Comparing apples to oranges in signal carrier technology

Dec. 12, 2010, San Francisco – As POTS, the public switched telephone system slowly fades away, many alarm companies are exploring wireless technologies as alternative carrier systems for those old phone lines. The two front-runners are private radio networks and cellular communications.

Alarm companies looking to move down either the cellular communications path or the private radio path need to be aware that they may be comparing apples to oranges, said Gordon Hope, general manager of Honeywell AlarmNet, at the California Alarm Association's Winter Convention this week in San Francisco. Hope should know a thing or two about the apples and oranges issue here; Honeywell not only offers the AlarmNet private radio network but also has been a strong advocate of cellular GSM communicators for alarm systems.

The "apples" are the cellular communications, and the "oranges" are the private radio networks. Even at the core of the technologies, it becomes difficult to compare the two. Cellular systems are tower-based with towers talking to other towers as relay paths, and also talking to the actual cellular radios in the fields (our cellphones). Over in the world of private radio networks, the cellular radios in the field don't simply talk to centrally located towers; talk amongst themselves, creating redundant/mesh pathways for communication of alarm signals. "Oranges are social beings," said Hope. "Apples tend to operate in cliques; they like to find one leader (a cell tower) and talk only to that."

While the model of a private radio network can sometimes mean that the loss of a single private radio sometimes may mean that another radio node that depends solely on that node may be lost, the mesh model can also mean that some radio communication points will be redundant. The difference in the cellular model is that if a tower goes down, you lose communications to a lot of devices.

In terms of what the difference between apples and oranges means to your installers, Hope is quite clear. Private radios are more expensive and take more effort to install and configure. Cellular is cheaper and easier to install. But the thing to keep in mind when you're comparing your apples to oranges is that cellular means a monthly recurring cost that either has to be paid by you or your alarm customers.

The pervasiveness of cellular, besides making the devices initially less expensive, has made the cellular communicators technology very standardized and available with a number of custom designs. "You can find a lot of different flavors and variety of apples in the store, but you don't find many varieties of oranges, and if you want a special flavor of your orange, you may have to farm it yourself."

Speaking as part of the same seminar, George Schmitt, a former cellular industry leader who coordinated the build-out of some of the largest cellular networks in the world – including Germany, Korea, the U.S. and Japan – said that in comparing the technologies out there, alarm dealers need to consider how much control of their destiny they want. While cellular technologies may be prevalent, cheap and easy to install, he warned that the alarm industry has to consider what level of priority their data has. "We [the cellular industry] prioritized everything at all the time," he said. "It wasn't designed to hurt the alarm industry [when alarm communications data was dropped in priority], but it just happened."

"If you own your own network, you control your destiny in the case of an emergency," said Schmitt, who now serves as CEO for MB Technology Holdings. His firm is a major investor in xG Technology, a niche firm which has provides cognitive radio networks that operate something like a cross between private radio networks and cellular networks.