The War on POTS: Making the Move to Alternate Technologies

Moving your accounts from POTS lines to an alternate technology will ultimately save you time and increase the value of your company, but more importantly it will provide your subscribers solid and reliable communications into the future.

The War on POTS: Making the Move to Alternate Technologies

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When I first started in this industry in 1979, a small family-run alarm company in Southern California was just starting to monitor digital dialers — up until then, most were direct-connects of various types, along with tape dialers. Some of these went directly to various police departments, others went into the company’s central station.

For most monitoring companies, their reach was limited to a small geographic area because of the limitations of copper circuits. When the digital dialer appeared on the market in the mid-1970s, not only did geographic limitations go away, but the cost of expensive copper circuits disappeared, as well. These were major changes that sparked a completely new way of marketing and installing monitored systems.

The technology used for digital dialers was incredibly simple: simple tones were transmitted, then counted to determine the account number and the code being sent. The early stuff was so slow that most technicians could listen in and decode it themselves by just counting the beeps.

Later on, DTMF (dual tone multifrequency, known as touchtone) was used to send signals, along with various FSK (frequency shift keying) modes, but all of this was designed to be sent across analog phone lines that, to be honest, had pretty good fidelity.

Some of you might recall the marketing slogan of “Our network is so good you can hear a pin drop.” That’s now replaced with the slogan of “The network with the least dropped calls.” Obviously, the technology has greatly changed, but consumer expectations have changed, as well. People are generally used to jittery, latency-filled cellphone calls, and having calls dropped midsentence.

As the need for traditional landlines has decreased and the appetite for high-speed networking greatly increased, the telecom industry has been converting almost all voice calls to run over high-speed IP networks instead of traditional analog/TDM (time division multiplexing) phone networks. That is commonly called voice over IP, or VoIP, for short, and it allows for a much easier and flexible platform for carriers to transport and route calls.

Since voice calls are now becoming less and less of their core business, it’s become a business necessity to move in that direction. In fact, that is so much so that carriers are either not renewing TDM circuits or they are increasing costs for TDM circuits and switching toll-free to factors of 10 times or more. Basically, they are making it unaffordable to continue using dial-up on TDM.

Moving voice calls to IP networks has also created a number of new business models. Now, we not only have the named endpoint carriers to work with, we also have interexchange carriers, sometimes called “tandem” or “least cost routing” carriers. Most of these will not be easily identified, and it is not possible, normally, to work directly with them when a problem occurs.

Virtually every call placed to a toll-free number will utilize at least one interexchange carrier, but, unfortunately, every “hop” adds a little bit of latency and jitter, and, all too often, so many hops occur that the latency is too much to overcome, and the alarm call fails.

I could easily write a whole book on VoIP and why problems exist, but it’s time to understand that continuing to use dial-up for alarm transmissions is just a bad idea. In stating that, I am at the same time keenly aware of rural situations where choices might be limited as to what’s available, but getting cellular and broadband to rural areas is getting better, and that situation will diminish over time.

What is important to our industry is for communications to monitoring centers be consistently reliable, complete and clear in order for security and fire alarms to function as required. There are so many issues with using VoIP, but one of the most frustrating issues is, ironically, that the various issues are so inconsistent: one day it’s working just fine, the next day it fails and in ways over which we have no control. By its very nature, VoIP is highly resilient and adaptive when utilized for actual voice calls, but it’s not friendly to alarm traffic running over it.

Modern monitoring centers have invested heavily in redundant systems where virtually every system, circuit, power source, carrier, etc. is deployed in pairs. As an industry, we have incredibly reliable and consistent services, but while dial-up worked reliably from the 1970s to the early 2000s, our demands on that system have now evolved to a level at which it is not going to remain capable of supporting critical data transmissions.

As the most recent AT&T 3G-to-LTE conversion is completed, it is time to really work hard to get our systems migrated off dial-up and onto other technologies that will provide the reliable and secure communications we all need.

When I speak with dealers and providers, there is almost a universal story that I hear as to why they have not converted to a greater extent. Their reasons are legitimate, but like most things in life, success can be measured by how well you overcome challenges and attain objectives.

It takes planning, has to be intentional and well-defined, and the plan will need a champion and motivation throughout the company to execute it. When in place, its successes and failures must be measured so adjustments can be executed, if necessary.

Prudence requires knowing what objections might arise ahead of time thereby allowing you to develop a strategy to address them. This is not intended to be a business plan but is instead a checklist of the typical stuff that can affect your business model. Some of the typical roadblocks?

COSTS: Subscribers always push back on the cost, but if you are able to eliminate the costs for POTS lines, it’s a pretty simple ROI. But also consider that if you can convert the subscriber into one of the many platforms that provide home automation and remote control, the churn rate on these is far less, and the monthly RMR is more; there is measurable value to that, so do your pricing accordingly.

EDUCATION: Almost everyone I speak with has a certain number of subscribers that simply don’t believe that there is anything wrong with dial-up. There is a fair amount of consumer-facing material to argue your case and help them understand the need now and in the future. You just need to get that material in front of them.

CHOICES: While we are all experiencing shortages in product, never has there been more options to look at for network enabled communicators as well as private radio options. Cell coverages are better than ever, and the Internet itself, primarily because of work-from-home efforts, has expanded bandwidth significantly. Take some time to really investigate what’s out there and speak with your monitoring station to see what they support and what experiences they have had with the various products and platforms.

After you have done your homework, go ahead and set up nonproduction test sites. Once you have decided which products and platforms you want to roll out, take the time to create installation and troubleshooting documentation for connecting each type of panel you have in the field.

Make sure your documentation includes not only how to wire the solution but also the required programming changes for the host panel. Don’t forget to create testing documents so that you can verify that everything was working and was tested at the time when you finished the installation.

As part of your program, you should set up supervisors to inspect how your technical staff is doing the work. If you get everything kitted and documented, changing over a dial-up account should end up being a fairly simple task and should become a rinse-and-repeat process that will be reliable for a long time to come.

It’s time to get this into focus, assign a champion, get your company aligned to the mission and then execute on it. Getting your accounts off of POTS lines will ultimately save you time and increase the value of your company, but more importantly it will provide your subscribers solid and reliable communications into the future.

About the Author

Contact:

Morgan Hertel is Vice President of Technology and Innovation for Rapid Response Monitoring.

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