9.2.20- Mary Edmonson, Southwest Dispatch Center
I like to say I have been in the alarm industry for “twenty-too” many years, and I know that for some people I am just cutting my teeth, just a baby. However, during that time, I have seen 7-digit dialing change to 10-digit, I have seen 2G and almost 3G sunset, I have seen CDMA change over to LTE, and we have seen traditional copper phone lines slowly dwindle away.
What do these things have in common? They all impact alarm panel communications. I feel like communications is, and will be, our biggest challenge over the next 5-10 years. Technology is changing so fast, it is hard for equipment manufactures to keep up, and even harder for alarm dealers to come to terms with.
The harsh reality is that phone line communications is outdated, and currently the least consistent form of communication in most alarm applications. Full disclosure; I want to let you know some of the information I’m about to give you is from internet sources, and some is based on our cumulative experiences. In addition, I understand that some of this information may not be “new to you”, but I believe it is best to not assume.
What is VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), and what does it mean to the alarm industry? VoIP is a service which uses the internet to mimic phone lines and it is susceptible to losing packets of data, frequency shifts and data errors; all of which, can interfere with the alarm system’s ability to transport accurate signal data to the monitoring station. In order for VoIP phone service to run efficiently over the internet, audible analog conversation is converted to digital data for transmission and then compressed so it can be sent over limited bandwidth. On the other end of the signal, the information is then decompressed and re-interpreted. This compression and decompression process is where the alarm signals can be lost or altered. When this occurs during a phone call between two people, the sound may come across as slightly garbled or it may cut out for a second. During an alarm signal transmission, however, losing just one digit of this communication may cause the entire signal to become unintelligible. Thus, when a garbled signal comes in to the central station, it is typically logged in a miscellaneous account and it is stored there. Most customers don’t realize their phone service is “VoIP” and you can’t guarantee your carrier hasn’t made changes in call routing where a portion of it is over VoIP lines.
In the alarm monitoring equation, there could be a point of weakness at the customer level, but more often than not, we see the issues are with the carrier. Especially if you are seeing this happen on several customers. I have had calls from dealers asking me “What have you done to my receiver? My accounts are not reporting correctly all of the sudden.” These calls have happened for years, and will continue, as we drift into a VoIP world and true copper phone lines go away. I can assure you that a central station is not going to make a major change on just your receiver to somehow mess up your signals. When an issue like this occurs, 99% of the time there has been a routing change that sends alarm transmissions over VoIP lines somewhere in the communication pathway. You won’t get notification from the phone carrier, it just happens.
Is this all gloom and doom? No, absolutely not! The good news is that there are several options for alarm transmission communication outside of phone lines. While there is normally an additional cost to the monthly monitoring for these alternative communications, it is worth it in the end when your signal is transmitted consistently. After all, you get what you pay for, right? Cellular, IP and long-range radio are alternative forms of communications.
Cellular units communicate over the same cellular towers that your cellphone communicates on. That is a technology that changes and is updated periodically to support all of the traffic. As you know, non-LTE cellular service is in the process of end-of-life, and that means that cellular carriers are not supporting 3G, as they are transitioning to 4G & 5G/LTE. When you install a cellular unit, you should educate your customers on this technology and what changes they should expect in the future. As well, I would recommend keeping track of your equipment (i.e. serial numbers, device type including 4G/LTE). If you aren’t sure which units in the field need to be updated, your central station may be able to help you out (if they haven’t already sent that list to you).
What’s the best advice I can give you right now as we are rapidly approaching the next cellular sunset? Don’t get caught waiting for equipment in the final hour. Start working on your replacements now. If your sales or service is slow now, this might be something that can help you stay profitable. Stay on top of that list and work to get your customers cellular units updated.
Internet Protocol (IP) monitoring is another option for alarm communications. Most new equipment has the option to report via IP, and if your equipment doesn’t, you can typically add a module or a dual path cellular unit that will help you achieve that. IP communications are possibly the fastest of all forms. It happens in the blink of an eye. There are some things you need to keep in mind when using the internet to communicate your alarm signals. If it is land-based cable, and if that cable is down for any reason, the signal is not going to be transmitted. Power is needed for the router and for the Internet communication to work. Your alarm panel has a back-up battery, but is your customer’s router powered with any kind of battery back-up or UPS? Not normally, but I do believe this is mandated by NFPA-72 for those offering commercial fire alarm services.
Long-range radio is another alternative form of communication, such as AES-IntelliNet. AES is a wireless mesh network radio technology and was originally developed for military installations. It was designed solely for alarm communications, and is comparable to IP communication with respect to signal transport timing. Each AES subscriber unit is designed as a repeater and searches to find the quickest communication path back to the central station. A dealer can build their own network or they can use a central station’s network – contact me for more details. What’s the benefit? Well, radio technology will never sunset.
What does all of this mean for an alarm dealer? Know your accounts, and keep up with technology changes, as it seems to be happening fast and furious. Put your plan together and start taking action now – don’t wait. Educate your customers of the consequences of unpredictable VoIP communications and get your cellular units which are near end-of-life, replaced now. If in doubt, reach out to me, as I am always happy to assist and to help!
About the Author
Southwest Dispatch Center
(713) 799-3022 Cell
Mary has worked in the wholesale alarm monitoring industry in the greater Houston area for more than twenty years and started her career with Southwest Dispatch Center in the fall of 2016. Initially her background was in billing and that transitioned throughout the years as liaison between the dealer and central station. You most likely have met or crossed paths with Mary during any number of trade industry events, or during one of the many Texas Burglar & Fire Alarm Association or Houston Gulf Coast Alarm Association events as she has held positions both boards for several years. She has served as Regional Director, Membership Director, Editor, Secretary and Vice President. She currently serves as Convention Chair for TBFAA’s Annual Convention.