Alarm systems

break-in

Transitioning your business to the NBN can cause your alarm monitoring to stop working – it is important you contact your alarm supplier to consider your options before performing your NBN transition.

Many businesses have alarm systems installed to reduce the chance of break in and the resulting damage and theft of goods. A building that is obviously alarmed is significantly less attractive to a would-be-thief or vandal because the chances of being caught are significantly higher. This is recognised by the insurance industry and is either a pre-requisite of insurance or results in reduced premiums.

The biggest issue with alarms is often you only discover that an alarm system is not working when it is too late – you have had a break-in and the alarm didn’t work. It is important that you frequently test the entire alarm system – including any processes you have in place to respond to the alarm being triggered.

An alarm that is remotely monitored – in other words will notify someone of a break in – is in many situations an additional level of deterrence. Alarms that simply make a loud noise are unfortunately often ignored by passers by and are almost useless in areas where there is no one present after hours (such as industrial parks).

Alarm monitoring is often done using a regular (copper) phone line. The alarm system will make a call whenever it is triggered alerting either the business owner directly or a specialised alarm monitoring company who will then take the appropriate action. It is tempting to think that this can therefore simply just be plugged into the equivalent phone port provided with an NBN service, however there are some issues with doing this that need to be considered.

Cable vulnerability: The first issue to consider is the vulnerability of the NBN fibre cable. Given that the cable has usually been added after the building was built (i.e. retro-fitted), it is often laid in vulnerable areas, such as on the surface of walls or strung across from a power pole. A burglar can easily see this and cut the fibre, defeating the alarm monitoring.

Power failure: The second issue is what occurs in the case of power failure. Often buildings have external power boards and it is not hard for a burglar to simply turn off the power in order to attempt to defeat the alarm. Most alarms have backup power, but it is important that the monitoring communication path will also work without external power. The NBN White Box (called an NTD) usually comes with a backup battery that will ensure that the internal telephone port still operates. However many NBN providers are not using this port, instead using a telephone port within their own provided equipment. These will not work with external power (unless you have a UPS).

Reliability: The third issue depends on the technology used to do the monitoring. If the alarm simply dials the number of the owner or manager and transmits a noise (e.g. a sequence of beeps) or a recorded voice, then this should continue to operate over the telephone service provided over the NBN. The biggest issue with this type of monitoring is making sure that the number (particularly mobiles) called is actually answered and responded to (what happens if you go on holiday?). This is particularly true given that the alarm is likely to occur in the middle of the night. There are also known to be some reliability issues with the phone service provided over the NBN – this comes down to your provider (not the NBN itself).

However if you use any sort of specialised alarm monitoring company, then this will typically work using a dial-up modem in the alarm system to transmit data signals over the telephone line to the monitoring company. Given the different characteristics of the telephone service provided over the NBN, this will often not work or not work reliably (and of course reliability is key to an effective alarm monitoring service).

Alternate monitoring paths

So the obvious solution is to look for alternate ways for the communication to occur either as the primary method or as a backup. This has to be done in coordination with the alarm monitoring company.

The simplest method is to use the mobile network to do this communication. Of course this requires that there be a good mobile signal at the premises. This depends on the underlying mobile carrier used (Optus, Telstra or Vodafone) and the type of mobile communication method (3G or GPRS).

GPRS is the older technology and is therefore more widely adopted, however there can be coverage problems. 3G provides generally better coverage. However unlike with an actual mobile phone, an alarm system is fixed in a single position. Coverage will be simply tested by your alarm installer (and you either have it or you don’t).

Some alarm installation companies will set the communication to go via two mobile providers. This also protects against a particular mobile tower failing (which happens surprisingly often) or a mobile provider becoming congested – though most systems use a particular signalling method that gives it priority over other mobile traffic.

It is possible to put the alarm monitoring directly over the IP network provided by the NBN, however it is susceptible to the first two issues (cable vulnerability and power) and should always have a backup mobile solution. There can be cost advantages of using this method.

