AMPS About to Become MIA

Years before the new millennium rolled around, information technology and systems managers around the world worried about what would happen when the date switched to 1/1/00.

Fears about programs that would fail led to numerous questions about stability of our public and business infrastructure: Would the computer systems that manage much of our daily lives and businesses continue to work? Would banks close and collapse? Would our water and power supplies cease to function, leaving us high and dry? Would air traffic control work?

And for those of us in the security business — would our networks continue to operate well, or would we be faced with thousands of sounding alarms and not enough personnel to determine what was real and what might be false? These were all legitimate questions posed during what was a serious situation.

Fortunately, when Jan. 1, 2000 arrived, few if any problems happened in the United States or abroad. Why? Months of advance planning and careful preparation prevented the doomsday scenarios that could have happened had the warnings not been heeded and reprogramming done. The world was literally able to stave off — through smart and thoughtful action — any negative consequences.

Today, the security industry finds itself in a similar situation to the pre-Y2K years. The deadline we face now is 2/18/08 — the date the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has told cellular providers they no longer need to provide analog mobile phone service (AMPS).

Why is this important? Because security industry estimates put the number of units currently in service that rely on AMPS for transmission in the hundreds of thousands to perhaps more than one million. AMPS alarm radios are principally used to provide a backup path to the digital dialer, which is the primary path for alarm signaling.

Come Feb. 18, 2008, any units relying on AMPS could find themselves stranded or at the very least on a system whose reliability has been greatly degraded. Although some industry groups are rallying to extend this deadline, it is imperative alarm companies act now to ensure they will be ready when the AMPS plug inevitably gets pulled.

FCC Sets 5-Year Sunset Period for Analog Mobile Phone Service
An evaluation of the FCC’s documents of its Year 2000 Biennial Review of its regulations show that the commission believed the original goals of the AMPS requirement had for the most part been accomplished and it was unnecessary to retain it indefinitely.

They did recognize though that certain AMPS customers, such as those with hearing disabilities and persons who rely exclusively on their phones to access 911 emergency services, might not have “readily available and accessible economic or technological alternatives” to AMPS service.

In order to give cellular providers and customers time to upgrade and/or switch equipment for these particular users, the FCC established a five-year sunset period Feb. 18, 2003-Feb. 18, 2008.

There is no doubt that during the past five years digital technology, with its greater clarity, remote diagnostics, automated activation and text messaging capability, has left analog far behind. Add to that the nearly nationwide availability of digital service, and it’s easy to see why the FCC ruled AMPS service was no longer vital.

Industry Group Raises Awareness, Lobbies for AMPS Extension
One group that has been paying close attention to the AMPS sunset is the Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC).

Lou Fiore, chairman of the AICC says, “We’re already starting to see some degradation in AMPS service. Come Feb. 18, 2008, we’ll likely see larger metropolitan areas go dark. That means tens if not hundreds of thousands of customers will lose their backup security service.”

In order to prevent such problems, AICC has embarked on a three-pronged educational and lobbying campaign. Perhaps the toughest strategy among the three is encouraging the cellular industry to voluntarily extend AMPS service beyond the 2008 deadline.

“It’s in their financial interests to want to end AMPS,” says Fiore. “Digital service uses spectrum more efficiently than AMPS. The end of AMPS would free up capacity for new customers to come online. New customers mean more money for the carriers.”

Despite the carriers’ financial incentives to end the AMPS coverage, Fiore says they have had some positive conversations with certain cellular companies. AICC is also teaming up with other stakeholders to convince the providers to temporarily delay the end of AMPS.

Second on AICC’s strategy is to petition the FCC to extend the AMPS requirement to 2010. Fiore says AICC is monitoring the FCC comment process and plans to file a petition for extension of the AMPS sunset clause no later than September 2006. Part of this strategy involves garnering the support of public safety officials by showing them and the FCC that public safety could be at great risk if the industry isn’t given enough time to switch out old AMPS equipment and adopt new technology.

“This is a matter of public safety,” adds Fiore. “If we don’t give alarm companies enough time to switch out the old AMPS equipment, we’ll have upwards of one million homes and businesses without a backup path for fire alarm or security protection.”

While AICC’s actions to delay the sunset date are worthwhile, the conventional wisdom is that a delay of any sort is highly unlikely. In fact, the FCC already rejected an argument of public safety being at risk when OnStar made it in 2002. As such, technology development and replacement is the thrust of AICC’s third strategy, which is to work with alarm radio manufacturers to develop replacement units as soon as possible.

“The loss of AMPS won’t affect tri-mode phones,” says Fiore. “But all those wall-mounted alarm radios units don’t come with the same option. They must be replaced.” Given that there are less than 18 months remaining before Feb. 18, 2008, and the large number of units that need replacing, security and alarm companies need to immediately begin the work of changing out AMPS-dependent equipment on their systems.

Evaluate Equipment, Look Into Replacements
The first step in upgrading AMPS-reliant devices should be to investigate what new equipment options are available. Several manufacturers have already developed replacement technology that is currently available on the market. To be sure, vendors of analog radios for public cellular phone networks are developing or have developed digital radios for the market.

One of the most popular analog cellular replacement choices is equipment that runs on a private dealer-operated mesh radio frequency vs. a public digital cellular phone network. The benefits of private mesh radio networks are numerous with the biggest advantage in cost savings. Using private mesh radio frequencies to transmit your alarm signals means there are no recurring monthly fees that must be paid to a public digital cellular provider. You also get to own and operate your own network.

Using a radio mesh network also means you will no longer be dependent on another company’s maintenance or repair schedule, which translates into less downtime for you and more confidence in your network’s reliability. Further, you’ll have the comfort of knowing that your system won’t be subject to further changes or advances in digital technology that might require you to yet again swap out equipment that won’t work on a new system.

Lastly, some of today’s private mesh radio frequency alarm systems are highly scalable, enabling you to grow or shrink your network as needed and allowing you to tie several mesh networks into one by combining long-range radio with Internet technology.

After selecting a n
ew vendor, the next step is to develop a work plan. Alarm companies should analyze their customer base and develop a replacement schedule based on geographic and greatest need priorities. The next piece of the plan is an analysis for the labor pool you’ll need to install the new radios and a schedule to go and swap out each unit.

You should educate your customers that the cellular AMPS sunset is coming and requires you to change their equipment. Any marketing materials should also explain the costs, benefits (e.g. with radio frequency no telephone lines are needed) and timing of the program.

Map Out Your Strategy Today to Avert Reliability Issues Tomorrow

The time to prepare for the end of AMPS is now. It took more than 20 years to put in all those analog cellular radios serving the alarm market, and now there is less than two years left to replace them. The same advance planning that staved off disaster around Y2K can prevent similar scenarios from occurring in two years.

Developing a thoughtful strategy and action plan to resolve equipment issues related to the cellular AMPS sunset now means you will maintain network reliability. More importantly, public safety will not be compromised.

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