'Do I still need my phone line?'
ESA answers consumers' questions on the need for phone lines
(Irving, Texas, December 6, 2010) It's no secret that today, many people are deciding to drop their traditional telephone lines for newer, more robust services offered through cellular or Internet providers. In a recent comment to the Federal Communications Commission, AT&T stated that 700,000 lines per month are going dead as consumers switch to newer technologies. But, do the newer telecommunications technologies work with home alarm systems?
The Electronic Security Association (ESA) fields calls from concerned customers every week with this question. Often, they are considering switching to Voice over IP (VoIP) or of dropping their phone lines altogether and want to know how the change will affect their alarm systems.
Those who switch or discontinue their phone service without contacting their alarm provider may discover their alarm no longer functions properly when an emergency arises. It's a serious danger that can be averted with a little fact finding. In this article, we hope to answer many of the questions concerning phone lines and alarm systems so that customers can be better prepared to make informed decisions on the safety of their homes and families. The basics start here: for a monitored alarm to work, it must be physically connected to some type of communication device.
What should I do if I'm thinking of changing my phone service?
Any time customers are considering changes to their phone service - whether it's switching providers, switching phone services or dropping services - they must make a minimum of two phone calls to their alarm company to ensure their system continues functioning properly.
The first call should be to inform the alarm company of the pending switch and to discuss compatible communications technologies and possible upgrade options, if necessary. The second call comes after the change in phone service has been made. This call, preferably with the phone service technician still at the home, is for testing the alarm system with the new phone service. By making these two phone calls, customers can ensure the continued protection of their home.
What communications technologies are available for use with alarm systems?
Alarm systems today can be designed to work with many different types of communication methods. The most popular of these methods includes traditional phone lines, cellular radio, VoIP and Internet. Each of these technologies offers their own benefits and limitations.
With traditional phone lines, the communication signal is sent through a copper line to the customer's alarm monitoring station. It is connected to the same phone line typically utilized by the household. Traditional phone lines are still the king of reliability. In the event of power outages, traditional phone lines still operate, getting their power from the phone company. Additionally, all alarm panels are installed with battery backup power, providing customers with security and safety during short outages. The downside is that copper lines, while highly reliable, are still vulnerable to outages, whether deliberate or natural. They are also slower than newer technologies, relaying alarm signals through traditional dial-up applications.
Cellular radio signals use wireless digital transmission, just like your cell phone, to transmit alarm signals to the monitoring station. The digital transmission can carry more data and at greater speeds than traditional phone lines and are generally tamper-proof. Unlike traditional phone lines however, cellular alarm panels require power at the home to operate reliably. In the event of a power outage, the cellular device has its own battery backup (separate from the alarm system's battery backup) and can operate for a short period - typically between two and four hours.
VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is one of the fastest-growing telecommunications services today and many predict will one day replace traditional phone lines. Many customers are attracted to the feature-rich, competitively-priced services VoIP providers offer. But even though these services are designed to look and operate like a traditional phone line from the customer's perspective, the technology is very different and some VoIP services do not allow alarm systems to function properly.
VoIP providers that use the public Internet commonly use some form of voice compression to reduce the amount of bandwidth needed to transport the voice traffic. This allows customers to use the phone while also browsing the Internet at the same time without a significant degradation of bandwidth. Voice compression, however, can cause distortion of the signal coming from the home's alarm system, effectively disabling the remote monitoring capability of the system.
VoIP services from providers using a Managed Facility Voice Network (MFVN) for their VoIP service are compatible with most alarm systems if properly installed. MFVN VoIP providers generally do not use voice compression as the voice service is separate from the home's Internet service and has adequate bandwidth to transmit the voice signal without compression or interference to the home's other services such as Internet and television. Additionally, most traditional home alarm panels installed today can connect to a VoIP phone system in this setting without upgrading any of the panel's hardware.
VoIP services do have inherent limitations that are not present in traditional phone systems and customers should be aware of these when deciding on phone service. For the monitoring function of an alarm system to operate, the phone line must have power. With VoIP, power to the phone line is dependent upon power at the residence. In a VoIP setting through an MFVN, if power is lost at the home, phone service is also lost. Further, for VoIP providers that utilize the public Internet phone service is additionally dependent upon Internet connectivity. In this setting, if either power or Internet connectivity is lost, so too is the resident's phone service.
Most providers will provide battery backup for their devices. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that any VoIP system connected to a monitored fire alarm come with a minimum eight-hour battery backup unit installed and customers should request an eight-hour battery when ordering VoIP services. Once a battery unit has been installed at the residence, the resident is typically responsible for replacing and maintaining the battery unit as recommended by the manufacturer.
