Averting an Alarm Communications Gap

Advances and changes in signal transmission technologies mean alarm monitoring providers must remain ever vigilant to stay current. An examination of FCC broadband and wireless communications initiatives spells out what security dealers and manufacturers need to know.

Where the national communications infrastructure is concerned, the alarm industry is not a little fish in a big pond, as the saying goes, but rather in a swift-flowing river. While the origins of the alarm and telephone industries are intimately intertwined, they have long since been diverging at an ever-widening clip.

Recent events such as the announcement by AT&T that it wishes to sunset plain old telephone service (POTS) has created a great deal of confusion and anxiety among security dealers and monitoring companies, exemplifying the position of the alarm industry adrift in a river. Carried along like a small boat with no will of its own, the alarm industry’s interests are totally overwhelmed by the marketplace needs of the telecommunications industry.

Thus, when it comes to using the services and products of the telecommunications industry, the alarm industry cannot effectively set its own agenda but must be cognizant of the ever-changing environment and be prepared to react to it. The Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC) does its best to keep the industry aware of this environment and works with the FCC and Congress to mitigate these changes, whenever possible.

How We Came to Rely on POTS

The concept of transmitting alarms from protected premises to a central station changed little from its inception until well into the mid-1970s. There were some innovative attempts at line security, multiplexing and even using forms of tone signaling over voice-grade telephone lines. All these were largely reserved for commercial accounts where this type of protection was considered a necessary evil. Penetration into the residential market was practically infinitesimal.

The largest breakthrough regarding residential security system installations occurred in about the mid-1970s with the invention of the digital communicator, often referred to as “the dialer” or digital alarm communicator transmitter (DACT). The digital communication used a customer’s own regular dial-up telephone (POTS, a.k.a. public switched telephone network or PSTN) using local and 800-service to connect that customer’s alarm system to a central station.

While rejected at first by those in the alarm industry wishing to preserve the status quo, its pervasiveness was soon recognized and began to rapidly be used as the most recognized form of communications in more than 95 percent of central station-connected alarm systems. Even the telephone company, then AT&T, was against DACT use on its lines. It fought any connection to its circuits other than its own telephone instruments. For a while AT&T required the use of expensive couplers to be placed between the alarm DACT and the telephone line. The DACT can now be recognized as truly “disruptive technology.”

DACT’s introduction had three significant outcomes: 1) made monitored alarm systems affordable for smaller commercial and residential users; 2) allowed for expanding the monitoring footprint from local to regional and national in scope; and 3) allowed companies to flourish that only monitored regionally and nationally on behalf of companies (dealers) that preferred to only sell and install alarms.

Almost from the beginning the unreliably of DACT over POTS was recognized. The service is subject to all that natural and manmade misfortunes can create, such as cut telephone lines. In the mid-1980s the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) incorporated DACT into the fire alarm code, using redundancy as a way to increase reliability. It was understood that the supervisory interval for DACT would need to be 24 hours to reduce costs.

Implementing Wireless Backup

A popular method of creating the redundancy for the DACT is to use a separate wireless path. The evolution of wireless went from simple one-way systems – transmitting blindly without receipt acknowledgement – as a backup to the primary POTS circuit to the more sophisticated use of cellular transmission.

At first cellular was used as a simple, two-way audio stream to transmit the same DACT tone data that was carried over the POTS circuit. In the early 1990s this changed to the use of the control channel of the cellular network. This was of one of the more innovative ways a communications media was adopted to service the alarm industry and other machine-to-machine users. The fatal flaw in this concept, however, was that this cellular technology used the existing Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS) network.

AMPS was the earliest version of cellular-based telephone service and is basically an analog cellular service. Since it did not use bandwidth efficiently, under pressure from cellular telephone companies, AMPS was terminated by the FCC in early 2008, despite the protests of the alarm industry. This was another prime example of the alarm industry once again getting swept up in the larger stream.

AMPS’ demise meant alarm equipment manufacturers had to quickly “retool” their products into Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) cellular devices using General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and Enhanced Data GSM Environment (EDGE) to send data.

Closely coupled in time to the use of cellular control channel technology is the awareness of the alarm industry that the private IP networks and even the public Internet could be useful for alarm transmission. The Radionics division of Bosch Security Systems petitioned the appropriate NFPA technical committee in 2001 and was able to have IP first recognized as a “Tentative Interim Amendment” to the 1999 Edition of NFPA 72, the National Fire Code.

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