Standing at the crossroads

Most alarm dealers are at a crossroads when it comes to deciding which alternate to the Digital Alarm Communicator/Transmitter (DACT) communication method they will offer their customers. Most know they have to move to a newer method but some are confused. Will it be radio, cellular or the Internet they select to send over their customer's fire alarm signals?

IP pros and cons

The fire alarm system reporting method we commonly refer to as Internet Protocol or IP communications is actually network communications. The IP method is secure, fast and fully supervised. In fact, it would be fair to compare this method with the legacy direct-connect technology-that is, when it's working.

Securely connecting to the Internet is provided by a number of features. The connections are secure because the equipment and software is based on the technology in the equipment. The security features are built into the IP communication transmitting and receiving equipment. The receiver generally cannot be hacked because it doesn't accept commands from the Internet. The various types of receiving equipment use proprietary operating systems which have only one function-alarm reporting. Therefore, there is no way in exploiting another resident program or service. It doesn't accept e-mail or executable files or viruses and there is no Web site to attack. Some systems will only accept connections from the unique MAC (Media Access Control) address (like a world-wide serial number) of each device. One manufacturer stated that (in addition to the above) it would only be possible for a hacker to connect if they knew the account number, IP address, port number and the secret remote key of the panel. Extra security may be added by using a packet filtering network router. If your IP communicator has the ability to accept programming connections, make sure you create an alphanumeric pass code containing no words or birthdays. As you've probably already learned, reliability problems are not being caused by network/data security glitches.

Security isn't an issue but reliability of signals being received can be. And it isn't the Internet itself causing this problem (because of the sheer number of possible pathways the signals can take once inside the Internet "cloud"). The problem seems to lie with the Internet Service Providers (ISP). Everyone agrees there are plenty of paths you can take through the Internet but getting out of town might be a problem.

The frustration begins when an IP communicator cannot respond to the remote station receiver. When this happens (and in some cases it happens often), the monitoring station must begin to investigate the outage, knowing they will probably never find the actual cause, though it isn't that big of a mystery. Most likely the local ISP has completely interrupted communications for network maintenance, and/or to reset the customer's IP address, or has throttled down the data capacity in that section of their network.

To counter the quality of service issues with the local ISP, some customers get a static IP address. They try this because their dynamic IP address is reset periodically by their ISP causing communication to be momentarily lost. But even an instance of no communication can be disastrous in security and life safety signaling. It could be that time that a fire alarm signal comes in, or tries to communicate with the monitoring station and that connection is nowhere to be found, much to the chagrin of the systems integrator/installer and especially the people at the protected premises. The quality of service regarding this issue seems to vary widely between the many different Internet Service Providers. According to one monitoring company, an entire east coast town goes 'missing' on a certain day every week for a couple of hours, "like clockwork." Some ISPs will provide a static IP address as an upgrade but others will not provide one at any cost. At this time, it seems the weakest link in IP communications is the local ISP. And it's up to us as an industry to try to circumvent this from happening. Because if life safety signals can't get through, the premises is left unprotected.

An alternate option

Cellular communicators are already being considered as an alternative to DACT phone lines with some major technology providers allowing this option as a backup when an IP network goes down. Cellular communication consists of two parts-GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and SMS (Short Message Service). When using GPRS, the cellular transmitter may one day have its own problems. GPRS is packet-based and provides a constant connection to the network. The frequency band dedicated to the GPRS service has plenty of bandwidth and isn't close to being maxed out. If cell service was a freeway, the GPRS signals would be the light truck traffic flowing in two lanes, both directions. The cellular phone service providers would like to use this additional bandwidth for their largest market, which is voice cell phone service. Keeping this GPRS band for a bunch of trucks doesn't make sense to them when they could fill it with thousands of motorcycles. As most of you know, it has already been announced that copper pair phone lines to homes and businesses will begin to disappear. First, new copper phone lines won't be installed and secondly, the service providers won't be supporting and maintaining existing lines. Additionally, when the sunset arrives for GPRS service (in about 10 years or so), it may be turned off, suddenly and completely- not phased out like the phone lines. You may be wondering if there is a sunset time for SMS. Since SMS is tied to the voice part of cellular communication service, any SMS sunset will likely be a long, long way off.

We have several choices for alternate DACT communications (I haven't even mentioned radio here), and each has reliability issues to work out. But just like what happened with POTS (plain old telephone service), improvements in data signal handling and IP service reliability will happen; it's just a matter of time. At a recent forum on this topic, a panel of service providers (both cellular and IP), alongside central station representatives and alarm company owners, the message the audience heard was this: the industry will drive the market. Since we have to move away from POTS lines one or more of these wireless technologies will take over. Which one of them gets the attention by the providers to work out these reliability issues, will ultimately be decided by those on the front lines trying to offer our customers reliable, affordable service. I believe in this case, the squeaky wheel WILL get the grease and it is our responsibility to speak up if and when we experience reliability issues and work with the service providers, on our customers' behalf, to make sure reliability continues to improve-hopefully, to the point where we can refer to one or all of these technologies as "plain ol'" one day.

Greg Kessinger SET CFPS is SD&I's longtime resident fire expert and regular contributor to the magazine. Reach him at greg@firealarm.org.


 

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