different systems. Stuff on the wired side gets pretty extensive and a lot of times wireless doesn’t have those types of features.”
As good as wireless technology has gotten, it is still not as fast as a hardwired solution. And in some applications that can make a difference — for example, in lockdown situations. “While it is much faster, it is still not real-time,” Lindley says. “There can be a lag or delay in regard to wireless signal reporting.” Depending on the technology, that reporting may happen once every few minutes or once every 12 hours, he explains.
“From a performance standpoint, wireless is often not meeting customer expectations when it comes to features and functionality,” adds Dennis Geiszler, vice president of marketing, Keri Systems, San Jose, Calif. “Customers often don’t understand what they are getting, or more importantly not getting.”
There is a shift starting in these attitudes, however.
“This is not your father’s wireless product,” says David Price, marketing manager, Camden Door Controls, Toronto. “Poor reliability, short battery life and expensive lithium batteries used to define wireless products just a few short years ago. New spread-spectrum and 2.4 GHz products offer ‘equal to wire’ reliability, years of battery life, and use standard alkaline batteries,” he says.
“When we talk to integrators, the advantage of wired is that there are no unknowns,” Erickson adds. “They don’t have some steel structure or concrete wall that wireless may have difficulty transmitting through. But I am seeing people becoming more accepting of wireless access control like they did with intrusion devices. Ten years ago if you put a security system in, someone would have pulled a wire to every window and door you wanted to monitor. With the improvements we see in wireless and battery life today, integrators have become more accepting, and I think we will see that with access control as well. As they get more experience with it, they get more comfortable.”
This learning curve is not small, however, Focke cautions. “With all the different options out there, there is an enormous amount of technology involved and the learning curve is fairly steep. It does take technical knowledge and training. The ones we see with success often focus on a couple of those solutions and really master them well. It is an investment to go after those opportunities and it takes an understanding of the risks and what solutions can be offered between wired and wireless…. In my opinion wireless is not a technology that replaces the wired door solution, but it is a great way to extend it.”
The standard “pro” for wireless access is that it allows the integrator to put electronic access on more interior doors, and even non-traditional openings such as server racks, cabinets and display cases. While this is definitely a plus, manufacturers stress over and over again it is critical to make sure the user’s expectations meet the product and installation capabilities.
“It is a terrific opportunity for the integrator, but the most important thing for the integrator is to understand what the end user is asking for in terms of the experience and also to question when the end user is asking for a specific wireless technology,” Aikin says. “At times end users get caught speaking to a technology trend and maybe not understanding how it may or may not apply to their true needs and environment….Wireless needs to be part of your toolbox in order to have a complete toolbox. I don’t think it will be the one tool but your capabilities are incomplete without it.
“At the same time I would look at wireless not only as a way to do what you do today differently, but as a way to do more. Think about how wireless helps us start to expand points of connectivity in the building.”
As more and more doors get this connectivity, wireless access is starting to be used to add capabilities beyond just access control, Boriskin adds. “As the market for the technology matures, integrators are getting more creative in how they deploy wireless. Security professionals are taking wireless into more places than ever before and it’s enabling them to secure more doors. The conversations we are having now have shifted from what is possible, to our integrators discussing unique ways they have deployed technology within their own projects.
“The great thing now is that we can offer technology that allows wireless to be deployed in a modular approach. From a traditional stand-alone lock, for those who are looking for a very traditional application, we can also add a module to enable data-on-card technology and take advantage of wireless credentials’ ability to move data to and from the locks. By offering a menu of options, it makes it easier for those who want to ease into different levels of access and functionality.”
Wireless access control is not just for traditional access anymore, Lainez adds. “It’s being used to wirelessly track the location of people in facilities and count heads in case of a fire or life safety emergency where this information is vital.”
Wilson adds, “Customers are demanding more real-time data from their system, especially from their wireless devices. They want to know more about what’s going on around their facility so they know how to respond and can better manage their property. This also helps them to eliminate staff around the building and they can now rely on the physical security system to keep them secure and informed.”
