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.

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4 Factors Rocking Our World

The fluidity of the present environment becomes apparent when we look at four recent events.

The first significant item is that Americans are abandoning POTS. This is evident from research conducted by the Yankee Group and others. In fact, it has been recently reported that more calls are placed on cell phones than on landlines. Industry research from SSI shows nearly a quarter (23 percent) of all intrusion alarm systems no longer use landlines for primary signal transmission.

The second development is that AT&T earlier this year asked the FCC for relief from maintaining its standard landline service, stating it would use the money to bolster its broadband service. Third is the fact that longevity of the GPRS cellular network is in danger.

Finally and not yet fully digested is the recent court ruling in favor of Comcast and against the FCC striking down network neutrality. Simply, network neutrality is the concept that allows for no restrictions by Internet service providers (ISPs) or governments on content or the kinds of equipment to a broadband network.

Major Shifts Are in Motion

At a recent AICC meeting AT&T said its request to the FCC to “sunset” POTS was a “trial balloon,” almost suggesting it should not be taken seriously. The telecommunications giant went on to say it did not see a short-term end to having a wired service from a premises to a collection point (central office or otherwise).

This service would resemble POTS but would be converted probably to a VoIP service beyond that collection point. This would mean that a telephone customer wishing to retain POTS would utilize the same wires into a premises. These lines would still be powered from the telephone company’s equipment. Perhaps the customer would notice no significant service differences. Verizon, at an earlier AICC meeting, suggested a similar scenario for its POTS network.

The bottom line, then, is that it appears a wired service will exist for some time if the demand is there but its reliability is subject to how the VoIP coding and decoding is accomplished beyond the collection point.

As an aside, two facts seem to push the sunset of POTS. In addition to Americans
rapidly abandoning their landlines and perhaps more important, the wired telephone network is a regulated service as opposed to broadband, which is not currently regulated. So a switch by AT&T or other telecommunications companies to broadband should relieve them of being regulated. However, having lost the network neutrality fight many believe the FCC will push to regulate broadband for fear an unregulated Internet will compromise its initiatives.

If the 2008 termination of AMPS was termed a “sunset,” then the predicted slow elimination of GPRS and EDGE can be termed a “soft sunset.” AT&T has put forward a five to seven year timeframe for the longevity of GPRS and EDGE, but other industry insiders are saying three years may be more realistic.

Why the change? The driver is the competition to give the users of cell phones and smart phones faster service and more services. The alarm industry uses so little of the network that its needs are not considered, as they were not during the AMPS “sunset.” A common saying is appropriate here: “Once burned, twice shy.” This should warn dealers that they must prepare for the change to 4G and even beyond.

In parallel, private radio networks have become a popular, albeit expensive, alternative. Other technologies will also soon be introduced as alternatives to cellular-based wireless. Among these new technologies will be “cognitive radio” and “software defined radio” (SDR) systems. If properly configured, SDR has the ability to change as markets change, keeping radio systems at or near the state of the art.

The 2010 Edition of NFPA 72 saw yet another dramatic change. POTS was redefined as Managed Facilities Voice Networks (MFVN) to add the offerings of the cable companies, Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-Verse. These entities use VoIP over a “managed network,” never touching the public Internet.

While pure packet signaling over the Internet does not distort digital transmissions, voice or tone signaling over an “unmanaged circuit,” e.g. VoIP, cannot be relied on to always deliver these tones accurately. So, the differentiation implies that all the above systems are “managed” and are, therefore, allowed, while VoIP is “unmanaged” and, therefore, not allowed. This perpetuates the use of the DACT as long as voice over MFVN exists.

Embedded in this change is that the code required only eight hours of backup in the communications chain, rather than the traditional 24 hours. Twenty-four hours, however, is still required for the premises to control itself. This change to NFPA 72 opened the door to a different class of alarm signaling.

When other forms of telephony that resemble POTS are used, often the “line seizure” feature required of POTS is lost or wired incorrectly. The NFPA 72 change requires this feature be tested. In fact, AICC is pushing for federal legislation to require VoIP providers to ask alarm system subscribers to contact the alarm company and test the alarm system.

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