Alarm monitoring

Before attempting to make all these changes it is worth understanding the companies involved. There are generally three roles involved in alarm monitoring:

  • Alarm installation – these are the people who sell and install the actual equipment on site. They are usually electricians specialising in alarms.
  • Alarm monitoring – this is the monitoring centre where the alarm signals are processed and dealt with. They are often located far from the site being monitored – typically in capital cities. Typically they will initially try and call the owner to discover if there is some reason for a false alarm, before proceeding further.
  • Alarm responders – these are the people who will actually turn up on site to discover if there has indeed been a break in and act accordingly. These companies will need to employ staff in your local area and will typically charge for each call out.

It is not uncommon for there to be three separate companies involved. For example an alarm installation company will bill the client a regular monitoring fee but actually subcontract the monitoring to a much larger company. It is worth discovering who is actually involved so that you can make informed decisions on how to proceed.

Costs

Unfortunately as with much of the NBN transition process there are costs involved with making these changes (which is why I believe existing telco contracts are unenforceable).

There is usually new equipment required to make this change. This can be as simple as installing a new box onto your alarm system, but depending on the age and capability of your alarm system, may require a completely new alarm system.

The running costs also vary according to the method used. Traditionally many alarm monitoring companies (using the regular phone line) have funded their operations by insisting that the alarm call a 1300 number to reach them and insisting that the alarm call them regularly (several times a day to report alarm arming and disarming etc). These typically cost the owner around 40c each, which when multiplied by the number of calls can soon add up. The alarm monitoring company then receives a portion of this money from the phone provider.

The other hidden cost to the owner maybe the cost of renting a line from the phone company. However this line is often shared with other services (such as fax or EFTPOS), so the cost can’t be entirely attributed to the alarm system.

When changing over to alternate methods of monitoring, the monitoring company is now charging the client (either directly or via a local company) a regular monitoring charge. For example when using the mobile network, it is common for the communication costs to be included in the monitoring charge. The advantage of this is that the monitoring company is responsible for managing the mobile connection (getting SIM cards etc). This charge needs to be compared with the existing monitoring charge (including any hidden charges – such as the 1300 calling).

Comparing alarm companies

When I first started calling alarm companies (around mid 2013) about the issues raised above with regard to the NBN transition, I was dismayed at how few companies where even aware this was an impeding issue. Luckily most companies now seem to be across it, however you can expect that some companies will have more experience with this transition than others.

I highly recommend you do your research and be open to changing over to new companies if the your existing company is not providing a solution you are happy with.

Make sure that any solution you choose is extensively tested. You do not want to find out your alarm monitoring has failed after you have a break in.

Questions to ask your alarm company

When comparing alarm companies it is important to find out about the technology being used. Alarm monitoring is a competitive business and it is worth finding a provider that works for you.

  1. What communication path does my alarm use now? If it is not the telephone line, then you don’t need to do anything more.
  2. Given that this line is not usable post transition, what is your recommended alternate communication path or paths?
  3. Does your recommended solution have multiple communication paths in case of failure of the primary method.
  4. Will I need to to replace my alarm system?
  5. How much will it cost to allow my alarm system to work on the new method?
  6. What is the monthly monitoring fee?
  7. For mobile monitoring paths: Do I have to purchase my own SIM card and pay for a data plan or is this managed by you and included in the fee?
  8. Does the alarm system periodically “check in” so that you will be notified if the communication path fails. How often does this occur?

Summary of some of the security companies in Tasmania

– coming soon

 

Summary
Article Name
Alarm Systems on the NBN
Description
Your alarm system and the method used to remotely monitor it should be carefully considered when transitioning to the NBN. There are many reasons why you should not use the telephone service provided over the NBN for your alarm monitoring
Author

One comment

  1. Peter Bryner says:

    Great article. best summary of the issues I’ve read. The monitoring companies were in a scam with the telcos regarding the costs of the 1300 number calling. When I queried the number of 1300 calls appearing on my bill they disappeared very quickly. How many others are still paying these charges needlessly? Buyer beware.