Back to Base Alarm Monitoring: Weathering A Perfect Storm

Things look messy for the Australian monitoring industry. Not only does the market face the ultimate phase out of PSTN lines leaving a million alarm systems mute, 2GSM and associated GPRS services don’t look to have a clear future either.

NOT surprisingly, the electronic security industry’s central powers – ASIAL and the Australian Standards Alarms Sub Committee – face an uphill battle over the next few years. While the NBN Co is now a little more forthcoming on issues relating to getting alarm systems onto its broadband network, the processes required to achieve this remain nebulous.

It’s tempting to go so far as to suggest the expertise necessary to handle the issues the alarm monitoring industry faces is so thin on the ground that outsiders are needed to resolve them. Reports circulating after recent meetings to discuss challenges suggest confusion reigns with little understanding and less agreement.

Something else that’s stoking the fire is the fact monitoring has always been a tough, old gut. The result of generations of competitive spirit is layers of competing technology each with its cadre of fiercely independent players, none of which is prepared to listen to others, all suspicious of perceived attempts to lever competitive advantage.

There’s also an analogue/IP divide. The general press has a tendency to talk about this digital division as if it’s some sort of generational change. In this case, dialler would be the precinct of greybeards locked inside their rebate towers. IP meanwhile, is the preserve of young digital progressives with badly styled hair and pants half down. The reality is that such delineations are utter bollocks.

Most our industry’s true digital visionaries are in their 50s and 60s and have won ongoing success by evolving their businesses to suit the changing environments of the past 15 years. These are the guys we need to be listening to now because it’s not just a gentle trend facing monitoring companies and end users but the advent of a whole new technological stratum.

One of the nice things about monitoring right now is the richness of comms technology. The latest alarm communications devices have 4 or even 5 communications paths – multiple wireless routes, IP and PSTN. The beauty of this has been that regardless of the sometimes patchy nature of new solutions, there’s always been a wicket keeper waiting to take the spinning ball - the most dependable of which has always been digital dialler.

Now, digital dialler running on the PSTN network is a boring technology but the truth is it supports an end-to-end copper link from alarm panel to monitoring station that once formed shifts data at the speed of light. It’s this reliable old nanny that monitoring stations will shortly kiss goodbye.

In the absence of PSTN there’s the NBN and all the spookiness therein, and there’s wireless technology. Of the 2, wireless – that’s currently 2GSM and the GPRS overlay – is the most tempting. There are no dangerous network components to create law suits with wireless, instead there’s a clean end-to-end link (you know what I mean) between the panel and the monitoring station that is supported by all the resources of a gigantic telco. And there are solutions with runs on the board.

There’s no doubt the GSM network is increasingly reliable. The first GSM network in Australia was Telstra’s – launched back in 1993 on the 900MHz band and later upgraded to 1800MHz and further enhanced with GPRS packet data transmission capabilities. With coverage to 93 per cent of Australia’s population, 2G GSM and GPRS work well and offer capable wireless services. The products they support are mature.

But insiders are now suggesting 2GSM’s days may be numbered and if true, this most straightforward solution to the phasing out of digital dialler faces an uncertain future. Logically, 2GSM and reliant GPRS products will move to 3G850 and/or superfast HSDPA formats but you can’t click your fingers and redo all existing wireless comms panels any more than you can replace one million dialler-based alarms with alternative IP and wireless-based comms technologies.

Given the complexities, it’s hard to see how the monitoring industry will resolve these issues. Dialler worked because it was a baseline comms technology, owned by nobody. Any rebates accrued to the monitoring station holding the lines. But wireless – whichever wireless this happens to be – is a whole other thing. There are a number of quality providers of wireless monitoring solutions and despite the bickering over the years, all have been in the market a good while and showed plenty of commitment to their clients.

But regardless of their various strengths, the wireless solutions they offer are their own communications solutions. They’re not an industry standard – they’re proprietary technologies based on GSM and GSM-dependent GPRS overlays. And they rely on the fickleness of telco-owned infrastructure.

So what’s the alternative? Is it IP? Could a device be created that allowed direct communication between panels and control rooms over public space with no security risk, no intrusion of routers of dubious quality? It’s hard to see how. One way or another it would mean alarms sharing bandwidth in a domestic IT environment with music and video downloads and relying on network ancillaries of unknown quality.

A home or small office network is no place for an alarm panel if security is being taken seriously - not without backup, anyway. This is a messy place for the monitoring industry to find itself but there are opportunities for new business and for coherent leadership. The Australian alarm industry needs to find a roadmap for its monitoring future and it needs to find one fast.

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