The VoIP Challenge for Alarm Systems Dealers

A look at what dealers, monitoring companies and manufacturers are doing to face the issue of VoIP and alarm system incompatibility

So that's it - the alarm system can't connect, can't send an alert signal, just won't work? Unfortunately it's not that easy.

"The signals might get through," says Glasser, who adds that you can't count on the signal going through. "We don't know for sure that it's 100 percent compatible. The techs say it's not 100 percent compatible, and no one wants and alarm system that only works 99 percent of the time."

"CYA": What Others Are Doing

For alarm dealers and central station monitoring providers, it brings up real issues of liability. What if John Q. Homeowner's burglar alarm sounds while he's on vacation and the signal doesn't make it over the Internet to the monitoring company to alert the police? Twenty minutes later and his prized collection of vintage coins is gone, and when the homeowner returns, the installing company, the monitoring company, the homeowner and the VoIP provider are all standing around pointing fingers. So, who's to blame?

That answer hasn't been determined fully just yet, but as long-term security industry legal consultant Ken Kirschenbaum, says, "VoIP is too unreliable to interact with alarm systems and its communicators."

"We're going to have to have disclaimers and include specific warnings in our contracts when people that have VoIP are being solicited," continues Kirschenbaum, "I think there are going to be experts that would be willing to testify that the VoIP is too unreliable and should not have been used. When there is a failure, the alarm company should have not agreed to using VoIP."

Andy Lowitt, the vice president of dealer relations at Metrodial central station monitoring in Hicksville, N.Y., says there's a need to be proactive that has to come from dealers and the central station community,.

"From a liability standpoint, it's a good idea to notify your clients," says Lowitt. "Perform a regular test and find out if your signal works. There's a chance the signal will go through and there's a chance it won't go through. We've sent all of our dealers a standard letter that explains all of the issues. We point out the possibility that the signal will not go through. We've pointed out the problems that will be there if they have a loss of power."

Glasser concurs. He's made sure that the company's contracts and salespersons address the VoIP issue before it comes to head in an ugly lawsuit.

"The way the contract protects us is that we had an existing alarm service and they change their communications (i.e., from phone to VoIP), then we are protected," explains Glasser. "But if you're in sales and you sign up a new customer without asking the question of how their communications connection is set up, then you're screwed. You'd be liable because you should have asked that question."

But don't stop there, says Glasser.

"You should tell your customers that if they change their service, then they should let the alarm company test the system. But if you're selling alarm systems, you better ask the right questions...and if you're selling it to a customer with VoIP, you better have a back-up system."

And while the back-up seems like a no-brainer, by estimates of many people in the industry, back-up systems are used by less than 10 percent of alarm systems.

Organize, Mandate and Legislate

While there's certainly a thought in some parts of the industry that VoIP is a problem that will be solved with technology, just like the advent of DSL filters and communicator panels that worked with the Caller ID functions, Honeywell's Gordon Hope doesn't think it's that easy.

The problem as he sees it is this: "The FCC is not mandating cable providers to the same standards as telephone company providers. It is offered as an extension of normal cable services."

Fortunately, people like Hope are working within the security industry to create coalitions, solve problems and create workable standards. Hope and others involved with the Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC) have begun to create the initial contacts that are needed to solve this problem, by having security industry manufacturers communicate directly with cable industry organizations.