Coming to Terms with What VoIP Means for the Alarm Industry

May 24, 2005
A conversation with NBFAA Executive Director Merlin Guilbeau about what VoIP has in store for your industry

VoIP isn't going away. And the more the alarm industry learns about it, the more reasons our industry must be careful when working around it. But we're going to have to work with it, because VoIP is taking over from POTS.

That's the gist of a new report from the NBFAA that was released Monday on the association's website,

The new NBFAA report addresses the issues that the alarm industry is facing with VoIP. It comes after a March meeting that brought key industry players, including SIA, NBFAA, CSAA, Honeywell, Bosch, Telular, DSC, ADT, Guardian and Vector Security, to the table with cable company representatives from Cox, Charter, Time Warner and others. recently caught up with NBFAA's Executive Director Merlin Guilbeau to discuss what the industry has learned about VoIP.

"I think the issue of VoIP is becoming more prevalent," says Guilbeau. "I think there were initial thoughts that a fix or a filter would come along like there was in DSL, but that is not going to be the case."

Guilbeau added that the pace that the cable companies are installing VoIP services is much faster than the pace at which customers were switching to DSL. In fact, industry numbers from Time Warner say that by the end of this year, 2 million customers will have signed up with VoIP service. That number will be 8 million at the end of 2008 according to the company's estimates.

Those kind of growth numbers certainly mean that a change of business is in store for the alarm industry. But it's not just the alarm industry that will feel the pinch.

"I don't think we'll get burned," says Guilbeau. "I think we'll adapt. Our concern is for the consumers that our members service."

The danger comes partially from the prevalence of self-installed VoIP services -- such as those offered by Vonage and others – and from the possibility that some cable installers might be overlooking installation procedures which are essential to the continued service of an alarm system. But there are also inherent technology challenges in VoIP.

The NBFAA report details some of these top dangers, including the possibility of that an RJ-31X jack could be improperly wired to enable backfeeding. This possibility, which is a common wiring procedure for some VoIP installers, would put an alarm system on the wrong side of the home's communications system and thus would make the alarm system unable to seize the line in the event of an incident.

The report lists other concerns that VoIP introduces, including power outages that render the network inoperable (but which sometimes would not be detected by alarm communicators).

The list goes on and on – traditional downloadable updating of panels by dialing in would often be prevented, plus there are all sorts of up-in-the-air challenges about how voice data should be compressed over Internet, as well as the lack of support for pulse dialing. And lest we forget, VoIP is causing numerous troubles with 911 locator systems across the country.

There's even the potential problem that while a homeowner may be connected locally via POTS, the provider may be using VoIP "in the backhaul" to move long distance traffic. This backhauling could become an issue; customers likely will not be notified if their out-of-area calls move from POTS to VoIP. This issue has definite repercussions for those customers and dealers whose central stations are outside of a local or state area.

As Guilbeau notes, one of the top concerns is that older alarm systems technology, and even some of the newer systems, simply won't work with VoIP systems because they operate in the older formats.

But do these problems leave the industry desperate?

"I think the mood is that we're trying to embrace the technology," says Guilbeau. "We're just making sure the products and technology will work."

So, what's happening on the cable industry side of the equation?

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:

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