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Home Security 101: Monitoring Technologies

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January 27, 2014
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Home Security 101: Monitoring Technologies

Today’s post is the first in FrontPoint’s new series of informative blog entries created to educate consumers about electronic security for the home. And we've picked an important first topic: how your home alarm system communicates with the monitoring center.

The Old Days

There was a time when most alarm systems were not monitored by a remote 24/7 center: in the event of an alarm event, the system just made noise with a bell, horn, or siren, and that was it. Often called a “local” alarm, these systems are seldom installed today. One reason for that is that people tend to ignore the noise (just like most car alarms!), and in some jurisdictions there are even nuisance ordinances against outside alarm sounding devices. Another reason is that over the years there have been significant advancements in how security systems can easily communicate an alarm event to a remote monitoring center.

Evolving Technologies

Some early technologies enabled alarm systems to connect directly to the monitoring center, and there were even some long-range radio systems for high security applications, but these were mostly for commercial premises. Then some smart folks figured out how to use the traditional copper phone line in the home as a communication channel – and the business of monitored home security really started to take off. This method of monitoring communication is called “POTS,” since it is based on the “Plain Old Telephone Service” network.

Times Have Changed

As cellular technology has become more pervasive and more affordable, plenty of homeowners have gotten rid of those old copper phone lines. Despite this switch, a large percentage of the home alarm systems in use today still rely on these old POTS phone lines.

In fact, they may still keep that POTS line just because of their alarm system. If that’s you, look out! Recently AT&T petitioned the FCC for permission to end the maintenance of those POTS networks across the US.

What Came Next?

When canceling a POTS line, some homeowners gave up any physical connection for home phone service, making the choice to go cell-only in the home. Others replaced their POTS lines with “VoIP” technology: think providers like Vonage.

VoIP stands for “Voice over Internet Protocol,” and while there is still a physical connection, it’s over the Internet, so no longer a POTS line. But in choosing VoIP, they simply replaced one physical connection with another. And VoIP is not a great solution for alarm communication – as the carriers themselves will tell you.

Cell vs. VoIP Monitoring

That raises the frequent question of which is best for alarm monitoring: cellular or VoIP (internet). And the consensus of the alarm industry is that cellular is clearly better than the Internet for alarm monitoring. Here’s why:

  1. Remember, it’s just as easy to cut an internet connection as it is to cut that vulnerable POTS line.
  2. Homes lose their internet connection with far greater frequency than there are interruptions in the cellular networks.
  3. How many home routers and modems that provide access to the internet have a battery backup? Not many. When you lose power, your alarm system may still function, but it has no way to communicate.

Burglars Do Cut Phone Lines

We know that burglars do cut phone lines – and it’s happening more as intruders realize they can compromise most home alarm systems that way. All it takes is a $3 pair of wire cutters and a few seconds, and the burglar who targets a non-cellular system can then act with impunity in your home. We see plenty of reports indicating that burglars just cut whatever wires they can get their hands on: phone, Internet, etc.

Wireless vs. Wireless

And remember, the term “wireless” can refer to wireless sensors, or to wireless alarm communication – or both. Some alarm companies sell just the wireless sensors, and may try to pass the system as “100% wireless:” it’s not. When shopping for your home alarm system, make sure you insist on cellular monitoring. And while you are at it, ask the alarm companies you speak with how much extra they are charging for the cellular radio – another important question.

Cellular is Best

It’s also interesting to note that even new entrants to the alarm industry (companies like Comcast, Cox, Time Warner, and AT&T) all use a cellular link for alarm event communication. They do so even if their interactive monitoring services rely on the internet – that’s a topic for a future post – but clearly cellular alarm communication is viewed as the safest and most reliable successor to the POTS.

As we indicated in a previous post, the goal of this series to give the home alarm shopper all the information needed to make an educated and cost-effective decision. We hope to see you here every Monday, as we download the details on what it takes to protect your home and family. If we don’t cover a topic that interests you, just let us know. FrontPoint has the expertise, the experience, and the desire to help. And when you are done shopping, we know you’ll feel protected and connected.

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