Whether you are on the fence, or a big proponent of wireless access, the keys to successfully using it are knowing when to use it (and when not to), how to use it, and what the customer expects.
“I’d say frankly that wireless holds its place in the way of the future,” Duff says. “If you don’t adopt it now, you may find yourself left behind. But, the skill will lie with those who know when is the right time and place for a wireless application.”
When Are Wireless Locks Appropriate?
There are certain situations where wireless locks are good candidates for doors and openings. Some of these scenarios include:
- extending security to remote locations and gates where conduit and wiring may be difficult to reach the area;
- adding security to non-critical areas, such as cabinets, utility closets, elevators and conference rooms;
- installing in structures with poor cabling, including buildings with asbestos and other issues affecting wiring, as well as for non-critical doors in very old buildings with concrete or cinderblock walls that could make it difficult to run cables to interior doors;
- deploying in small businesses with simple, key-based security that are seeking greater convenience (over mechanical keys) with basic security functionality; or
- when interior doors are pre-ordered/prepped for wireless locks as part of a new install. In this case, running wire may still be more cost-effective, depending on whether the building is pre-wired for Wi-Fi, if the doors are located in high-traffic areas, and many other factors.
End users overall may have the perception that they are receiving “newer” technology when using wireless devices, even though they are still limited in functionality compared with hardwired systems. A sales executive at an access control provider in the Midwest stated they often receive requests for wireless locking solutions based on the perception that locks are an easier and less expensive “cure all” for securing an entire building.
However, in many situations, it quickly becomes obvious that the wireless approach is not the “be all and end all” once the customer is made aware of wireless locks’ functionality (in comparison with hardwired security solutions). The eventual outcome has been that the dealer/integrator often sells the customer a combination of wireless locks for the appropriate openings and hardwired access control for more critical and high-traffic openings, upon analyzing the risks of the area to be secured. — Contributed by Bill Jacobs, principal, Jacobs Group Consulting, on behalf of Mercury Security. To read the whole report, go to http://www.mercury-security.com/wireless-locks.html
Wireless Through the Decades
470 MHz industrial communications frequencies open “serial tunnel” for sending data instead of sending data over wires. Due to cost and FCC requirements, adoption is limited but effective in rare cases where wiring is impossible or exceedingly costly.
Switch to 900 MHz Spread Spectrum frequency. Site license no longer required. Smaller box size than earlier, with RS-232 connections. More than one per area creates interference; requires pointing special directional antennas. Cost drops slightly, but use is limited mainly to special situations.
Instead of using boxes, modules are plugged into circuit boards. Beginning of channel selection/some filtering. More units can co-exist in same area without interference. Cost is significantly less and use of wireless in security is increasing.
Along with 900 MHz, the 2.4 GHz frequency is introduced. Packets of data are routed automatically using transport layer of 802.15.4 protocol. Repeaters and mesh networking are introduced. The 802.15.4-compatible units become commercially available. Cost continues to decline.
Security products are beginning to transcend basic use of a wireless “serial tunnel” instead of wires for sending data. Cost is expected to continue to decrease and use is expected to continue to increase.
