An all-wireless future?

For alarm communication, that future is nearer than you think
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Trends in how American households connect with the outside world are adding wrinkles to home security system installations, further driving acceptance of wireless technology.

The shift in communications style is twofold: households eschewing traditional landlines entirely in favor of cell phones, and the growing acceptance of digital phone service provided by cable companies such as Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and Comcast.

Both trends pose different challenges for home security systems, which traditionally have used telephone landlines to send out alarms, and both may push greater use of wireless communications to connect the home system to the central station, suggested Henry Laik, director of security market business development for Kore Telematics, a wireless network provider for machine-to-machine communications.

“It’s no secret that the wireline carriers, the telco carriers are losing subscribers on a monthly basis,” said Laik. “They are having issues with an outmoded business model, basically.”

In the case of households going cell-only, the challenge is simple. There is no landline service for alarms to connect to. Homeowners running an alarm system must either install a system that transmits a wireless alarm, or must pay for a basic phone line.

And while the majority of households still rely on a wireline account, more are heading toward 100 percent cell.

“People want to be connected to their world 100 percent of the time,” said Laik.

According to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control report, more than one out of every six American homes (17.5 percent) had only wireless telephones during the first half of 2008, an increase of 1.7 percentage points since the second half of 2007.

Integrator John Elmore Jr., an owner of Security by Elmore Inc. in Birmingham, Ala., said out of his roughly 500 customers, only about 40 use a cellular system as either backup or primary communication for the alarm system. That said, Elmore did say he saw more people adopting cell-only communications. The younger crowd is more comfortable with having no landline at home, said Elmore.

“The older people pretty much hang onto their old Ma Bell line,” said Elmore. 

That observation matches what the CDC found. According to the CDC, more than one in three adults aged 25-29 years lived in households with only wireless telephones. The CDC said that as age increased from 30 years, the percentage of adults living in households with only wireless telephones decreased: 19.1 percent for adults aged 30-44 years; 9.2 percent for adults aged 45-64 years; and 2.8 percent for adults aged 65 years and over.

The trend toward phone service by cable companies provides different challenges.

“If you’re using broadband-type communications and your power goes out, your broadband modem goes out,” said Laik. “You no longer have communications to the outside world - it is not a good thing for an alarm system.”

And more and more households are going that route for telephone service. According to Time Warner Cable, as of Sept. 30, 2008, it listed 3.6 million digital phone subscribers out of 34.2 million customers. Comcast listed 6.1 million digital phone customers. And Cablevision said it had 1.8 million phone customers, up 22.5 percent from the September 2007.

Elmore said one problem with broadband is some systems require consumers to re-identify themselves after a power outage, by hitting “1” before making the first phone call after power returns, or some other such basic step. But what if it’s the alarm system trying to make that first call?

“If that happens, your call’s not going to go out with a burglar alarm,” said Elmore. “That’s a problem.”

Natural disasters that have led to power outages have buoyed faith in cell systems, while having the opposite effect for cable and traditional phone systems, said Dan Lawrence, a home integrator and founder of My-Alarm in Tampa, Fla.

“When we have a tropical storm or hurricane, nobody has phone or cable service, but cellular is always there,” explained Lawrence.

He added, “People in Kentucky could be using it now,” referring to a recent winter storm that left thousands without power for days.

So what does this trend toward wireless communication between households and central stations entail?

Well, the technology exists. Of the cell-based alarm systems out there now, Elmore said he liked DSC and Honeywell.

There are some additional costs to a cell-based alarm system, said Laik - the cost of the cell service. But the question, he said, is how the alarm industry adapts the business model to address this trend. Traditionally, the industry has been subsidized in two basic ways. First, when local authorities respond to alarms. Second, alarm companies have utilized a communications system that the homeowner was already paying for, he said.

“Everybody’s got a cell phone, there’s absolutely no need for a land line,” said Lawrence. “Alarm companies have to adapt to that.”

Homeowners will continue to drift toward a complete wireless solution, suggested Laik. And carriers will respond, he said. They really want to penetrate the household and displace the wireline broadband with 3G and 4G service, he said.

“It’s not in the too distant future where a homeowner could make a decision that, say, AT&T would complete my entire communications package - and it would be wireless to the house,” said Laik. “If that’s the case, alarms must communicate over cellular, and the alarm industry has to adapt and change its method of operations to accommodate primary communications for alarm systems.”

Laik noted that oft-cited added bonus for homeowners using cell-based systems - a lack of wires to cut. Integrators have long up-sold cell communications to homeowners with the argument that burglars could clip the phone lines. That can be extended to the fiber carrying in digital phone, said Laik.

Lawrence did mention a technological problem with that argument, however: Cell jammers. They’re illegal to own, you can’t buy them in the United States, but they are available over the Internet, he said.

Manufacturers of cell-based alarm systems will need to develop jamming detection technology, he said. It would have to work the same way cut phone lines alert a central station, he said.

Regardless, cell jamming is the least of an alarm company’s worries if it’s not already on board with a cellular solution for alarm communication.