Warming up to wireless

As its many advantages become well-known, the trick becomes keeping up with the latest
Friday, February 1, 2008

A remote power plant tucked into the wilds of the Indonesian island of Jakarta may not scream "high-tech," but it was exactly that sort of security solution that Gary Clark envisioned for the project.
"This particular site is so far removed from civilization that there is no power, there is no telephone communication, no cell phone. There is absolutely nothing out there except for jungle and an occasional rubber tree plantation," said Clark, senior sales engineer at Selectron Integrated Security Management Systems, speaking right after a December trip to Jakarta. "When you bring in construction firms to start working out there, you need to have communications to control everything."
Selectron is therefore working to provide a wireless system that generates a LAN computer network for the site, linking to satellites to provide broadband Internet, VoIP and security. The first tier of service provides cameras attached via wireless back to the main system. The temporary security staff can view the cameras on a temporary basis in the project's mobile trailer, Clark explained. As the project progresses, the system can be scaled to a more permanent security stage.
Like the rest of society, wireless solutions continue to penetrate the security sector. Manufacturers and integrators are seeing various market pulls for the technology. The need that Clark described on the Indonesian island is one of them.
"Many Third World countries and developing countries have really opted for a wireless approach, whether it be through a telephone service or just general computer network service," said Clark. "It's just too expensive to lay in the infrastructure when you have to lay in trenches and bring in fiber optic cable. They simply go with a Wi-Fi system."
And a wireless system is virtually mobile, as compared to a traditional system, said Clark. As the system expands, it's not a problem if you don't have underground cable running where you need it, he said.
Part of the roadblock until the last few years has been outdoor wireless technology that wasn't up to snuff, said Clark. There had been an attempt to use indoor wireless configurations to handle outdoor applications, but they had limited range. However, manufacturers have recently provided robust technology with powerful ranges to get the job done, he said.

Kirk MacDowell, residential marketing leader for the Americas at GE Security, said he sees a few trends in the wireless space. One is that consumers and alarm companies want smaller, less noticeable devices--particularly for in-the-home wireless sensors.
"It was a dilemma for us--when you have a sensor that's robust and works--do you change it?" said MacDowell. "You have to change it. Consumers want design line, aesthetically pleasing [devices]."
GE Security has just launched a new line of wireless multisensors, said MacDowell, with three initial products. The first replaces the company's standard door and window sensor--it's smaller and doesn't make the window blinds bulge when they're closed, he said.
"It's the little things like that that really are important aggregately to the homeowner," said MacDowell.
The other two devices are a flat wall touch plate that allows you to arm and disarm the system, or activate lights, and a wireless key fob with various button configurations that allow you to arm/disarm, activate lights, etc.
Another trend, said MacDowell, agreeing with Clark, is that integrators are embracing wireless as a cost-control strategy.
"As alarm companies and integrators are stretched very thin in terms of resources, being able to hire qualified installers, they are looking at ways to reduce their install costs," said MacDowell. "One of those ways is to augment their current offering with wireless security devices."
It would be great to always prewire homes, he said, but that's not realistic--especially in today's housing market.
"Building has slowed down, more people are buying existing homes and they want to retrofit them with alarm systems," said MacDowell. "The reality is you don't want to be tearing up from point A to point B. You can go wireless."
The cost-control push is something MacDowell knows from the other side of the supplier-dealer game, as well. He's been with GE for two and a half years. Before that, he was an alarm dealer for 25 years, and in recent years, transitioned his business from 100 percent hardwired to 70 to 80 percent wireless.
A traditional hardwire opening takes an hour plus change to run wire from the point of demarcation to the control panel, MacDowell explained. A wireless sensor takes 10 to 12 minutes to mount, install and test, he said.
"At the end of the day, although wireless will be more expensive, the cost savings from labor is measurable," said MacDowell. "It absolutely goes in your favor. It reduces your installation time; it cuts down significantly on installation-associated problems--i.e. drilling into water pipe, [working in a] lathe-and-plaster home--and, quite frankly, as your installers are quicker and more efficient on the job site, they can go and do an additional job."
Clark said the wireless manufacturers seem to be targeting different niches, which is good for the integrators.
"It's up to the integrators to pick and choose point-to-point, point-to-multipoint, mesh," said Clark. "Oftentimes in a single multi-Wi-Fi system, we may use two or four systems to get the job done."
Of course, having all those different options presents another set of challenges--particularly at the bleeding edge.
"It's not easy to keep ahead of the technology. It's just a continuous battle to stay current with it. We have the same problem whether you're talking about camera technology, wireless, new access controls," said Clark. "It just takes diving into it and asking the right questions. Working with it helps, but like any industry in a technological field, every six months to a year, there are radical changes."
That's a bit of a challenge for the manufacturers, too.
"The hardest thing is establishing the differentiators," said Ray Shilling, vice president of sales and marketing at AvaLAN Wireless Inc. "No one ever got fired for buying IBM. Why select a product from AvaLAN when you can buy something from Motorola? We'd be 10 times in revenue if we had a magic bullet ..."
AvaLAN's Ethernet-based wireless access control technology, for example, is plug and play, priced low and uses a narrow-band approach to pump maximum power through a slice of frequency at 900 megahertz, punching through 10 to 15 walls in a building. It doesn't transmit a lot of data, but the signal can get through a Costco filled with stacked merchandise, said Shilling.
"If you're doing data like access control--how much data do you need?" said Shilling. "It's 'yes' or 'no' at that door."
Firetide Inc., on the other hand, has developed a mesh technology that--while it has the benefits associated with mesh such as self-healing and self-discovery--has also gotten around the video degradation downfall attributed to node-hopping of data. Firetide's developed a routing protocol to flow the data, instead of hopping it, according to Michael Dillon, vice president of business development at the company.
So Firetide's technology excels, said Dillon, at grabbing (and delivering) license plates, face shots and other mission-critical bits of visual data at broadcast quality, 30 frames per second.
"The fact that they left in a blurry-looking white four-by-four will do us no good," said Dillon. "A white Bronco, license plate 12345--that's the difference."
But, in the rapidly changing wireless security world, the industry as a whole thinks mesh technology is not good at handling video, said Dillon.
"The fact that we're good at it, that's what we have to overcome," he said. "That's where we have to spend extra cycles."