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A look at cellular's alarming technology.

SECURITY PROFESSIONALS FACED with selecting an alarm system can choose among several technologies, including hard-wire lines, microwave, radio frequency (RF), and cellular. Cellular technology is gaining acceptance as a substitute for telephone lines in remote areas and as a backup to existing wire alarm systems mainly because of its availability. Cellular transmissions from fixed alarm system locations have had some initial problems, such as weak signals, but manufacturers are finding solutions.

Approximately 15 million monitored alarm systems are in place in the United States today, according to Albert Janjigian of STAT Resources in Brookline, Massachussetts. A healthy portion of them are protecting commercial establishments, such as banks and retail stores. While alarm systems for these applications are expensive, sophisticated, and capable of detecting and even tracking intruders with all kinds of high-technology sensing methods, they still rely on two small strands of copper wire to get the alarm signal from the protected premises into the wired Telco system and hence on its way to the monitoring station.

Security professionals recognize the limitations of the wired phone line, but until recently a practical alternative was not available on a broad geographic basis. Cellular alarm transmission systems (CATS) now provide an alternative.

Cellular was harnessed for transmitting alarms in early 1990 when an interface patented by a Chicago company became available to alarm equipment manufacturers. This interface allows the digital transmitter contained in a conventional alarm system to operate over cellular just as though it were on the wired phone line. That is, when an alarm is to be transmitted over a cellular system, the host alarm system dials the same phone number and transmits the same digital message to the same central station digital receiver.

As shown in Figure 1, the alarm signal travels the highly vulnerable initial step from the protected premises into the cellular network safely through the air, where it cannot even be seen, much less tampered with. The cellular central office routes the signal over microwave and then land lines, as it travels through the seamless cellular network to the alarm monitoring center. Neither the host alarm system nor the central station receiver recognizes that the alarm signal started its journey on cellular. In this regard, it is like calling an office in Peoria, Illinois, from a car phone in Tallahassee, Florida.

In a typical installation, the CATS is connected between the existing host alarm system and the incoming wired phone line connector block at the protected premise. If the wired line is operative, alarms go out over it in the normal manner. If the alarm cannot get through via the wired phone line, the alarm system is automatically switched by the CATS so that communications can occur over cellular.

Both the wireless cellular and the wired Telco communications links are supervised by the CATS. If the wired line fails, the host alarm system is told to send a trouble signal to the central station over cellular. Likewise, if the cellular link goes down, the host alarm system alerts the central station of the trouble over the wired line. Redundancy and cross-supervision exist to a degree never before economically possible in the security industry.

Some CATS can also back up premise phones by automatically switching them to operate over cellular when the incoming wired line is out of service, the celswitch feature. Others incorporate an RJ11 connection into which any standard phone device can be plugged for exclusive operation over cellular, the priority phone feature. Both the celswitch and the priority phone features enable voice and data communications to continue uninterrupted during an emergency from any standard phone device, such as a fax machine or modem.

ONE MILLION NEW SUBSCRIBERS SIGNED up for cellular phones in its first two years of availability, thereby reaching a customer base that it took the wired phone system twenty years to achieve. More than $500 billion has been spent designing and implementing cellular networks in the United States, and cellular now serves 80 percent of the U.S. population.

When hurricanes Hugo and Andrew and the San Francisco earthquake knocked out normal communications, cellular continued to operate, although it was not always possible to get through due to demands on the system's traffic load. Cellular is so reliable and cost effective that it is replacing wired systems as the primary method of communications in some rural areas of the United States and on a major scale in developing countries, according to Bill DeNicolo, president of Telular, Inc. in Chicago, Illinois, a major supplier of fixed cellular equipment. Not surprisingly, in many cases it is more cost-effective to use cellular than to install the wiring and switching gear needed for conventional systems.

CATS are proving to be equally reliable in harnessing cellular availability for security purposes. All national alarm installing companies, such as ADT Security Systems, Honeywell Protection Services, Wells Fargo Alarm Services, and National Guardian, as well as many regional alarm companies, have tested, approved, and are using CATS with their commercial and residential customers.

Even UL has given its blessing. UL-listed CATS, used in conjunction with UL-listed host alarm systems, now qualify for Grade A service. This is one grade higher than UL has ever allowed for alarm systems lacking remote supervision. UL-listed CATS now qualify as the second phone line (cellular) in two phone line commercial fire applications.

By most counts, close to 10,000 CATS have been installed over the last four years. Here is a brief description of the most popular applications.

Cellular only. Initially, CATS were used to allow remote monitoring of alarm systems installed in situations where a regular phone line was unavailable or undesirable. Some of the classic early applications involved mobile ATMs, armored trucks, remote pumping stations, and luxury yachts. These cellular-only applications still account for about 20 percent of all new CATS installations.

As backup. The most popular CATS application today is backing up the wired phone line. In this regard, retail chains and banks are the major users. Standard practice is to put CATS primarily in store and branch locations where the phone service has been unreliable, including, of course, locations where break-ins are considered more likely or where phone lines have actually been cut in the past. This normally accounts for 20 to 30 percent of the total of all locations within the chain.

As replacement. Replacing dedicated and supervised wired Telco service is a rapidly growing application, spurred on by the telephone companies themselves as they discontinue dedicated and supervised service in the process of converting to fiber optics and as they raise prices on existing installations in an attempt to free up capacity.

In the face of declining availability and increasing cost, security professionals are discovering that CATS plus one standard Telco line is less expensive than their present dedicated and supervised service.

