VoIP and security: Does VoIP put customers in jeopardy?

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Many businesses and homeowners today are attracted to ‘Voice over Internet Protocol’ or VoIP services from local Internet providers and cable companies. VoIP offers significant cost savings on local and international calls as well as streamlining service providers by utilizing one vendor for both networking and telecommunications. However, users are unaware of the security issues and vulnerabilities of VoIP systems in relation to security alarms and emergency services provided by some local Internet providers and cable companies.

VoIP technology enables customers to make telephone calls utilizing broadband Internet connections rather than regular phone lines. VoIP calls bypass the public switched telephone network and offer significant discounts to subscribers in comparison to traditional phone companies.

Large enterprises or educational institutions will often deploy VoIP for internal communications between geographically dispersed offices or in a campus-type environment. These deployments usually provide protection for ensuring that emergency services and security systems are not negatively impacted by communications infrastructure changes. Meanwhile, these cost-savings could render families and employees vulnerable in an emergency.

Signal distortion

Most alarm systems were designed to transmit alarm signals as a series of beeps and tones over analog phone lines. Digital alarm communicators may not function properly in a VoIP environment. The inherent design of the Internet is that it is optimized for data transmission. It is a ‘packet’ switched, digital network that was not originally designed to carry voice traffic in comparison to the PSTN which is a ‘circuit’ switched, analog network, optimized for voice. Therefore, VoIP technologies need to convert analog tones into bits of data to transmit them over the network, and convert them back to be understood by the receiver.

Converting the signal from analog to digital packets and then translating the digital back to analog again can create distortions and delays. This can cause the alarm signal to be unintelligible by the central monitoring station. The tones and dead spaces between dual tone multi-frequency tones or touch tones and other signaling schemes used by alarm systems may not be recreated accurately. Alternative formats - 10, 20, 40 pulse per second, Contact IS and FSK formats - also encounter transmission problems.

Power failure

Analog phone lines have high-availability rates during power outages. The telephone line’s voltage is generated at the phone company’s central office which generally has sufficient power backup. However, when VoIP is installed in residences and offices, it rarely includes on-premise backup power. In the event of a power failure, modems and DSL lines will not work unless you have a power backup or a generator. Not only will the alarm system be unable to communicate with the central station, but customers will not be able to dial 911 or access emergency services.

Line seizure
Alarm systems are designed with line seizure capabilities - enabling them to take over an open phone line to communicate with the central monitoring station in case of an emergency. Often, the cable company or ISP will actually install the VoIP modem in a residence by ‘back-feeding’ the house circuit and disconnecting the old telephone circuit as it enters the premises. Because the alarm control panel is configured to have the telephone circuit connected first, ahead of any telephone instruments, it can interrupt and disconnect an existing call to give the alarm signal priority.

Even when the customer has had the alarm company reconfigure the alarm control panel to connect with the broadband line, VoIP has no line seizure capabilities. This means, that if the line is engaged the alarm system is unable to take over the line and send a signal to the monitoring station. If there is an intrusion, fire or other emergency and the phone is in use (possibly by a burglar taking a phone in the premises off the hook), no alarm signal will be transmitted.

Service outage

The Internet is not always accessible to transmit alarm signals. Service outages, server malfunctions, and system upgrades and regular maintenance are just some of the reasons that your VoIP system may not be as reliable as analog phone systems to transmit alarm signals.

While ISPs and cable companies are scrambling to offer these revenue-generating services, the challenges it is causing the alarm industry are not being communicated. Security systems providers must take steps to educate customers of the dangers associated with VoIP while working to find solutions with the industry’s leading providers.

There are currently 25 million broadband connections in the United States. Louis T. Fiore, chairman of Central Station Alarm Association’s Alarm Industry Communications Committee is championing this issue. He says, “It is imperative that the alarm industry be alerted to the dangers of VoIP and take a proactive approach to informing customers. As an industry, we need to address this issue immediately and work towards cooperation with Internet providers to create some type of standards or methodology to ensure that our customers are safe.”
David Bitton is the chief operating officer of Supreme Security Systems, a full-service security provider. He can be reached at bittond@supremealarm.com.