VoIP, Security systems, and FUD

I felt compelled to respond to an article NetworkWorld published (which made Slashdot) that talks about how VoIP and security systems are incompatible (as in home or business burglar alarms), and is apparently based on an article published by CBC. It does raise some valid points, but mostly it is sensational garbage.

First off, as the article correctly points out, VoIP does require power, so if you lose power, then you lose your phone line. This can be dealt with by getting a UPS (battery backup), and in fact, I’ve seen some providers that build batteries in to their modems/analog telephony adapters (though unfortunately, it’s not very common). It’s also true that your broadband connection is probably not as reliable as your PSTN lines – there are simply more things that can go wrong.

However, the article falls apart at this point, and starts arguing about how software changes to the security system could break everything (because on a PSTN they couldn’t? why are you upgrading your alarm system remotely/autonomously?), and how your TiVo, fax machine and conventional modem won’t work. I’m not quite sure what that has to do with security, nor am I sure why you’re using a conventional modem when you have a broadband internet connection.

The CBC article points out that one user went for a year and a half before noticing his alarm didn’t work. This is entirely his own fault. If you change your wiring, your service provider, or anything else, it’s just common sense to test the equipment hooked up to it. Surely if he added a new jack he would have picked up the phone to see if there was a dialtone instead of assuming everything worked. This is above and beyond the fact that most alarm systems suggest you test them at least monthly, ensuring that the sensors and sirens and phone connections are all working.

On a bit of a tangent, I'd also like to note how ineffective alarm signalling usually is: unconfirmed alarms are basically the lowest priority calls police will go on, so they often will not drive to your house until long after the alarm went off, if they even bother to show up at all. Here, the police charge businesses $60 for the second false alarm, $120 for the next, and so on (I'm not sure what they do for residences). Not to say that alarm dialing is useless, because the panic buttons should still get someone there pretty fast (it requires a human, as opposed to a motion sensor which can be a malfunction or pet), but if you think that the SWAT team arrives seconds after the alarm goes off with guns drawn, you're sadly mistaken.

The best defence is to have neighbours that will hear your alarm going off (loud outdoor sirens help), notice the kids moving your big screen TV into a black van parked in the driveway, and call the police. Or get a big dog.

  • * *In my mind though, what these articles are really showing is how far behind the times everything else is. Yes, there are some major issues with VoIP that need to be addressed (911), but the benefits it has (the ability to have multiple phone numbers anywhere in the world, lower cost, multiple simultaneous calls..) are too much to ignore. To begin with, why don’t security systems call in periodically (weekly or monthly) to basically say “I’m alive!”? If they miss their call in, the security company can call the owner and say it missed its check-in. More sophisticated alarm systems usually have a special loop line, where the monitoring center actually sees immediately that they went offline, and can respond appropriately, this would be just a simpler version of that – although no emergency response would be mounted.Going forward, why are security systems still using phone lines? Why don’t they just get ethernet connections, and plug right into your broadband connection along with your PC? This would allow far more capabilities, including the constant monitoring mentioned above (but checking in every few seconds), remote access by the home owner, and the ability of the response center to save some money by ditching their banks of modems and PSTN lines in favour of running a few servers. Same thing goes for TiVos and satellite connections. To migrate existing non-ethernet devices, they could actually make another box that has an fxs port (which looks like a normal phone line to the TiVo) like a VoIP adapter, but actually be designed to emulate the head-end, and communicate via regular TCP/IP over the broadband connection back to the satellite/TiVo’s main office).

Based on the tone and conclusion (“But hardwired land lines seem to be the most solid answer for now anyway.”) of the original article, it sounds more like some Slashdot readers speculated – that the phone company is pushing for this drivel to be published because they’re starting to feel the sting of VoIP on their bottom line. I pay under $10 a month for my home phone service, have all the “features” that cost extra on PSTN lines, and can make multiple calls simultaneously if I want to – even a basic line with the telco is $25+, and if I were to get 4 or 5 lines with all the features active, I would be in the hundreds of dollars per month.

It would be great if the phone companies would leverage their existing (more reliable) network to basically run a second VoIP-only internet alongside the existing internet infrastructure, bringing the best of both worlds together – but unfortunately this will never happen because it would be too easy to use other providers, not pay outrageous long distance charges, etc.