Also, a growing realization exists that dedicated and supervised systems have a major drawback, even where they are still available. With the dedicated and supervised approach, an alarm message does not go out when the wired line is compromised. True, the monitoring center knows about the line failure, but that is of little consolation if the protected premise is on fire or under siege by intruders.

With the CATS approach, not only does the monitoring center know when the wired line goes down--a phone line trouble signal is immediately transmitted by the host alarm system over cellular but--subsequent burglar and fire alarms still get sent to the central station over cellular.

The two alternative methods of communication embodied in CATS--wireless and wired--are substantially more likely than a single wired line to perform the fundamental task of getting the alarm message through no matter how dedicated and supervised that single line is.

Transmitting fire alarms. A popular new application involves improving the reliability of fire alarm signal transmissions. UL-listed commercial fire alarm systems are required to use two standard wired phones when alarm signal communications are involved. However, CATS have recently been listed to operate as the second phone line.

The CATS priority phone feature can also provide continued voice communications with the protected premise over cellular during an emergency in which Telco service is lost. This ensures that the central station can contact the protected premise to verify the emergency before dispatching the proper authorities.

THE LONG-TERM SUCCESS AND STAYING power of CATS will be a function of how well the following issues are addressed by CATS manufacturers.

Broadening the user market. Despite the rapid growth of CATS, the technology is reaching only a small portion of the commercial market. Sales to residential users is limited to wealthy individuals with valuable personal property to protect and executive protection programs.

The major drawback to expanded market penetration is the high cost of present CATS. A residential or commercial user pays $1,000 to $2,000 to have CATS installed. Often that is as much as he or she paid for the host alarm system. On top of that, another $15 to $35 per month is necessary for cellular service,

whether any alarm signals are transmitted or not. This is often less than the cost of traditional telephone service, but it is nonetheless perceived as too expensive.

CATS manufacturers recognize this problem and new products are being developed that could cut equipment cost in half. Beyond that, an installed cost of $400 or less seems feasible within several years. Cellular service cost is also coming down as manufacturers negotiate standard rates for alarm use. End user costs of $10 to $12 per month are beginning to appear in some markets.

Obtaining equivalent rating. While UL has embraced CATS for unsupervised on-premise operation, the agency has not yet made its highest rating, UL AA, available for this new technology. Historical precedent is partly to blame.

The electronic security industry, led by insurance companies and UL, long ago moved to establish the notion that the highest-security installations were the ones in which the on-premise alarm system was polled from the central station so that a downed phone line could immediately be identified. This concept, referred to as dedicated and supervised service, has been implemented in various formats, including the industry's highest possible level of security, UL's AA certification.

Yet, as discussed previously, all these approaches have the same limitation: If the wired line goes down, the alarm message does not go out. With the CATS approach, not only does the monitoring center know when the wired line goes down, but subsequent burglar and fire alarms still get sent to the central station over cellular. Nonetheless, the industry continues to formally maintain UL AA as the standard for the best line security available.

A polling approach that could be used to obtain AA supervision for CATS would require that cellular carriers poll CATS units in the area from their mobile telephone switching office that controls the contiguous cell sites and then notify the central station over a supervised Telco line when a protected premise did not respond. While technically feasible, this approach is not likely any time soon, since cellular carriers have projects with even higher perceived payoffs.

Despite this problem, many are opting for the CATS solution as they wait for an AA-type rating to be available for cellular. Jewelers Mutual Insurance Company is typical of the underwriters that have begun encouraging CATS for policyholders. Ken Larson of Jewelers comments that, "In AA-type line security applications where the monitoring is over long distances and therefore cost-prohibitive or where that service is not available, cellular is an approved alternative. We like cellular because of its redundancy and the randomness of the transmission path."

CATS manufacturers continue to work with UL and insurance companies to find a way to achieve the reliability criteria of AA without having to use a prohibitively expensive polling approach that involves heavy involvement and cooperation from cellular carriers throughout the system.

Ensuring signal strength. The cellular network was devised to provide mobile communications. This raises some regulatory and operational issues for fixed cellular uses, including CATS. The regulatory issue was resolved in 1991 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the cellular industry, ruled that fixed cellular was okay as long as it did not detract from the service levels provided to mobile users.

The operational issue remains, although it is abating. Trouble-free communications require adequate cellular radio signal strength on a continuous basis at the precise point where the CATS antenna is permanently located. The cellular system was not designed with this goal in mind, since the assumption was that the antenna would be moving--or at least easily movable to a position of better receptivity.

Accordingly, great care must be taken when selecting the antenna location during CATS installation. The industry only recently became aware of the importance of this requirement. Before that, CATS initially had problems with operations resulting from poor cellular signal strength at many job sites.

Many approaches have been implemented to solve this problem. One involves the choice of cellular carrier. Even in major metropolitan areas, signal strength at any precise spot usually varies greatly among the two service providers. Special antennas are also part of the solution.

Constant attention from manufacturers of CATS to the training of their alarm installing customers is having an increasingly positive effect. Antenna location should soon cease to be a limitation to the growth of CATS.

CATS are already having a profound effect on how security professionals think about burglar and fire alarm communications. In only a few years, cellular alarm transmission may become as indispensable to security directors as mobile phones.

Robert Montgomery is president of Adcor Electronics in Atlanta, Georgia.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:cellular alarm systems
Author:Montgomery, Robert
Publication:Security Management
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:2268
Previous Article:A conversation with 1993 ASIS President Chad Rea.
Next Article:The other industrial security programs.
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