A New World: IP-Based Intercoms

Communication is a necessary component of doing business. Whether it is conversing over e-mail, directing resources from a telephone or simply speaking face-to-face, the importance of personal interaction cannot be overstated. If a person is at a gate and requires access, but the gate is not working, contact needs to be immediate. This is why intercoms are the product of choice for many industries such as correctional facilities, schools, hospitals and parking garages, as well as contact points like loading docks, lobbies and gates.

“Intercoms are a redundant telecommunications device,” said Allan Lamberti, director of sales for TOA Electronics Inc. “It's a back-up way to communicate.”

Over the past two years, intercom manufacturers have begun to build systems that connect via a local area network (LAN) or a wide area network (WAN). That means pulling wires, digging trenches and pulling cords though walls and ceilings are now things of the past. With intercom systems connecting directly into an existing network, products are easy to set up, and users can perform functions from a computer desktop or intercom located hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

“Business highly values mobility,” said John Moss, chairman and CEO of S2 Security Corporation. “The whole idea is that the geographic boundaries are completely erased.”

The Next Generation

Jeron's Spectrum Series Digital Duplex Intercom Systems, like many, offer instant access with no risk of getting a busy signal, because the IP-based system is not hooked into a phone line. And since most systems are located in an outdoor area, solid construction is a must.

“The Spectrum is tamper-proof,” said Ericka Chesnul, marketing manager for Jeron. The Spectrum can also raise or lower its volume based on incumbent noise from the outside.

This next generation of intercoms is more easily scalable, with communication available anywhere in a building, no longer just where hard wire exists.

TOA's traditional intercom, the VS 900, which is set up using an existing phone system, continues to sell, but its successor, the N-8000, is becoming a strong competitor.

“The N-8000 hooks directly into an existing IT network,” says Lamberti. “Installation is relatively simple. Just plug it into the (network) and that's it.”

Because the N-8000 connects directly to an existing infrastructure, the cost savings on labor has been a major draw, according to Lamberti.

TOA's N-8000 provides scan monitoring to remote locations, which allows the master station to listen in to the area around the intercom. Integrate video, and the structure becomes a complete emergency communications appliance. Users connect with the touch of one button to a monitored station that can view that device's surroundings and assess any potential threats. But while programming such as call forwarding, diagnostics and paging can be set up directly on a PC, the N-8000 requires its own equipment. The PC does not act as a master or substation. The IP backbone is simply for programming and communication.

Other systems like S2 Security Corporation's S2 NetBox offer more ways to communicate via a PC. The system, touted as the “first complete security management system,” provides access control via an IP-based network, and if it is integrated with video, security personnel can log onto a secure Web browser to view real-time video. The system also offers voice over IP, allowing for communication from anywhere.

For clients such as schools, the S2 NetBox offers even more options, with its ability to program up to eight different threat levels. A level can include anything from a simple local lockdown to a county-wide lockdown. Communications can be managed online from any master station with access controlled from any one location from a PC.

Talk-A-Phone systems' IP and traditional communication units have been used for the Department of Defense and homeland security applications. While Talk-A-Phone's ETP product can be established easily on any traditional system and converted to IP, it does not offer VOIP. What it can do, if integrated with video, is use the PC as an additional source of communication. Since the connection is IP, a computer can use a pop-up window application when an intercom is activated. When a guard or security monitoring station gets a call, the pop-up window will show visually the source of the call.

The IP-EWST, Aiphone's first generation of intercom systems that use IP infrastructure, launched nearly two years ago. Since then, the company has also developed its AN-8000 series. This system, like most others, is scalable and can accommodate as many as 1,280 master and door stations. It does not require any equipment other than software loaded onto a PC, so there are no challenges to finding desk space. The system is easily programmed and can be accessed on any PC by an acknowledged user who can navigate access control from thousands of miles away. VoIP is available on the AN-8000, and voice can be communicated over the PC.

Drawbacks

An IP-based system is not without its challenges. LANs and WANs have come a long way to being more reliable. Still, if a network fails, often so too does the IP-based intercom's function. Since businesses now rely so heavily on their networks, most will connect to secondary power sources in case there is an outage or inclement weather.

“[A reliable network] is essential to corporate life,” said S2's Moss, who believes that putting more money into improving a network is a far better option than opting out of IP-based intercoms.

Still, Tim Bloedel of Aiphone has seen the demand for products pick up. The use of intercoms may also begin to see diverse applications such as IP-based systems not only offer increased flexibility, but cost-efficiency and some pretty cool bells and whistles. Communicating and controlling access to facilities from any location without the need for extensive construction is also an attractive component to the new systems.

Kathy Scott is a freelance writer located in Georgia .

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