Why Are Australian Business Installing Old Security Systems?

By Daniel Lewkovitz.

If the electronic security industry was selling cars, then alarm installers in the year 2012 would be flogging Nissan Bluebirds and Ford Festivas as brand new stock. Lest readers believe I am exaggerating, those cars were for sale in 1999 (thirteen years ago) and the alarm panels I was playing with at that time are still being sold by Australian alarm distributors today.

Can you imagine software companies adopting the same approach to their research and development? We’d still be using Microsoft Windows 95 (mouse optional) or a copy of DOS. In fact, you will be using DOS if you want to dial-in and reprogram many of the old panel designs mentioned earlier. That is, if you can still find
a 10-year-old modem on eBay. Astonishing, isn’t it?

I cannot think of another industry which has failed to improve technology or increase prices over the past decade. Yet the alarm industry is selling the same products and services, at the same dollar-a-day price, as they were more than a decade ago. Australians typically replace their cars every six years, their television every four years and their mobile phone every two. Yet the systems which protect all of these assets, as well as the lives of their owners, haven’t had a makeover since they were installed.

Each year, I see many of the same alarm panels at the Security shows as were on display the previous year. Whenever I ask a sales manager if they’re going to retire these old clunkers, the response is always the same: “We’d love to be selling the newer gear, but the demand’s not there”.

Yes it is.

Australians adore technology. We buy over a million LCD televisions a year. Farmers in the middle of nowhere demand faster Internet and most households have more than one computer. And that’s just for the grown-ups. Teenagers carry more technology in their pocket than was contained in the flight computer aboard the space shuttle.

Alarm installers need to start updating their own skills in both technology and sales techniques to promote the benefits of modern detection systems. This is more than the bells and whistles of home automation or cutesy touchscreens, and extends to detection and alerting technology which can save lives and (here’s where you earn the big bucks) improve customer convenience and enjoyment.

Dialler versus IP

There is no more obvious example of the lethargy of our industry than the ongoing deployment of dialler alarms which use traditional PSTN (Public Switch Telephone Network) lines to connect alarm panels to monitoring centres. This is an inherently insecure platform as the phone line can be cut. While this threat seems, at first glance, like a scene out of a spy thriller, in reality, it is about as technically complex as cutting a piece of string and can be executed by a drug-addicted burglar with a pair of scissors. Line cut, game over. Sure, some panels are programmed to cause the siren to sound when the phone line is cut, but we know the only thing sirens will do these days is annoy your neighbours, not bring them running.

The security industry’s dirty little secret is the revenue it derives from ‘rebates’, a nice euphemism for ‘kickbacks’ from phone companies for each of the 40-cent phone calls an alarm panel makes each day (in an age when most calls cost two to five cents each, tops). Rumours of the death of rebates have been greatly exaggerated, and while the National Broadband Network (NBN) is around the corner and alarm panels may one day stop working, nobody seems to be paying attention. It is like the demise of Securitel which was ignored until weeks before Telstra said, “We’re really not kidding”, and pulled the plug.

While clunky old providers continue doing the same thing as always, their customers tend to do things like move premises, switch to VOIP services or no home phone whatsoever. Based on total ignorance of available technology, they decide they can live without an alarm just like their fax machine, as if the two are from a similar era. The surprise of customers who had no idea their alarm could be connected to the internet never ceases to amaze me.

Lack of innovation

Alarm monitoring platforms are merely one aspect of technology where so-called modern security providers have fallen behind badly. Indeed, much of what is currently considered standard, that is, the same practices as 10 to 15 years ago, is so unhelpful that, in many cases, the security industry is peddling a lie: ‘When your alarm goes off, police will be kicking in the door moments later, guns drawn’.

The truth is much more ordinary. In reality, what people often get when using old technology is false alarms, non-response by police, private patrolmen turning up an hour (or hours) later and alarm systems failing to detect, or report at all. Customers usually only find this out after they have suffered a loss. What has the industry done about this? Very little.

Technologies that can provide a partial solution, such as video verification, are being held back by vendors simultaneously pushing far cheaper hardware, and monitoring providers running 15-to 20-year-old automation software that simply can’t perform in the era of iPhones, video and high customer expectations.

The proliferation of uncertified monitoring centres is the stuff of legend. An industry stalwart once told me about a fish and chip shop which had an alarm receiver in the back room (possibly the first monitoring centre with an active fire hazard bubbling away on the premises) and apparently it was pretty good compared to some of the providers of today.

Yes, many will sneer that the Standard (AS2201.2 Monitoring Centres) is a crock and it is all a giant conspiracy, but who are these people really kidding with their excuses? If you’re doing the job properly, certification is straightforward. Nobody says a monitoring centre needs to be A1 graded. However, if a provider can’t even attain a C3 grading, they have no more business protecting people’s security than an unlicensed driver has of operating a school bus.

Anyone can put together a website with downloaded stock photos of smiling operators sitting at a console, but what is really going on behind the curtain?

Ethics and standards need to improve, and there is no point waiting for approved security industry, the police or the government to magically fix it. This is an industry problem and legitimate players need to speak up and educate the market. If we don’t all fix these problems, we will all suffer because of them — whether it be the police
moving to a non-response policy, or younger demographics kidding themselves that self-monitoring is reliable.

Opportunities for innovative young players

The rise of the NBN, increased OHS requirements and increasingly techno-savvy customers, represent a huge opportunity for security providers at the leading edge of technology. Partnerships between front-end consultants, vendors and a handful of modern, niche-monitoring providers can lead to far higher, recurring revenue than traditional offerings ever did. The successful 21st century provider will stand apart by maintaining ongoing development and by keeping an eye on the future. A relentless commitment to ethics, transparency and quality of service is critical.

Technology to watch

IP monitoring is not the future. It is the present. Anything less is unacceptable. Migration to IP is being held back by monitoring companies who don’t understand it, or who implement it poorly and then cannot understand why it is not as reliable as their completely unreliable, dialler lines.

Many consumers are now starting to question (quite rightly) the point of a monitoring provider who simply rings them when there’s a problem, with no reliable response protocol beyond that. However, the alternative, so-called self-monitoring, by means of SMS, is a myth and a failure waiting to happen. There is plenty of room for hybrid systems where end-users can log into their own systems and see what’s going on, knowing that a monitoring provider is in the background as a failsafe when things go wrong.

The rise in IP camera technology and the substantial reduction in hardware prices promise big opportunities for technology companies to enter the security industry. Cameras are often misunderstood, not just by end-users, but even by the professionals. It is important that people study the theory of CCTV design and implementation, rather than just selling sexy cameras that don’t do what they need to when it counts. Remote monitoring and verification means hitherto unwatched cameras suddenly become a useful tool in proactive security, rather than a tool for working out how security failed.


Mistrust and the silo mentality of many providers have led to a lack of effective industry lobbying and widespread development. When was the last time you sat down for a coffee (or beer) with your direct competitor? If quality providers all work together, we all benefit from this cooperation.

Discussion forums on LinkedIn are a good, non-threatening way to ask questions and obtain real-world guidance from people with similar interests and problems to yours. Professional security bodies, such as ASIS International, are a terrific way to meet interesting people in person and continue your professional development.

Times and technology have changed and will continue to change. It is time for Australian security providers to make a choice between excellence and obsolescence.

Daniel Lewkovitz, M.Infotech CPP, is the Chief Security Evangelist for Calamity.com.au. He has recently completed the implementation of Calamity Monitoring’s A1-graded monitoring centre and is always happy to hear from like-minded security professionals. He may be contacted via the website: http://calamity.com.au or at 1300 300 24/7.