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Alarm Signals: POTS, Radio, IP & Cellular Solutions

History of the Alarm Signal

Conventionally, most middle to upper class homes were designed with a hard-wired security system built-in; the developers often had pre-arranged deals with security companies or homeowner’s associations to provide specific security products that would be linked to pre-determined central stations. The majority of home security systems still use telephone landlines to transmit alarm signals to the central stations that monitor their security, but this number is declining as cell phone and “wireless” technologies improve. 

The recession of 2008 caused many homeowner’s to lose their homes and others to opt-out of expensive monthly monitoring fees.  Subsequently, manufacturers began creating DIY products to satisfy the demand of their customers, many whom have decided to give up their landlines altogether in favor of IP (web-based/ internet) technology, like VoIP.  Today only 27% of homes still use landlines, and this number is shrinking each month. Security professionals, however, are not strong advocates of using VoIP to transmit alarm signals, citing that is the most unreliable of technologies because the signal has to be converted from the security device, which is analog, to digital data that is sent over a Broadband connection, back to analog so that the central station can receive it.  In addition to being somewhat vulnerable to sophisticated hackers, the Broadband connection, itself is not always 100% reliable, as anyone who uses an Internet connection knows.  

Companies are finding innovative ways to solve these problems.  IP Alarms, a monitoring solutions provider, designs products specifically to fill the technology gap. Their solutions create capabilities that allow any central station to receive signals from any security system.  According to IP Alarms, not only is the analog POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) becoming extinct, the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), which is currently used by over 1.5 billion cell phones, will also be subsumed by future 3G (Third Generation Mobile Telecommunications) technology.  To be classified as “3G” technology must meet IMT-2000 specifications that include the provision of peak data rates, more efficient encoding of data and faster transmission of signals.  3G networks use different radio frequencies than 2G networks like the GSM, so entirely new networks are being created to support the faster technology.  Subsequently, radio frequencies must be licensed and hardware created specifically to handle the data.  But this is without the wave of the future (so to speak).

Monitoring Solutions

When it comes to sending distress signals to central stations, the speed and accuracy of transmissions and the reliability of the connection are key elements to a valuable system.

Traditional landlines use the POTS to signal an alarm event; they require only an additional phone jack to make this system function. When an alarm is tripped, the phone takes control of the line and uses it to call the central station.  The process is relatively fool-proof, except of course when the phone line is cut (although DSL lines can be cut as well), but most security systems include a radio or cellular back up, and many phone lines are buried or difficult to reach.

Dedicated alarm lines are available, but quite costly since they must be leased directly from the security company.  The difference between a dedicated land line and a regular phone line is that the former is supervised by a central station, much like a security system is monitored; if the line were to be cut or tampered with, the central station would be alerted immediately. Most governments, banks and high-end facilities like jewelry stores use dedicated lines as back-ups.

Long range radio signals are faster than traditional landlines, but there are some disadvantages.  Home security systems that use long range radio waves to transmit alarm signals cannot communicate as much information to the central station as a system that uses POTS or GSM would due to the licensing of frequencies. So while the central station would get notified quickly when an alarm was triggered and they would know whether it was an intruder or a fire alarm, they wouldn’t know the location of the break-in or what sensor had been tripped. Depending on how your home is situated, there might be only a few “hot-spots” from where the control panel is able to pick up a strong and reliable signal.  The central station, itself, must be fully equipped with numerous receivers that are able to pick up the signal. Because of infrastructure-related difficulties, companies who manufacturer systems that rely on radio signals  are often the same ones who perform the monitoring.  See this list of questions to ask the central station before investing in an alarm system.

Honeywell established AlarmNet as a third-party solution that integrates different types of independent networks. For instance, a security system that transmits a radio signal can use the AlarmNet architecture to relay the signal to a central station that uses a different technology. This allows customers to use a preferred company as their central station regardless of the technology of their security system. AlarmNet has a similar solution for IP signals.

Wireless security systems are still in the minority, but trends in the security industry coincide with global technology at large - that is to say wires are gradually becoming obsolete.  One thing to keep in mind is that not all central stations who handle the monitoring of wireless systems are actually “wireless at both ends;” that is to say that because cellular service providers are so competitive, some of them deliver signals using the POTS network, which because of translation requirements, diminishes the integrity of the signal.  In these cases, the customer is vulnerable to the same threats as those who use landlines to transmit signals, namely line cuts, natural disasters and power outages.  Many central stations are offering "redundant" monitoring to remedy these issues, which in effect sends multiple signals to multiple receivers. Redundant monitoring also helps reduce false alarms.

Companies are flooding the market with hybrid devices and equipment that lets customers convert their existing system to one that uses a different technology.  IP Alarms’ CellAlarm-GSM is a device that helps customers who want to keep their old security system while, at the same time, giving up their land line.  It’s a hybrid alarm communication solution with 8 hardwire zones and 32 wireless zones that allows any make and model of security system to transmit a signal using the GSM network.

IP Monitoring (VoIP vs. Broadband)

Less than 1% of home security systems use the internet to transmit alarm signals, yet this number is growing as technology improves.  ABN provides a solution for customers who want the cost savings of VoIP and the reliability of a direct phone line, which is essentially a broadband adapter that monitors the connection and uses a radio backup whenever signals are lost.  They guarantee that IP signals are not retransmitted out to the POTS network but arrive directly to one of their NextAlarm servers as digital data.  In addition, they offer their customers ABN Outside Access Point, which is a phone number through which customers can access their own security systems as though they were actually connected via a personal land line.

Another unique trend to hit the security industry is the promotion of “non-dispatched monitoring,” which is now being offered as a separate option to traditional “dispatched monitoring.”  With non-dispatched monitoring services, customers receive alarm notifications via email, text, pager or by accessing the company web server; they, then handle the emergency calls personally.

The Linksys VoIP adapter is a solution that gets rid of the middle man - the VoIP service provider (the company who provides you with your internet service).  The device itself acts as a router that handles the transmission of IP alarms, so no third-party signal handling is required, thus guaranteeing customers an end-to-end solution.

As cellular and VoIP technologies advance and become more reliable (as they are with 4G telecommunications standards), they will surpass POTS as the standard for alarm signal transmissions to monitoring stations.