The Past and Future of Wireless Connectivity

July 1, 2003
Wireless communication opens new avenues for security.
Wireless connectivity is becoming one of the hottest topics in the security world. It is in many respects the answer to a multitude of issues across the spectrum of the electronic security marketplace, and it adds the benefit of convenience to many security procedures. For instance, if Jodi Smyth in her New York office realizes she has not made the required changes in the corporate access control database to allow her boss, who is en route to Los Angeles, to enter the company offices in California, she can use her PDA to wirelessly connect to the access computer and make the changes, averting a potentially embarrassing problem.

Wireless connectivity also allows Dick Smith to provide backup burglar alarm and fire alarm monitoring without having a second phone line installed at all the company locations. By going wireless, he saves money on additional phone lines and also provides the insurance company with a second independent monitored communications path to all the protected locations.

And when Gregory Norman receives an e-mail from a colleague at a remote location that consists of a picture of a former co-worker walking out the rear door of the facility with a box of merchandise, he uses his laptop with a wireless connection to immediately connect to the local hub at the facility and review the location's historical information without leaving his office.

All the above scenarios are examples of situations that were never before considered part of security wireless communication but are now becoming an integral part of it. For the past decade or so, wireless connectivity for security applications has stayed within the narrow confines of the security world, with specific application-oriented solutions, but in the past five years or so wireless connectivity has entered a whole new dimension.

Traditionally, wireless communication for burglar and fire alarms, CCTV and access control falls into three main categories: device to field controller; controller to host or controller to controller; and controller or host to world.

Burglar Alarm
• Device to Field Controller. Mature product using lithium batteries with three- to seven-year life for door, panic, motion and glass break sensors, as well as keypads and other initiation devices. Used in residential market, but slow in commercial market.
• Controller to Host or Controller to Controller. Mature product using custom transmitters and receiver network (e.g. Honeywell's AlarmNET). Provides central stations with a wireless connectivity tool. Especially popular in commercial and industrial market as backup for the existing phone lines. Also includes cellular transmitter units.
• Controller or Host to World. Early emergent market with significant growth potential once data transmission issues have been resolved.

The driving force for using wireless technology from the device to the control panel was economic, since the greatest cost in the burglar alarm installation process is labor. The ability to undertake even the most complex installation in hours rather than days is very appealing to security company owners. Installers are often paid on a per-unit basis rather than on an hourly basis to increase productivity.

Providing a wireless communication channel for alarm monitoring and reporting is not a new concept. The non-cellular network is expensive to set up, but once working provides for a solid and effective solution to monitoring. The only potential cloud on the horizon is the potential for failure in Internet-based monitoring. If the product relies on a DSL/T1/cable modem connection, it will be subject to outages beyond the control of the security company.

Fire Alarm
• Device to Field Controller. Emerging market product using lithium batteries with a three- to seven-year life for manual pull stations and smoke detectors. Acceptance outside the residential market is slow because of lack of acceptance of reliability and technical performance.
• Controller to Host or Controller to Controller. Mature product using custom transmitters and receiver network (e.g. Honeywell's AlarmNET). Provides central stations with a wireless connectivity tool. Especially popular in commercial and industrial market as backup for existing phone lines. Accepted by UL and AHJ, since product allows for dual monitoring signal paths.
• Controller or Host to World. Early emergent market with significant growth potential once data transmission issues have been resolved. Acceptance in market will be slow because of lack of approval by UL and AHJ and lack of full understanding of technical performance of portable devices.

Wireless technology in fire alarms is appealing in residential environments because smoke detectors are treated as just another wireless addressable device. When it comes to commercial applications, wireless technology comes into its own in the renovation of old buildings, where the running of conduits would be unsightly and expensive. The same applies to places like museums and ornate boardrooms.

Wireless communication also includes cellular backup monitoring, which is cost effective but does not offer continuous two-way communications monitoring.

• Device to Field Controller. Early emergent market with huge growth potential once data transmission issues have been resolved.
• Controller to Host or Controller to Controller. Used extensively where connectivity between buildings requires transmission of video images back to a central monitoring center and installing underground conduits is cost prohibitive or impossible.
• Controller or Host to World. Emergent market with huge growth potential once data transmission issues have been resolved.

Using wireless communications to transmit images from cameras to a switching or recording device is not a widely adopted practice, mainly because of cost, power and range limitations. However, in the area of mid-range (500 to 3,000 feet) and long-range (5,000 to 20,000 feet) communications, wireless has become a popular medium, especially between buildings on a college or business campus or where a property company has a number of buildings in a city center. In all cases the objective is to provide monitoring of all cameras from a central monitoring location when underground conduits cannot be installed.

Access Control
Access has been the one aspect that has moved the most slowly into the realm of wireless communications. In each of the three main categories of wireless transmission, access control capacities are currently limited.

Wireless access control presents issues in power consumption, since electronic door locks and readers have to be continuously powered, so the savings in not running communication cables is not always significant. Thus the area of wireless communication in access control has often been limited to single-door systems. Security of data is also an issue, but encrypted formats have opened up a higher degree of confidence in this area.

Wyreless Access from Recognition Source is the first major player in this sector to offer a comprehensive package for wireless communication between reader and controller. The 900 MHz spread spectrum technology has made this aspect of communications much more feasible, but none of the group manufacturers has yet made it an integral part of their product range. A number of application-specific wireless access control products have recently come on the market, such as QuickSignal Aircraft Systems from Access Controls International, self-contained units used to protect fighter jets at foreign airports.

The Future
The tremendous growth in laptop computers and PDAs has made portable computing a reality. Even in the traditional computer world tremendous advances have been made in the last few years in the realm of wireless communications. With the advent of the 802.11 wireless communications, the umbilical cable attaching the computing device to the network has finally been broken.

Security systems that are computer based or contain an embedded processor are typically coming ex-factory today complete with an Ethernet TCP/IP port and all the applicable software connectivity tools to allow for easy connection to networks, especially LANs, WANs, VPNs and the Internet.

The question for the future will be how these computer connectivity tools will surpass the traditional wireless security devices. For example, it is technically possible that:
• A traditional wireless camera will be able to transmit video images over an 802.11 network to the security guards' PDA so that incident response times can be dramatically reduced.
• A security director will be able to monitor access control violations in a remote site.
• A homeowner will, on the occurrence of an alarm condition, be alerted directly over a wireless network and be able to see pre-alarm and post- alarm video images even before the police respond to the call.
• A fire department will be able to remotely test fire alarm panels and sprinkler systems and observe the results in real time.

The future of wireless connectivity looks good, but the success in any implementation rests squarely on the manufacturers and suppliers meeting end-user expectations. The biggest impediment to the growth of communication between these technologies is the proprietary nature of the protocols used by many security system manufacturers.

Lionel Silverman, PE, a professional engineer registered in the state of Florida, has been working in the security and access control field for the past 22 years in both the USA and South Africa. He is vice president of business development for Facility Robotics Inc., a nationwide systems integrator specializing in building automation and security systems for multi-location clients. He is a member of IEEE and ASIS.