Brass Tacks of Alarm Signal Communications

Advancements in cellular and IP communications have created both upheaval and value-add sales opportunities for alarm dealers. Learn fundamental details, including pros and cons, about these various types of communication pathways and strategies on how to deal with them.

Cellular communication allows a homeowner to use their security system in locations where a hardwired Internet connection may be unavailable. This functionality provides dealers the opportunity to deliver value-added offerings like remote services.Internet: Wi-Fi — A security system connected via Wi-Fi deserves separate recognition when compared to a hardwired IP connection. It provides a significant benefit for the installer: ease of installation. High labor costs are a leading reason dealers don’t connect more security systems via a hardwire Ethernet connection. In comparison, connecting a security system via Wi-Fi is fast, seamless and requires minimal labor.

Compared to a decade ago, Wi-Fi usage has steadily increased in homes making it a viable option to transmit alarm signals. Although this approach su ffers the same maintenance downtime challenge as a hardwired Ethernet connection, it also can handle high bandwidth and transfer data faster, providing the ability for dealers to deliver in-demand value-added services.

The primary concern with either a wired or Wi-Fi Ethernet connection is the regularly scheduled maintenance cycles of the network provider. While Internet service providers do their best to schedule network maintenance at a time that’s least disruptive to customers, it’s hard to predict when an emergency may occur. Dealers will need to take extra precautions to ensure their customers’ security systems are always connected to the central station.  Many dealers use IP (hardwired or Wi-Fi) as a lower cost primary connection for alarm communications and remote services, plus a cellular backup communicator that provides a signal when IP is not available due to network downtime, power failure or cut wires.

Wireless mesh network — Wireless mesh networks a
re a small but growing area of alarm communications technologies. They are private radio networks built, managed and maintained by security companies rather than by one of the major carriers like AT&T or Verizon. 

While the technology works, the laws of numbers can work against it in certain applications and terrains. A wireless mesh network is configured by deploying radio transmitters across a specific geographic area to capture and distribute alarm signals to a central station. In most cases, security companies deploying wireless mesh networks are doing so in flat areas with a high population density. This promotes signal distribution and helps achieve the economy of scale that makes it profitable. The most significant benefit for dealers evaluating a wireless mesh network is ownership of the network and elimination of monthly cellular fees. However, there are some challenges dealers need to take into account.

As more radio transmitters get connected to the network, there is more data traveling regularly over the network. Because wireless mesh networks use each device as a signal repeater, the network can potentially become overloaded with data traffic, which needs to be prioritized as it travels across the network. Dealers have to prioritize network space to ensure any emergency signals reach the central station.

There are also important business issues a dealer needs to consider when deploying a wireless mesh network. Wireless mesh networks expand the responsibility of the security company beyond security system deployment and maintenance. They must also maintain and manage the network itself. This extra responsibility requires additional staff, enhanced network expertise and investment in specialized equipment to build and maintain the network.

For some dealers, building a wireless mesh network makes sense due to the geographical area and types of customers they serve. However, for security companies with a large footprint spanning a variety of population densities, it’s important to consider the network’s design to keep the mesh strong cross the entire service area. Overall, wireless mesh network technology is not as pervasive as cellular- or Internet-based connections across the security industry. 

Selecting the Best Protocol

Increasingly, it is becoming an installation best practice to connect security systems with two of the four communication protocols discussed previously. In the event that one fails, there will be a fallback communication channel available. Dealers can determine which two (or more) approaches make the most sense for their customers by answering the following questions:

  • What communication infrastructure is currently available in the home or business?
  • What communication infrastructure is currently accessible to the home or business, if not currently installed?
  • Is the Ethernet cable hookup or cable easily accessible?
  • Will this area be well covered with a mesh design?

Answers to these questions help dealers determine the right combination of communication technologies that will keep the security system in contact with the central station. According to Honeywell, dealers are commonly using lower-cost Internet or Wi-Fi connections backed up with cellular technology to transmit alarm signals. They also meet the following dealer metrics:

  • Ease of installation
  • Near ubiquitous coverage
  • Predictable labor
  • Needed bandwidth and transmission speed to support remote services
  • Client not susceptible to scheduled network maintenance of Internet providers

The communications landscape continues to evolve and affect not only how we interact with each other, but how homeowners and business owners are interacting with their security systems.

Installing security contractors that will succeed in this evolving environment are those that understand the available alarm communication technologies and how their customers like to communicate. With this understanding, security companies can combine those preferences in a way that makes sense for the customers’ safety and for their business’s bottom line.

Gordon Hope is General Manager of AlarmNet at Honeywell. He can be reached at  

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