IP spreading like wildfire

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The plain old telephone system (POTS) lines that stretch from pole to pole, virtually around the world, are evidence of one of the most stable and widely deployed technologies ever developed.
But, said Bart A. Didden, president of U.S.A. Central Station Alarm, they are evidence of yesterday’s technology, and Internet protocol (IP) communication is the new wave for fire alarm communications.
“IP is the natural progression of communications around the world. U.S.A. did not decide to go IP for fire signaling, U.S.A. has turned to go IP- and RF-based condition signaling because that is where the technology is going,” said Didden in an email interview. “Remember, IP is a method to move digital data over a medium whether it is wired or wireless. So we did not choose IP for IP, we have fully deployed IP because that is where the world around us is going, so if you’re not on (or in) you are off (or out).”
Sending packets of data through the Internet rather than across phone lines does offer some benefits.
One of the first mentioned by IP-based fire alarm system manufacturers is the almost constant communication maintained between the panels and central stations.
Traditional dialers on fire panels send a test signal once every 24 hours, said Nick Martello, director of marketing at Fire-Lite Alarms, a Honeywell business. Fire-Lite’s IPDACT transmits alarms from fire panels via IP network lines.
“This module supervises connectivity between that site and the central station once every 90 seconds,” said Martello. “That is a huge increase in security. If there’s a pole down in front of the building and the line was down, in this case, you’d get immediate notification because of IP.”
If the connection were lost, the system enunciates at both the central station and at the site, said Martello.
Another big benefit is cost, said Martello. All alarm panels today have analog dialers on them, he said, because they have to connect to a POTS line. The IP system allows the client to use its existing Internet connection as the pipeline for the signal. And while many IP-based fire systems are still required to have a backup POTS line, one that could be shared with other devices (fax, for example), Fire-Lite recently received UL approval to eliminate that backup and run with two IP lines.
So instead of paying roughly $60 a month for two phone lines, the client further leverages its Internet connections. Martello said the reliability and cost savings of his company’s system has been big with companies that have their own virtual private networks.
“It has gotten us into places Fire-Lite would never have gotten into—proprietary places, large business campuses, large retail department chains,” said Martello.One customer realized $1.6 million a year in telephone savings, he said.
The biggest benefit of IP is speed, suggested Brett Springall, IT director at Security Central, a division of Lake Norman Security Patrol Inc.
“The signals reach the receiver and are processed in a few seconds, compared to much longer times with telephony-based systems. IP also solves the challenges associated with VoIP at the premise,” said Springall in an email interview. “The signal remains in a digital format all the way from the panel to the receiver and is not affected by conversion to analog at any point along the way.”
Lew Kramer, applications engineer for Digital Monitoring Products (DMP), elaborated on the need for speed. DMP makes several IP-utilizing systems for fire alarms.
Depending on the communications format, a traditional panel has to dial a central station receiver, obtaining a free line not already occupied by another control panel. They may have to roll over a few times to find a free line card, he said.It then runs through a number of ACK tone frequencies before it matches communication format, then the panel starts dumping the data. It can take up to a minute to get a fire alarm message through, said Kramer.
But with IP, it’s one computer talking to another, sending packet data over a network.
“That’s just milliseconds,” said Kramer.And those packets can be a wealth of information, said both Kramer and Springall.
“The amount of data is virtually endless, because again, we are not on toll-free lines transmitting at archaic speeds,” said Springall.
Kramer said that the systems can send zone text—whatever shows up on the keypad for the description locally is fed out and sent to the central station receiver.“It’s more information at a shorter period of time,” said Kramer. “And the quality of that signal is much more robust than transmission over a regular phone line.”
U.S.A.’s Didden noted that IP transmission is not distance sensitive, an improvement over POTS. Up until now, he said, U.S.A. used toll-free circuits for signaling, and now they use the client-provided connection, which reduces his company’s costs.
“It’s a global world—we’re in the digital world—we can do this anywhere in the world,” said Martello, of Fire-Lite. “You don’t have to be down the street any more to monitor ABC Liquors.”
There are still some bumps in this relatively new technology. Kramer noted that many authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) don’t yet totally trust this type of technology. Many still want some POTS-based backup line, he said.
And, he said, many are concerned that a power outage would take out a building’s DSL or cable modem, getting rid of the IP-based communication. For that reason, said Kramer, integrators need to ensure that any communications device (modem, router, switcher, etc.) is backed up with a UPS system for a minimum of 24 hours.
“That’s something the AHJ will hit them with anyway,” said Kramer.
Both Didden and Springall suggested all-around improvements to the technology.Didden suggested that the manufacturers adopt a standard protocol for central station receiving equipment.
“Currently we have six different flavors of IP receivers when this technology should not be receiver dependant, the signal should go straight into automation,” he said.
Springall said he felt all IP-based systems need to use fully qualified domain names, rather than IP addresses, to report to the central station receivers.
Didden said he was closely watching how alarm and integrator companies would deploy these IP-based enhancements and move more revenue to the bottom line.
“My biggest fear is that this service will be retailed for the same amounts as yesterday’s digital technology,” said Didden. “This is a perfect opportunity for the industry to improve its margins. U.S.A. will also be doing that, as well.” SSN