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10.8.21 – SIW – Five ways cellular communications presents benefits beyond simply being a “POTS alternative”

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Security Business magazine. When sharing, don’t forget to mention Security Business magazine on LinkedIn and @SecBusinessMag on Twitter.

Beginning in 2011, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began the process of shifting its high-cost universal service program from legacy copper networks and TDM voice services to next-generation broadband networks and IP-based voice services, initiating the process of phasing out its universal service obligations under the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

This marked the beginning of the transition away from POTS technology in favor of the newer digital alternative. Since then, we have been experiencing the effects from this ongoing transition – at times in very visible ways with front-end changes, such as the number of premises not having access to POTS, and at times in more intangible and unexpected ways when back-end changes occur.

On the front end, we have seen an increasing effort from service providers to market digital and VoIP lines as a viable, more financially sound alternative for the commercial and residential market. Furthermore, an increasing number of new constructions in the commercial and residential space are opting out of traditional phone lines to begin with. These front-end changes are easy to identify and are situations where a cellular path becomes the easy answer. But what about the less tangible effects, or those that don’t generally surface right away?

Back-end changes are more concerning. The fact that there are changes occurring which are unrelated to the choice of service provider makes it more difficult to gauge and mitigate. While a seemingly traditional phone line may be in place, there could be changes that impact the quality of the call over time. As a phone call is made, it leaves the originating telephone carrier and goes through many hops (switches) as it makes its way to its destination. The changes that can happen here – like introducing digital conversion to the path – would affect the quality of the call.

While the human brain has the capacity to subconsciously overcome and dismiss some of the subtle call quality changes, something as little as a half second of dead air could potentially mean a missed bit of data that would cause a failed alarm message delivery, or worse, a misinterpreted message.

The Death of POTS

On August 2, 2019, the FCC issued Forbearance Order 19-72A1, which officially granted telecommunications carriers permission to abandon outdated, degraded copper POTS lines. This order effectively severed the final ties that forced companies to maintain a specific standard of traditional POTS connectivity.

This means that the transitions and side effects we have experienced for years will only continue to accelerate. It is expected that over the next couple of years, traditional phone lines and services will become almost unavailable. The impact to the security and life safety industry is far more significant than to the consumer world, as our experience with the replacement alternatives like VoIP and digital line connections has not been great.

The truth is, the vast majority of installed alarm systems – in both the intrusion and fire segments – were designed to use a DACT to dial into analog traditional phones lines and deliver messages to a monitoring station. For commercial fire systems specifically, two redundant phone lines were required.

Cellular Becomes a POTS Alternative

As true POTS connections became unavailable, an alternative was needed. With the introduction of the 2010 edition of the NFPA 72 code, the door was opened for a technology like cellular to become that alternative, and to be used as a single communication path to replace the POTS line requirement – provided that the communicators met specific requirements.

The primary requirement was the need to have a highly supervised connection. Based on the original standard, this meant a 5-minute disruption in service needed to be acted upon. This later changed to 60 minutes in the 2013 edition of NFPA 72 and has remained so.

Five Benefits of Cellular

While it is easy to see that cellular is a nice solution when POTS is not an option, it should be noted that it also presents benefits beyond being a “POTS alternative” – pushing it to the forefront as the preferred path by integrators around the country.

1. Recurring Revenue: The easiest benefit to distinguish is the RMR that cellular brings to integrators. Rather than using a service (POTS, if available) that brings no revenue for the integrator, having a cellular solution shifts that revenue stream from the phone line providers to the integrators.

2. Cost Reduction: For end-users, the financial benefit is tangible as well. As POTS connectivity continues to be phased out, prices will likely increase. With cellular communications being mainstream, the cost of service of a cellular communicator will be far less than two commercial phone lines. Still, it is more than just financial gain: If you are in the commercial fire business, there is a general sense of pride that comes from knowing that you are doing your part in protecting the most important asset, life.

3. Decreased Reaction Time: The technical advantages that come from using cellular communicators go beyond the financial. Consider that before cellular was a viable option, a commercial fire system required two phone lines for redundant connectivity, and those phone lines had to be tested once every 24 hours (or 6 hours based on current code).

Because cellular had to meet strict supervision requirements in order to gain acceptance, it became a better option. With a system using redundant phone lines, if there is an issue with both lines, there could be up to a 24-hour gap before the central monitoring station misses a test and reacts. With a cellular communicator, the central station would be alerted within 5 or 60 minutes, depending on the version of code being adopted. When it comes to life safety, minutes matter, and knowing that something has gone wrong with the communication pathway within minutes rather than hours is a big deal.

The argument could be made that with redundant phone lines, the chances of both lines going down are remote; however, think about the way that a traditional phone call works – it leaves the premises and get to its destination after going through many switches. Can your telephone carrier guarantee that a call placed through both lines will not hit the same switch? If not, then how redundant are the two phone lines?

4. More Control: Besides the financial benefits and quicker reaction time on communication issues, there is an often-forgotten value attached to having a cellular connection – the integrator controls the path. When POTS connections are used, the property owner/manager sets up the connections, which means that at any given time, changes to those lines could occur without the integrator’s knowledge.

An ill-timed call from a service provider offering an attractive bundle price for converting all POTS to digital lines could trigger a service change in which a working fire system starts misbehaving, because the digital line does not work well with the fire system. When a cellular communicator is installed, the account belongs to the integrator, which means any changes to the account can only be done by the integrator. This is how controlling the path becomes a real benefit, taking the power to impact the communication pathway away from your client and into an integrator’s hands for safekeeping.

5. Cellular technology advancement: Is cellular perfect? Of course not, and there is no technology out there that can make that claim. That said, cellular is an evolving technology. With 3G technology sunsets on the horizon in 2022, Telguard has expanded its portfolio of commercial fire communicators to include 5G LTE-M technology, which is the next step for cellular communicators in the industry. The technology offers great benefits when compared to the current 4G LTE standard, which center around better in-building penetration and expected longevity.

Read more about the 5G technology as it relates to alarm communications in my article published in the May issue of Security Businesswww.securityinfowatch.com/21219304.

Daniel Rosales is Senior Director of Technical Service and Support for Telguard, a business unit of Ametek Inc. Request more info about the company at www.securityinfowatch.com/10215328