How alarm systems work: Alarm signals and communication

How alarm systems work: Alarm signals and communication

Cellular communicators utilize radio towers to transmit alarm signals from your system to our Monitoring Center.

The transmission of an alarm signal to a professional monitoring organization is the most critical function an alarm system performs. If a trained monitoring center dispatcher does not receive the signal of your front window breaking or a fire in your kitchen, your alarm will go off within your home, but emergency services will not be notified. Whether you’re present or absent, the dispatch of first responders during a break-in, fire, or carbon monoxide leak at your home or business is of utmost importance for the safety of what matters most to you.

For decades, alarm signals have been sent from a control panel (the “brains” of the alarm system) to a designated monitoring center via copper phone lines. On most home security systems, the control panel could share the main line, forcefully “seizing” the line during an alarm emergency even if the line was in use. Because of this, businesses usually commissioned a second phone line for alarm transmission purposes.

Until quite recently, these phone lines—known as “Plain Old Telephone Service” lines or, more commonly, “POTS” lines—were the only method of communication available to security companies and their customers. POTS lines aren’t without their benefits. For example, they maintain power even in an outage, which made them terrific conduits for fire alarm signal transmission. In fact, for many years the only real detriment to POTS line security systems was the ability for experienced burglars to locate and sever the physical phone line, thus disabling a security system’s ability to transmit a signal to the monitoring center. While this was an uncommon and unlikely situation, it still created a security liability within a system meant to eliminate them.

VOIP becomes king

POTS line communications reigned supreme until the advent of the internet revolutionized telephony. Instead of using physical twisted copper cabling like POTS lines, Voice Over Internet Protocol, often shorthanded to simply “VOIP,” transmitted voice communications through the internet. First generation VOIP lines often suffered considerably in the “call quality” department, but it didn’t take long for telecom companies rectify the issue. In fact, most VOIP lines today carry superior call quality compared to their more outdated VOIP counterparts.

It didn’t take long for telecom companies to realize that the widespread adoption of VOIP technology would eliminate the cost of installing and maintaining copper phone lines, thus increasing their profit margins. In 2009, Verizon announced their intention to make the switch to VOIP by 2016, and AT&T wasn’t far behind. This announcement came at a time when millions of households were already shedding their landlines in the face of rising service costs. More impactfully, cellular phones became the modus operandi for the average American, reducing a century-long reliance on POTS lines. Back in 2004, more than 90% of people had landlines in their homes; today, less than half of homes have landlines and only an estimated 6.5% of people use landlines exclusively. This number is likely to plummet as time goes on considering major service providers such as AT&T are losing landlines customers to the tune of thousands a week. Between better call quality, cheaper service, and the elimination of physical cabling, it only took around a decade for VOIP to overthrow POTS as the king of communication.

The adoption of VOIP, however, caused major problems for security alarm providers. VOIP lines convert sound to data. To speed up the transmission of these large chunks of data, VOIP lines break the data into tiny pieces or “packets” and send them over the internet. Phones reassemble the sound data back into coherent conversation. Alarm signals are not so lucky, as the data packet switching essentially shreds the signal sent from the panel to the monitoring center, rendering it effectively useless. As VOIP became the choice du jour of telephony, security providers foresaw a catastrophe looming: how are we going to receive our customers’ security signals?

Some panels, such as the ProSeries All-in-One control panel pictured above, are built specifically for seamless installation of LTE communicator modules.

The rise of cellular alarm signal communication

To answer that question, security providers took a cue from what was already happening in American households: we took to using cellular service. Modern alarm systems still utilize the main control panel but have forgone POTS lines for additional devices known as cellular alarm signal communicators. When transmitting an alarm signal, the panel sends it first to the cellular communicator, which pings it off a nearby cell tower. The cell tower bounces the signal to the designated monitoring center, where a trained dispatcher receives and responds to the particular signal. There are no cables and no “data packet” confusion—just communication using the same cellular radio signals used in your cell phones.

Cellular alarm signal communicators can be affixed with boosters and antennae to strengthen the cellular signal emitting from them. In 110 million + households in the country estimated to have broadband internet access, an ethernet connection can provide a secondary “backup” form of communication just in case. Cellular alarm signal communicators have become so reliable that the slow-to-change authorities governing fire codes have stamped their approval on certain fire-rated models, allowing their use in commercial fire alarm systems.

Some homes and businesses still pay for old POTS lines solely because their alarm systems rely on them for communication. However, cellular alarm signal communicators are often compatible with older systems, allowing security alarm customers to stop paying for an expensive and outdated physical phone line. (In the event a system is too old to be compatible, it’s likely long overdue for an upgrade as it is.) And with telecom companies investing heavily in their cellular infrastructure, it’s likely that cellular communication is here for the long run, ensuring security companies and their customers a method for alarm communication for years to come.

Cellular communicators utilize radio towers to transmit alarm signals from your system to our Monitoring Center.The 3G/4G sunset and cellular communication

The main caveat with cellular alarm signal communication? It’s always being made better. While this doesn’t seem like an obstacle at first, think about your smartphone. The original iPhone used 2G, or second generation, cellular networks. Now, telecom companies are slowly rolling out 5G-supporting networks nationwide and 2G networks are an incredibly slow thing of the past. Unfortunately, security alarm providers and their customers aren’t magically granted the benefits of better communication as the new networks are installed. New communicators must be installed periodically to keep up with the newest cellular communications technology to ensure your alarm system will still communicate appropriately with your designated monitoring center.

You might be thinking, Well, my 3G alarm communicator seems to work fine. I don’t need a newer one! Yes, 3G/4G communicators may work well for now, but AT&T, Verizon, and other telecom companies are already “sunsetting” their older 3G/4G networks in favor of their 4G LTE/5G infrastructure. Essentially, once they replace the tower in your area, your old 3G/4G communicator won’t work—and your alarm system won’t tell us when you need help.

The support for the upcoming 4G LTE/5G network is predicted to last for years—or even longer, as the time between releasing new cellular network generations appears to be slowing with time. For now, the 3G/4G sunset is well underway, with telecom companies expected to discontinue support completely sometime within the next year.

house with an EPS sign out frontThe EPS Advantage

Cellular communication is often safer, cheaper, and more reliable than the POTS lines they replace—which is good news, considering phone companies are phasing those copper landlines out completely in the near future. And while they occasionally require an upgrade to ensure they’re communicating on the right network, a professional security company like EPS Security will have a system in place to make sure you don’t get left behind as technology marches on.

Our team of security consultants, schedulers, and technicians are hard at work contacting customers currently in need of a communicator update. In fact, this isn’t our first rodeo, as we helped upgrade our customers during the “2G sunset” some years ago. As your continuing security partner, we’re not just going to install a security system customized to fit your needs—we want to help you maintain it, too, for as far into the future as you’d like.

Understanding how your alarm system works is important. Knowing that it’s going to work when you need it to is essential. Whether you’re looking for a new system, need to beef up your existing solution, or have questions as to whether your current communicator is up-to-date (and trust us—you’re not alone there), let the team at EPS use our 65+ years of industry experience to help you protect what matters most.

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