For most integrators, wireless locksets require a different skill set and knowledge base than hardwired access control. From learning to drill a door to the “handing” of the lever to checking wireless signal strength, there is a lot to learn. Manufacturers of these products and the systems that support them offer training courses and other helpful tips and tricks. Here are a few to keep in mind:
“Leverage the training materials from the manufacturers, particularly around the installation process and what to look for. What makes a healthy and reliable wireless infrastructure? Know what the recommended ranges are, whether you can span floors or not. It is important to take the time and apply the manufacturer’s recommendations on how to set up a reliable infrastructure.”—Brad Aikin, Allegion
“Put in double the time you think you need on the upfront planning and integration and coordination with the manufacturer and end user and what their expectations are. A lot of times lock manufacturers have help available. Take advantage of them.”— Rick Focke, Tyco
“Things to think about are: Does the solution offer the features that the customer is requesting? Are those features supported through the host software? Is it compatible with the existing host software? Is it compatible with existing credentials and readers? Then there are environmental factors such as interior wall obstructions and building materials that should be taken into account through a site survey. The integrator needs to have a full understanding of the customer’s needs and the environment that the solution is going into, in order to make the best choice.”—Aaron Barbe, Honeywell
“Determining what kind of RF communication distance and how many RF hubs are required is important. Better to overkill it with too many hubs than have intermittent communication with too few.”— Dennis Geiszler, Keri Systems
“I would vehemently suggest integrators and dealers use the field testing kits made available by manufacturers. Too often the wireless recommendation is made, and perhaps even installation begins before any testing is performed. Manufacturers make these kits for a reason, because there are many factors of interference that must be considered. Field testing kits identify these pitfalls beforeyou make a recommendation and possibly a fool of yourself.”— James S. Duff, KABA Access and Data Systems – Americas, Keyscan Inc.
“If an integrator makes the investment in education and has the necessary tools to perform wireless installs well, they can be much more competitive in the marketplace.”— Brian Matthews, Feenics
The Expanding Definition of Wireless
Not all wireless access control today consists of a wireless reader on a door. Mobile credentials, mobile readers and even long-range RFID can also be considered “wireless access control.”
Farpointe’s Scott Lindley reports having frequent conversations with customers about wireless where they are actually talking about things like using a handset with NFC, or mobile readers. “End users really want hand-held readers and we have a range of OEM solutions where our reader technology is used in those devices. The other definition is long-range identification. If someone calls and says, ‘I want wireless,’ you had better qualify it. You may not know what they are talking about.”
Mobile readers are becoming increasingly popular, as users look to secure transient locations such as sporting events, for example.
“With the growth of commercial-grade 2.4 GHz transceiver modules, the cost of embedding them into access control and security products is dropping rapidly, which means temporary, mobile and handheld card reader applications are now becoming very cost effective,” says Tony Diodato of Cypress.
“A lot of people tend to see wireless locksets, but in terms of other trends, RFID-based communications like Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) are starting to show their presence,” adds Jason Ouellette, product line director for access control, Tyco Security Products. That is taking two forms. One is just a new wireless communications mode for a lockset. But the next evolution we are seeing is mobile devices that are over the air through a mobile provider, which is the communication mechanism to get to the access control decision.
“In our roadmap for 2016 we are looking at an Android-based mobile reader platform that eliminates the need for wires, but with the capability to address access decisions through wireless technology.”
All of this represents a new way of looking at the user experience, says HID’s Bailin. “As we move into an increasingly mobile-first world, we begin to see security solutions actually enhancing and creating new user experiences. Security has started to become a foundational element of that, and we’ve begun to see a new way of thinking about security design that puts the user front and center…. Mobile access allows us to create a more pervasive security experience. The same card used to open a door can also be tapped to a laptop, tablet, phone, or other NFC-enabled device to access data, cloud apps and Web-based services.”
The mobile credential and the wireless reader are destined to marry, and the major wireless lock manufacturers are recognizing that fact.
“One of the biggest developments is the trend toward integrators leveraging wireless solutions powered by mobile devices, using technologies like NFC and BLE,” says Peter Boriskin of ASSA ABLOY. “One of the major benefits of wireless electronic access control is the ability to take advantage of existing infrastructure. With smartphones being so common, it only makes sense to take advantage of the wireless communications protocols that they support.”
Still, most would agree that mobile credentialing is in its infancy. “The trend in wireless access control is to use a smartphone with either NFC or BLE as a credential, but the overall adoption rate of this has been slow, despite high levels of interest,” says Honeywell’s Aaron Barbe.
For more on wireless access control, visit SDM’s website where you’ll find the following articles: