Getting Comfortable With Wireless
Security integrators have traditionally been slightly ambivalent toward wireless access control; but end user attitudes, better technology, and increased revenue opportunities make this technology one that it’s time to get to know better.
Wireless technology is hot. From wireless routers to wireless locks, more and more end users feel it is time to cut the cord. For security integrators, however, hardwired access control is tried and true and the most trusted method for the vast majority.
Is it time to go wire-free with access control as well?
Not all the time. Even manufacturers of wireless access products acknowledge there is a time and a place for this technology — alongside hardwired. But it is definitely time for wireless access control to take a more prominent position in the toolbox. The key is understanding the proper time, place and type of wireless for the job.
“I think there is a perception in the market that all wireless is created equal,” says Mark Duato, vice president of integration solutions and OEM partnerships ASSA ABLOY, New Haven, Conn. “Wireless means a lot of different things to different people, depending on the specific applications.”
We are not at the point where it is used in place of hardwired, but in certain scenarios it is very popular. — Eric Green, Honeywell Security and Fire
Most manufacturers and security integrators think of “wireless access control” as an integrated wireless lock that communicates wirelessly to the panel. But within this category there are a range of capabilities, from offline locks, to near full online capability, to locks that are “less wire” solutions. “Based on different IEEE communication standards, there are technologies for different applications,” Duato says.
One thing driving wireless lately has been consumer demand.
“End users are more aware of what solutions exist out there and are coming to their dealers and integrators and saying, ‘I have heard about these solutions that sound like a good use case for me and can you provide it?’ Adoption is going up,” says Eric Green, senior global product manager, enterprise access software, Honeywell Security and Fire, Melville, N.Y. “We are not at the point where it is used in place of hardwired, but in certain scenarios it is very popular.”
Duato agrees. “We are moving quickly in the wireless space. There are a lot more opportunities to deploy wireless technology. Everything from the residential home all the way up through multi-family or multi-use applications in the commercial space and crossing all verticals. Those are all markets that are expanding rapidly.”
Customers are beginning to question why, when they have Wi-Fi everywhere else, that doesn’t apply to their access control system as well, Green says. “‘Why do I need to run wires to everything?’ Integrators need an answer for that. Demand will drive that and if it hasn’t already, there will come a day when if you don’t do wireless, a customer will say, ‘Let’s see who else I can talk to.’”
Two of the biggest vertical market segments for wireless access control lately have been colleges and universities, and healthcare. The higher education market likes wireless technology for dormitory rooms, particularly. And in healthcare, wireless technology allows them to lock down mobile items such as drug carts, as well as hard-to-wire but critical-to-control drug cabinets and high-value items. But applications for wireless are expanding beyond the obvious.
As we see more and more wireless in everything else, they are finally accepting the fact that wireless isn’t as black magic as they all thought it was. — Paul Ahem, Cypress Integration Solutions
“Wireless readers are not just used for doors,” says Scott Lindley, president, Farpointe Data, Sunnyvale, Calif. “Wireless solutions exist for elevators, exit devices and gates. Wireless creates opportunity with new solutions. Wireless systems work with most of today’s access control systems. That means users don’t have to replace their existing ID credentials. Such systems are an attractive alternative to offline, stand-alone locking systems, because they offer a real-time solution that’s compatible with nearly all brands of access control.”
Increasingly, security integrators are realizing the potential of this technology, says Paul Ahern, president and CEO, Cypress Integration Solutions, Lapeer, Mich. “As we see more and more wireless in everything else, they are finally accepting the fact that wireless isn’t as black magic as they all thought it was.”
Charles Anthony, vice president sales and marketing, Securakey, Chatsworth, Calif., believes wireless access has reached the tipping point now. “During the course of this year there will be widespread acceptance and a better understanding of all the benefits that wireless access control brings to the table.”
The jobs are there, says Rick Focke, senior product manager, Tyco Security Products, Westford, Mass. “These are big jobs. That college campus that wants 500 wireless doors, that is a nice chunk of revenue there for the bidding. That is not going away. And over time there will be an easier path to integration as the market matures a little bit.”
Market maturity has already ramped up in recent years. The original “wireless” was an offline lock with short battery life and limited features. Today’s locks range from the offline, to near full online features, better battery life, and, in some cases, different ways of limiting wires or going completely wire-free.
ASSA ABLOY, for example, offers two different approaches to wireless, Duato says. “The Aperio family leverages OEM controllers the way a normal access control system would be built. The only wireless elements are between the hub and actual opening. The [wired] controller is still in place. In that scenario you are in a wireless environment but not a pure wireless.” This is more familiar to security integrators, he says, because that is how they are used to delivering access.
“Then we have an IP product family of wireless products where the controller is within the lock itself, along with open architecture communication standards so all decisions in that scenario are made right at the door. There is no controller above the ceiling and the decisions on who can come and go are held directly within the lock. That is pure wireless architecture. That lock will communicate over a secure network that the end user builds.
“Our perspective is we want to understand with and through the integrator what the end user’s application needs are. One size never fits all. Where sometimes the integration community gets themselves into trouble is when they take that one-size-fits-all approach. They set themselves up for failure,” Duato describes.
Technology is also getting less expensive, Focke says. “There are some new lower cost options. Before, the cost savings to the end user between wired and wireless wasn’t that much. Now we are seeing that increase as these lower cost locks are coming out.”
Wireless locks have improved in features, as well. “What I have seen is the capability of the wireless locks themselves continue to increase,” Green says. “They are adding new feature sets that haven’t closed the gap between wired and wireless, but are narrowing it. Some manufacturers we work with have added feature sets to make lockdown much faster. It is not necessarily instantaneous, but within a minute. They are making the product more complete in terms of supporting all the hardware pieces that go around a door. There is close to the same functionality, but still a little bit of a gap.”
Beyond the wireless locks themselves, the larger trend is the ways in which they are being implemented and integrated into systems and ecosystems. “There is an extra level of sophistication,” Focke says. “It is usually some sort of integration driver between the lock system and the overall access system.”
Montreal-based Genetec Inc. is committed to integrating with several different wireless lock manufacturers, says Derek Arcuri, product marketing manager for the access control line. “Genetec recognizes there are more and more applications for these locks, so we are looking to provide an ecosystem where [integrators] can choose from the brands and locks they prefer.”
However, something to watch as integrations with software manufacturers start to get better and tighter, there may also be a trend to narrow the choices, Ahern says. In order to have a better integration, systems manufacturers may select just one or two to really get in-depth with and drop others.
“We run our entire business using Apple or Mac because we don’t want to have to support updating two systems. What you might see going forward is that as the market starts to stabilize you see manufacturer X partnering with company Y on wireless locksets so they don’t have to have complicated updates. If they are working tightly with one, they also have a little more control.”
THE MORE YOU KNOW
With improved technology and end user demand, the chances are that most security integrators will be doing more with wireless access control in the near future, if they aren’t already. That means it is more important than ever to familiarize yourself not only with how the technology works, but also its benefits and limitations, and know where and when to use it to full effect.
“All wireless solutions are not created equal,” Lindley says. “If lockdown is a major need, be aware. It may be, with Wi-Fi, that access control decisions are downloaded by the host into the lock five to six times per day versus per hour with spread spectrum solutions. Also, signal propagation and strength through building walls [varies].”
Point-to-point or even mesh type wireless will not work everywhere in all conditions, Ahern adds. “There is legwork required and not all integrators are willing to take the time or the risk.
“I think they are going to have to learn about Wi-Fi, proprietary mesh and cellular and understand the physics behind it, not just the surface-level stuff. You have to … be able to go into a site survey and realize things that won’t actually work. You can test communications. That will come over time and by integrators who have made that investment,” Ahern advises.
In general, there needs to be a lot of education on exactly what wireless is and how to correctly apply it, Duato says.
“Look within your own operations and make sure you are building the skills to be able to effectively deploy these technologies as a complement to what you are already doing. You don’t need to throw out wired. Use wireless where it [fits]. Build the skills to support these things.”
ASSA ABLOY offers its integrators an extensive certification and training program, covering wireless technology and how to install it on a door. Integrators should contact both the manufacturer of the wireless lock and the system or software manufacturer to make sure all bases are covered. They also may wish to subcontract aspects they are not comfortable with, such as the hardware installation portions.
“There is a combination of applications and hands-on technical training related to the products,” Duato says. “I think there is still a need and opportunity for their third-party partners, who are also our customers, to do that work for them. We challenge the integrator market to take a look at whether they have those skills in-house and what are the business case and margins of doing that themselves or having someone else do it.”
Focke says it comes down to “training, training and training. Get it in your lab. Know all the ins and outs. Get a nice partnership going with the supplier and the systems providers. Get the right integration drivers and pieces and parts for the right applications.”
Green says some integrators will have to become comfortable with technologies and techniques they haven’t been working with previously. “There are tools to map out radio frequency penetration and what you need in terms of supporting hubs. There is the challenge of dealing with IT if you are going on their network and making sure the quality of service requirements are met. It is really just the same challenges any industry that is changing faces in terms of adopting new technology. You have to learn and know what you are doing.”
That is an important step to success, says integrator Jason Smart, business development manager for physical security practice, CompuNet, Boise, Idaho. “There are integrators out there that will install these things and not get the functionality out of it and feel like they are not getting enough connection. They will just remove them. It’s because they don’t do their homework to make sure they fully understand it. Then they just blame the lock.”
There are also differences between wireless manufacturers’ products, Green adds. “I can tell you my tech guys have their preferences. There are differences in capabilities, ease of installation and setup. An integrator would be well served to learn what those differences are. The good integrators have these things set up and working in their own facilities. You need to get hands on. Play with it and look at the capabilities and find out what happens. You have to get your hands dirty so when you go on site you know what you are dealing with.”
It is also important, just as it is with wired elements, to make sure that the lock is future-proofed for what the customer wants to do. “If the customer is going to change later on, make sure the lock can do that,” Focke advises.
While offline locks may be cheaper and easier to install, they won’t necessarily deliver down the road, Smart says. “[Integrators] really need to understand the difference between online and offline locks. Some still don’t. They go in based on installation. Then the end user wants to understand what that door is doing in real time and offline doesn’t do that…. Try to understand their business functions and needs. Make sure the end user is educated on the technology of that lockset and its limitations and benefits.”
We have sold a lot more wireless locks compared to the year before — over 50 percent more. “That gives us an indication that the trend is there and it is moving upward. — Rick Focke, Tyco Security Products
Just as importantly, make sure both you and the end user understand how the lock will integrate into the access control platform and whether that manufacturer plans to continue to support that lock in the future.
“Typically the end user drives the project, but the integrator needs to play an active role in setting those expectations,” Arcuri says. “From maintenance needs to whether it is online or offline, it is about ensuring that the desired feature set from the software vendor is supported.... Keep a close link between the installer, channel and technology partners so you are aware of what is coming and what limitations might be coming as well.”
But for those that are ready, willing and able, wireless access control is a growing market full of opportunity, Ahern concludes. “There was an argument 10 years ago about Wi-Fi where everybody said, ‘No, the networks have to be wired.’ If you walk through most buildings today, yes some critical things are wired, but Wi-Fi is more prolific than wired. The same thing happened with telephones. I think wireless access is something that is here to stay.”
Green agrees. “We will continue to see growth in this market. It hasn’t hit the inflection point but it is coming. Either get on board or get run over.” n
Changing Integrator Hearts & Minds
Integrator resistance to wireless has been a hindrance in the past, but that may be starting to change as they realize the opportunities are there.
“From their perspective, if they have been delivering hardwired solutions and service contracts since the beginning of time, why would they use wireless today instead? Traditionalists do very much prefer to stick with wired,” ASSA ABLOY’s Duato acknowledges. “The challenge is they are limiting their ability to scale their security infrastructure because cost can be prohibitive in getting additional access points onto the system. Our approach hasn’t been to change the way traditional access is deployed but to find new opportunities for openings where it is cost-prohibitive for traditional access to be deployed.”
There has been a noticeable shift recently, he says. “We are absolutely seeing more integrators using it. The market is becoming a lot more educated and that is pushing the integrators to move in new directions to deliver wireless technology.”
Tyco Security Products’ Rick Focke, too, has seen an uptick. “More are using it now. We have sold a lot more wireless locks compared to the year before — over 50 percent more. “That gives us an indication that the trend is there and it is moving upward. As a percent of overall sales it is still relatively low. But it is a nice trend and it is growing.”
You have to get your hands dirty so when you go on site you know what you are dealing with.’ — Eric Green, Honeywell Security and Fire
Like many others, Focke says end user demand is driving the shift and bringing integrators along with them. “I think integrators are coming around in that they have to see it as an extension, not a replacement of the system. They are starting to realize that. Wireless is not going to take over the need for the traditional wired system. But it does allow them to add more doors to an application that couldn’t afford those doors before…. That is more revenue for them.”
But not all security integrators are fully there yet, says Eric Green, Honeywell Security and Fire. “It depends on the integrator. I know of integrators who have adopted it and they will bring it to the attention of their end users. They view it as a way to extend the footprint of access control within a facility…. But I know of others who are not entirely comfortable with this and think, ‘I have to play nice with IT, or if it is Wi-Fi that is not really my core competency and I will do it if I have to.”
Integrator Jason Smart of CompuNet says as a whole his company doesn’t use a lot of wireless. “We use it for niche applications, for those hard-to-reach applications, primarily. It is easier to install for hard-to-reach locations, but there are some limitations to wireless functionality when it comes to integration with access platforms. There are a lot of folks out there who don’t fully understand wireless as it relates to IT infrastructures and you come across issues about signal strength. It leaves a sour taste for some.”
As attitudes continue to change, however, more and more integrators are starting to see the advantages more than the disadvantages,” Ahern says. “We find that the integrators that are most creative — those that think out of the box — see the absolute advantage to using wireless technologies for all security applications.”
Top Tips for Security Integrators
When it comes to getting comfortable with wireless access control, manufacturers have some good, concise advice for security integrators.
“Remember the KISS acronym: Keep it Simple, Stupid. You do not need to undertake the complete upgrade all at once. Space it out, getting more and more comfortable with each installation. Your communication module can be of great help in guiding you.” — Scott Lindley, Farpointe Systems
“Be smart about what you want to support and not support because you can’t be all things to all people. That is a recipe for risk. Decide whether you want to do a vertical strategy or not. Then build a wireless portfolio around that. Do what you do best.” — Mark Duato, ASSA ABLOY
“I would recommend they install a few in their own offices and facilities and live in that world. Eat your own lunch. Go through the learning curve and see what it does and doesn’t do.” — Rick Focke, Tyco Security Products
“Get close to the manufacturers you are working with. Really understand their product and its capabilities. Dive in wholeheartedly. But understand it is not a solution for everything. There will be times where you are better off doing something hardwired. — Eric Green, Honeywell Security and Fire
“Take advantage of any education opportunity offered. Do your research both online and by talking to the manufacturer directly. We are happy to talk about our wireless solution.” — Charles Anthony, Securakey
For more information about wireless access control visit SDM’s website where you’ll find the following articles:
“The Latest Trends in Security Locks & Door Hardware”
“Pros & Cons of Wireless Access Control”
“A Conversation About the Future With ASSA ABLOY’s Martin Huddart”
“Capturing the Opportunities and Overcoming the Challenges of Integrated Locks”