A family of four is awoken by the sound of a window breaking downstairs and the shuffle of an intruder’s feet. Their initial fear is abated when they realize their alarm is going off and soon help will be on the way. Meanwhile, that family’s address is not showing up on any of the central station’s screens. Locked up in their rooms, the family has no idea that no one knows they’re in danger.
That scenario is the nightmare the alarm industry faces with more customers abandoning their landline phones for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP).
With its ability to transmit voice telephone calls over the Internet the same way as Web pages and E-mails, VoIP has the potential to be the first real threat to the 100-year supremacy of plain old telephone service (POTS). With uncertainty about its compatibility with alarm systems, it also has the potential to be a major headache for alarm installers, central stations and the industry as a whole.
While a customer may be eager to replace the landline with VoIP because of its lower cost and digital technology, they may not realize they could be cutting off the link between their alarm panel and monitoring station. The scariest part is they may not realize it until a crime or emergency is actually taking place.
VoIP’s compatibility with alarm systems is unpredictable — sometimes alarm signals make it through on a VoIP line, sometimes they don’t. That leaves no one right answer on how to deal with it. Still, there are solutions that will make both end user and alarm contractor happy, and it has less to do with making hardware work together and more with getting the VoIP supplier, alarm contractor and end user to communicate with each other.
Internet Phone Service Offers Real Alternative to POTS
It’s natural for alarm contractors who have seen their share of passing fads to show a little skepticism that VoIP is here to stay. However, the raw numbers paint a picture of a telephony medium that is exploding in the marketplace and stands to entrench itself for decades to come.
IP telephony isn’t all that new. Since the early 1990s, home computer users have downloaded niche software allowing them to make telephone calls using their PC and the Internet. However, VoIP has become less of a computer geek’s toy and more a viable alternative for POTS. Internet calls have gone from the computer screen in the home office to the phone in the living room.
At the close of 2003, there were approximately 100,000 users of VoIP, according to Frost & Sullivan. Halfway through 2004, that number has been estimated to grow to more than 500,000. Frost & Sullivan is already calling 2004 the “Year for VoIP,” and many are comparing to that of VoIP to that of cellular phones in the late 1980s.
A company called Vonage, which now provides more than a third of all VoIP accounts in the United States, introduced its product in 2002 with 75,000 users. That number reached 83,000 at the close of 2003 but has since jumped to more than 200,000.
VoIP works by digitizing voice signals and sending them as packets through the Internet. The actual hook-up to VoIP is simple for anyone who has ever connected a modem to their computer. Instead of a wall jack, the telephone is hooked up to an adapter box. That box is connected with any high-speed Internet connection, such as a cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) modem (see diagram on page 106 of September issue).
The biggest advantage and attraction to the end user is cost. Just as there’s no cost to send E-mails, placing a telephone call over the Internet is free and there’s no such thing as a rate per-minute charge. A VoIP user can place as many calls as they want anywhere in the U.S. and Canada for a flat fee between $15 and $30.
Roadblocks Remain in the Way of the Telephone Revolution
VoIP still has its drawbacks. Dera DeRoche-Jolet, president of Metairie, La., central station Alarm Monitoring Services Inc., says providers aren’t doing enough to explain the problems end users may face with VoIP, including interference with their alarm systems.
VoIP clarity, while potentially clearer than conventional phone service, depends on the quality of the connection like anything else on the Internet. Just as a Web page will seem to load slower even on the fastest connection if that network is clogged with traffic, the quality of a VoIP call goes down when the bandwidth — or capacity for data — is reduced on a network. In addition, VoIP is susceptible to the same bugs, viruses and other computer attacks as PCs (see “Securing Networked Security Systems”).
On top of that, there’s the power issue. While landline phone systems are usually able to stay up in a power outage, VoIP users lose their phone service since a link to the Internet usually requires a power source.
Jon Arnold, the VoIP program leader for Frost & Sullivan, says the problems with VoIP are correctable and won’t likely be long-term issues. Bandwidth can be increased, firewalls and software protections can stop computer attacks, and a security contractor used to providing back-up power could probably solve the power problem with a uninterruptible power supply (UPS). Hitches in Compatibility Centered in Line-Seizure Module
Many of the VoIP compatibility issues are centered on the line-seizure module inside the control panel’s digital alarm communicator transmitter (DACT), which helps it take control of a phone line. VoIP may hinder the module and keep an alarm signal from going beyond the control panel.
Worst of all, there is no way for the central station or alarm company to know this has taken place until a customer notices their alarm has gone off and didn’t receive any response.
Other times, the problem VoIP poses to alarm systems doesn’t have as much to do with compatibility as it does with the installation of the VoIP system itself. VoIP installers may interfere with the wiring of the alarm system or inadvertently disconnect any link between the central station and alarm panel. This error will most likely be in the unhooking of the alarm system to the RJ-31X jack that links the control panel’s DACT to the PSTN.
One way to get past both the problem of compatibility and interference by the VoIP installer is to work with that installer and the end user on the best installation that brings them VoIP and ensures the continued function of their alarm system.
On the technical side, some installers have suggested instead of connecting the central office (CO) lines to the RJ-31X jack, connect that side of the of the jack to the output of the VoIP box, which should allow for a normal dial tone to get through.
Having a back-up form of communication is also a viable solution for dealing with any breaks in panel-to-station communication. Honeywell Security, for example, offers the AlarmNet service, which uses radio signals and towers to communicate between panel and central station. On top of that, Honeywell is also offering the AlarmNet-I service, which transmits straight alarm data signals over the Internet without using VoIP as a middleman (see sidebar on IP-based monitoring).
A Little Communication Goes a Long Way in Solving VoIP Issues
The best way to deal with this new form of communication is to communicate. Most of the potential problems involving VoIP/alarm system compatibility don’t come from hardware issues but from a lack of communication between either contractor and VoIP provider, or contractor and end user.
The alarm contractor should communicate with the companies that offer VoIP in their area to see if their network is compatible with alarm signals. If not, they can work on a solution with those companies that will ensure the signal will go through.
More importantly, the contractor needs to have an open and constant dialogue with their customers on VoIP. The best answer to an end user’s inquiries on VoIP and their alarm system isn’t a flat-out “no,” but an openness to work together and find the best solution that will keep them protected and a loyal customer … even if they’ve given up on POTS.
Contractors should make an effort to communicate with all of their present and past customers on what VoIP means to their alarm service. They should make clear that those considering VoIP should contact them first, or those who have already switched should call them immediately. The National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA) has created a letter template contractors can send to their customers concerning VoIP and their alarm system (see the letter online at www.alarm.org/pdf/VOIPLetter.pdf).
In turn, contractors should make it a habit to send test signals to their customers’ panels at least once a month to make sure the line of communication is still functioning, and contact the customer if it is not.
“Give the customers a heads-up. If they call for service, while they call for changing their code, fill them in on VoIP,” Budinoff says. “Even in today’s heightened security, people aren’t making sure everything works right.”