The IoT Comes To Commercial Security

By Anna Sliwon-Stewart

The use of wireless technologies in commercial security installations has traditionally been burdensome, due to range and coverage issues, potential for signal interference as well as regulatory restrictions and insurance liabilities. However, the industry and the regulatory authorities have made big strides in recent years towards facilitating adoption of new technologies in commercial security installations.

The latest innovation comes from the world of Internet of Things (IoT) which, until very recently, has been the purview of residential intruder alarm systems. IoT has enabled users to create true networks of devices that can cover the entire area of the home and work together to provide the user with ultimate home comfort and security through one system. IoT has also facilitated creating mesh networks where each device talks to each other, exchanging data about the area which they overlook, instead of leading only a two-way dialogue by sending data to the control panel and receiving commands from the control panel.

Improving Availability of Communication Pathways

Developments in IoT technologies promise to improve the range of communication paths available for the exchange of data in building systems. The adoption of IoT communication protocols in intruder alarm systems will increase the average number of sensors connected to each system and could promote the wider deployment of wireless sensors in commercial installations. The variety of sensors that will be connected to commercial intruder alarm systems will also increase, with temperature sensors, humidity sensors and, potentially, smoke and heat detectors able to connect using alternative IoT-suitable protocols. As the focus on environmental friendliness of buildings and employee wellbeing increases, air quality sensors are also being widely deployed.

All these developments can help broaden the role of the intrusion control panel and potentially turn it into a form of a local signal processing hub. This is happening alongside increased adoption of smart building platforms, to which the intrusion system can feed vital data. Smart building platforms primarily benefit from the underlying cloud infrastructure for data processing. However, the traffic of signals travelling to the cloud over internet protocol (IP) connectivity has become too great in some cases, which reduced efficiency of the connection and risked some signals being delayed. Locally based devices can ease some of that burden by pre-processing data on the ground and sending conclusions to the cloud. This means that the intruder alarm control panel can take on a more strategic role, in both the context of IoT and smart buildings.

Recently, there have been efforts by the telecommunications industry to develop alternative networks to help resolve issues like signal pollution, insufficient range, power consumption, capacity and the cost of devices that will connect to these networks.

Narrowband Accelerates IoT Connectivity

To help meet this communications challenge quickly, telecommunications companies have dedicated part of their Global System for Mobile (GSM) communications infrastructure to IoT-suitable technologies called narrowband IoT (NB IoT): CAT-NB and LTE-M. CAT-NB and LTE-M are two protocols suitable for IoT that operate as part of existing mobile networks, allowing service providers to offer immediate IoT connectivity to their customers.

However, the deployment costs of NB IoT are quite high compared to other low-power wide area networks (LPWAN) and therefore may not be the best option for single-building installations. Also, because NB IoT uses existing mobile networks and their frequencies, it still faces the same challenges of weak signal penetration in thick-walled buildings or underground facilities.

Low-power, Wide Area Networks Join the IoT

LPWANs such as LoRaWAN and Sigfox are the two most popular alternatives that work alongside 3G, 4G and 5G frequencies. Each has specific features that make them suitable for either urban or rural area IoT applications. These networks allow public and private setups that can be more suitable for specific installations. For example, utilities and other critical industries prefer to use private networks due to capex versus opex tradeoff, data security and increased control over the critical infrastructure. They also allow network owners to customise communications and security measures in line with their specific requirements.

Furthermore, signals sent over such networks potentially can be more resistant to jamming. LoRa, for example, sends the signals over a broader frequency spectrum.

Signal stability should be improved as LoRa also uses sub-GHz spectrum, which helps it to avoid the overcrowded 2.4 GHz spectrum, which is the staple of Wi-Fi and IP communications.

The very long range of Sigfox or LoRa means that the problem of the distance of motion detectors from the intrusion control panel is resolved and the need for additional signal repeaters is eliminated. This reduces the complexity of the setup of a building-wide intruder alarm system.

The arrival of advanced IoT connectivity in commercial intruder alarm installations will mean that wireless sensors can finally be deployed on a much wider scale. This is because the battery life, range and maintenance of such systems will become much less labour intensive.

Ultra-low costs of deployment will allow end-users to connect more smart devices at a lower cost than adding ZigBee/Z-Wave devices. The cost of adding LoRa LPWAN modules to the intrusion control panel is minimal ($5), while a Z-Wave module adds around $50.

Even if sensors are deployed with the specific purpose of providing intrusion detection, they will be ready for use in a smart building setup without additional systemic changes.

The Hurdles

One of the key barriers that may prevent adoption of pure IoT technologies in intruder alarm installations is regulation. While Z-Wave technology received a UL certification in 2017, none of the other IoT-specific technologies have yet. Very few security devices that use LPWAN protocols are currently available in the market, although development efforts continue.

Cybersecurity risks will also need to be carefully examined and designed out of the system architecture. In the case of private IoT networks, the responsibility for network continuity, maintenance, repair and security will rest with the network owner. This responsibility will require employing staff members with relevant expertise. There is also the question of how inherently secure IoT communications are and what providers of the network infrastructure will need to do to ensure security of signals sent through them. Currently, wireless devices using proprietary frequencies can benefit from signal encryption as it travels between the sensing device and a control panel.

This may be an activity that requires too much effort for building developers, manufacturers or service providers to undertake. Hence, companies wishing to use IoT network services for their connected buildings will need to either use the services of mobile network providers or work with local IoT network developers.

Installers working with IoT products will need to undergo training and be well-versed in the workings of these technologies to be able to provide full support to their customers.

Another potential difficulty is with the trend of creating multi-communication devices. In the residential space, control panels have begun to incorporate three or four key communication technologies to make them as versatile and flexible as possible. In the expanding world of IoT products and applications, there may be a shortage of multi-protocol chips that could allow the devices to work on the basis of LoRa and NB IoT. In the initial stages of deployment of LoRa and other IoT communication networks, it may be necessary for devices to use chips that can transmit over both protocols. However, currently, there is only one supplier that can provide a necessary die to create such devices, hence there is significant risk involved with supply of the key component to such multi-protocol devices.

Anna Sliwon-Stewart is a market research analyst with IHS Markit, a leader in research for the security industry.

Anna Sliwon
Anna Sliwon is an analyst for IHS Markit. She has a background in security and defence studies and has previously worked in a variety of research and analytical roles across security and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) non-proliferation fields. Anna has an MA in Intelligence and International Security from Kings College London and a BA in International Relations and Security Studies from the University of Bradford.