Any customer considering switching to VoIP should contact their alarm company first to see which providers in their area offer compatible services. ESA recommends utilizing only those providers that offer services through an MFVN.
The Internet offers some of the greatest features for alarm users. Internet systems provide an "always-on" connection to the central station. Additionally, they can be feature-rich, allowing customers to access cameras, entry systems, lighting, thermostats and a number of other devices in the home from any Web browser in the world. The downside is that the Internet lacks reliability for security applications as it also requires power and Internet connectivity at the home. Customers are typically on their own for installing backup power to their cable or DSL modems to ensure connectivity during power outages. Alarm systems monitored through the internet require specific hardware to enable the communication between the home and the central station. Customers seeking to switch to this type of service can be ensured that a panel upgrade will be required.
Consumers must also talk with their Internet service provider about throttling. Many providers use throttling during peak usage hours to allow for adequate usage for all their customers. They do this by throttling the bandwidth of heavy users. While throttling ensures that all users have adequate access to the Internet, the practice can cause unpredictable problems with alarm signals.
What is the most reliable system for my home?
Traditional phone lines still offer the most reliable service for alarm communications but it lacks the speed and additional features of newer technologies. Cellular and VoIP can offer nearly the same level of reliability as traditional phone lines if battery units are maintained at the residence. Internet, while offering the most feature rich design, is the most unreliable communications method and should only be used as a means for supplemental communications and features and not the sole communications method.
Those customers looking for the most reliable and secure system will combine two services in one unit such as a traditional phone line or VoIP as the primary method of communication and cellular radio as secondary communication. In the event that the primary communication goes down, the system will still communicate with the alarm monitoring station through the cellular radio.
What do these systems cost?
Costs vary but most of the basic home alarm installations will be compatible with traditional phone lines and VoIP services through a MFVN. To utilize cellular or Internet as either primary or backup communications methods require different systems that can be more costly than the basic system.
The price for monthly monitoring services may also be determined by the type of communications method deployed. Monthly monitoring for cellular and Internet devices typically cost more than monitoring through traditional and VoIP phone lines.
Customers should contact their alarm dealer for specific pricing of these services and devices.
Are there other communication technologies available than those mentioned?
Yes. A newer technology that is gaining popularity among alarm dealers is wireless mesh-radio technology. Wireless mesh-radio creates a redundant network of devices that produce a highly reliable connection to the central station. Each installed device acts as a node in the network. When one node goes down due to a power loss or some other factor, devices still have connectivity to the network through the other nodes that are installed. Every device an alarm company installs adds additional redundancy to the network. In areas where mesh-radio is available, the system can be as reliable as traditional phone lines. And, since the network is owned and operated by the alarm company, there is no additional equipment or services to purchase from telecommunications providers.
There are also analog radio devices similar to CB radio. Analog radio offers customers in more rural areas an excellent alternative to digital cellular radio if coverage for the digital signal is spotty. These systems usually require the installation of an antenna on the roof of the residence.
Some older communications technologies still exist such as analog cellular radio but recent FCC deregulation may make a provider hard to find and service highly unreliable. Customers should never consider a system that utilizes analog cellular radio as either backup or primary communications.
What can I do to ensure my system is working properly with my current phone service?
ESA recommends alarm customers conduct monthly tests of their systems, regardless of whether or not a change in phone service has occurred. This will help catch any problems that may not be detected by the alarm system or monitoring company. To conduct a test of the system, customers should contact their alarm monitoring company and follow their instructions for testing the system. Customers should also consider purchasing a service and maintenance contract from their alarm dealer to help avoid any costly repairs to the system.
It is considered a best practice for consumers to contact several alarm dealers in their area to discuss what options and services are available to them and the costs before deciding on a particular alarm system or phone service. ESA can help consumers find qualified ESA member companies in their area. ESA requires members to pledge to follow a specific code of ethics so customers can be assured that ESA member companies will operate with the utmost honesty and integrity.
For more information on keeping your family secure, visit ESA online at www.ESAweb.org or contact us at (888) 447-1689.
Formerly the NBFAA, the Electronic Security Association (ESA) is the largest and longest established trade association representing the electronic life safety and security industry. Member companies install, integrate and monitor intrusion and fire detection, video surveillance and electronic access control systems for commercial, residential, industrial and governmental clients. In cooperation with an alliance of chapter associations, ESA provides technical and management training, government advocacy and delivers information, advice, tools, and services that members use to grow their businesses and prosper. ESA may be reached at (888) 447-1689 or on the Web at www.ESAweb.org.