Coming to Terms with What VoIP Means for the Alarm Industry

A conversation with NBFAA Executive Director Merlin Guilbeau about what VoIP has in store for your industry

For the good news, there's CableLabs, an industry consortium of sorts that develops standards for the cable industry. Funded by the top players in the cable market, CableLabs was the setting for March's industry meeting, and if indications from that meeting are correct, then CableLabs may be able to help spearhead the move toward creating workable technology solutions between the cable companies and the alarm industry.

As part of its mission, CableLabs is developing a network plan and protocol that would specify how data is transferred over the network (and which would give voice data first preference). This protocol would standardize compression rates, a step that would help change VoIP from being a moving target to being something that alarm system manufacturers and installers can work with.

In addition, some cable services vendors are taking the task of working with the alarm industry into their own hands. Time Warner has said that it teaches its installers how to correctly wire the RJ-31X jacks so that the alarm panel and communicator will still be able to seize a line and work correctly.

But there's bad news in the mix, too.

As beneficial as CableLabs can be in terms of creating standards, it has no real jurisdiction over any of the cable companies. Cable companies are free to choose which standards they want to meet and which don't fit into their business. Compression standards may work well now when the numbers of consumers using VoIP is low, but there is a fear that those compression rates will change significantly when more customers sign up and the connections become more bogged in traffic.

Of course, you might expect the FCC to step in and exert some control over the VoIP industry. Don't be so wishful. While the FCC was very involved in the telecommunications field when POTS was developing, the commission has taken a hands-off approach to the issue of VoIP. But according to Guilbeau, the alarm industry is at a point where they believe the FCC should be involved.

"I think the consensus is that they [the FCC] need to take a hard look at it," says Guilbeau. "They have gone from tightly regulating the telecommunications industry to leaving this form of voice communications unregulated. There needs to be some sort of middle ground."

Of course, while these standards and challenges are being solved, your alarm company will inevitably continue to work with this developing VoIP technology. So whether you're setting up a service at a business or home with VoIP service, or whether your existing customers are switching to VoIP, the issues are going to present themselves before the manufacturers and the standards can catch up.

And that means you need to be prepared. At this point, stresses Guilbeau, the best thing to do is to notify your customers and potential customers of what VoIP means for alarms. The NBFAA has even provided a sample letter to customers on its website that alarm companies are encouraged to use. It's probably also time to reexamine your contracts, especially the clause that states that customers must provide a working telephone line.

And, of course, make system tests more of a priority. These can help you know which of your customers are switching to VoIP, and they can sometimes tell you what installed equipment will work with VoIP technology and what equipment will not.

On the web:

Sample customer letter from NBFAA:

NBFAA report on VoIP: