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NextAlarm: The Broadband Alarm Co.

What could there possibly be “new” in the alarm business?  More than you might imagine, it turns out.  

This morning NextAlarm made two announcements at CES.  First they launched VoIPAlarm, a new channel program designed to bring their broadband alarm services to alarm systems resellers, and then they announced V-Notify, the industry’s first automated alarm station — an IVR which you can use to query alarm status, or to be notified when an event occurs. 

I caught up with NextAlarm’s CTO Bryan Field-Elliot, and asked some questions yesterday.  The products are interesting, in and of themselves, but read to the end where Bryan starts to talk about using alarm system sensors for presence management.  Cool!

AS: What is Broadband Alarm Monitoring, and what are the advantages?

BE: Broadband Alarm Monitoring means three things:

1) Taking advantage of Broadband connectivity to do things you couldn’t previously do with your alarm system.

The most important feature we offer in this area is line security — we’ll tell you within a few minutes if we lose contact with your alarm system (i.e. if your ISP goes down, or your house line is cut). By contrast, when your alarm system is plugged into a POTS line (as is traditionally done), there is no way for the monitoring station to know if, for example, your telephone line is cut (by an intruder). You might find out in a few hours if, for example, your alarm system misses it’s daily test signal. But you won’t know in real-time.

There are “native” broadband alarm systems — newer, more expensive, and requiring “rip and replace” of your existing system. Our line security feature would be unneeded in those cases. But, we offer the line security feature (and all other features) to the 20+ million (U.S.) owners of existing, standard POTS-capable alarm systems. No one else can do this.

2) Solving the VoIP problem

When a homeowner switches to VoIP (i.e. Vonage) and throws away their POTS line, if they have an alarm system then it will no longer communicate reliably. This is for the same reasons that fax machines, modems, TiVO’s etc. stop working — the codecs are optimized for voice, not data. Often the customer doesn’t even know their alarm system isn’t going to function, until it’s too late (i.e. burglary). Most alarm companies respond to VoIP by telling customers to keep a POTS line for their alarm system, or else rip-and-replace everything for a broadband capable (or GSM-capable) alarm system. This whole premise destroys the value proposition for switching to VoIP in the first place.

We sell “ABN” (the Alarm Broadband Network) as an optional service for broadband monitoring of existing alarms. We sell the customer a dedicated ATA (currently, a Linksys PAP2TNA with special firmware), which customers can plug into their LAN and which they then plug their alarm systems into. The ATA is configured to talk to our servers, and is dedicated to alarm traffic (no voice calls). With this architecture, we restore reliability back to 100%. We charge a 1-time fee of $79 for the ATA and we warranty it for the life of the customer’s subscription with us. We don’t charge any more per-month for this service. And the value proposition for switching to VoIP is again restored. Plus, we throw in features like line security (described earlier).

3) Taking advantage of “always on while away” broadband.

If you’re at work, or on the road, and you’re Broadband-capable (whether on a laptop, desktop, or mobile), then we give you lots of ways to keep tabs on your alarm system, including checking whether it’s armed or not, checking recent activity, and in some cases, allow you to arm it and disarm it remotely. Some of these features are available already using rudimentary IVR’s built into the alarm systems. But no one wraps it into a nice web interface like us.

Loosely speaking, Broadband Alarm Monitoring ties in with “Web 2.0” alarm monitoring. What the hell does that mean? It means we’re aggressive in pursuing standards like RSS, REST-based web services, and other means of allowing customers to stitch together the fabric of their alarm service into other applications, portals, etc. For example, we have over 1,000 customers using My Yahoo (which in turn uses RSS) to track their alarm history, never needing to log in to the NextAlarm portal at all (at least not for daily use).

AS: Is this just for VoIP customers, or everyone?

BE: ABN is our optional Broadband product, which among other things, solves the “VoIP” problem (although it has benefits on its own, even if you’re just a broadband user and don’t have VoIP). Roughly half of our customers are on ABN, the other half using POTS. We came from the traditional alarm industry and grew into the Internet, so our bread and butter historically has been POAS (plain-old-alarm-systems). Our ABN customer base is growing faster than POTS, and you’ll see us continue to roll out ABN-only features in the future (as well as features available to everyone).

AS: What is VoIP Alarm (I found the press release a little confusing, I have to admit).

BE: There are many, many “traditional” alarm dealers and installers who also have the “VoIP problem” with their customers’ alarm systems, and are turning to us to help them solve it (because they know we have). VoIP Alarm is an VAR/integrator program which works as follows:

a) VAR is authorized to resell ABN
b) VAR provisions an account on our network for the (shared) customer
c) We receive alarm signals from the customer, reliably, over broadband.
d) We then re-transmit the alarm signal to the dealer’s own central monitoring station (of their choosing), by either secure VPN (if they buy a server from us), or we’ll literally pick up a POTS line and dial the destination central station, and re-transmit the original alarm signal from the customer. This introduces a delay of a few seconds, but restores reliability back to 100% (after failing due to VoIP), which is the whole point.

AS: V-Notify sounds very cool, but I think I would be concerned about a fully automated call center.  Should I be?

BE: We continue to offer regular human-operator-dispatch services for emergency situations (police, fire, medical). What the IVR does (at least, the outbound piece), is let you supplement this with an automated call to your phone (i.e. your cell phone). This is specifically interesting for non-emergency events, such as regular openings/closings (maybe you want to know when your employees come and go), or for things like sensors (wine cellar temperature sensors, for example).

In addition, some people really just want to be contacted first, in all cases, before emergency vehicles are sent, and to never dispatch the police etc unless they choose to.

To make this process easier, we actually allow customers to enter the phone number of their police, fire, and medical services, and then, when they receive the automated IVR call from us, they hear the event (i.e. “Front door window opened”), and then, “Press 1 to be connected to your police department”. No fumbling for the phone number, just hit 1 and you’re through to the police.

We offer “human-less” monitoring services for $5 per month, in which case you get all the website features, and the automated IVR (but not the human dispatchers). Some people really like the price break and we’re glad to fill that niche.

Lastly, regulation and jurisdictions are a really complicated thing in the US. Some cities require each alarm customer to have a permit on file (for, for example, $100/yr) with the police department, in order for police to be automatically dispatched by your monitoring company. The automated IVR eliminates that cost, since the customer is calling the police themselves, rather than our dispatch center.

AS: Anything else I should be aware of?

BE: There is a whole “presence management” area that I would like to get into.

We are tracking (and encouraging) the evolution of the home alarm system (or small business alarm system) platform from exclusively “emergency detection” (and this is where alarm systems have historically come from), to  “presence management”.

Alarm systems can often report whenever they are armed or disarmed.  They can sometimes even report when every door or window opens or closes.  However, these features are usually turned off by default, because (a) no central station wants to pay the phone charges for all these phone calls, and (b) no monitoring service typically offers end-users a way to keep tabs on all this stuff.

With broadband monitoring, we want our customers to turn on ALL these reporting features. And we give you a huge variety of means of tracking it all:

– Website – updated in real-time
– RSS
– SMS
– Emails
– Soon, IM’s (AIM coming first)
– IVR (inbound, as well as automated outbound)
– We’ll even tell you when things DON’T happen when you expect them (see below for why this is useful)

The scenarios that these features open up include:

  1. Small business owner? Make sure your employees disarm the disarm before 8AM, and arm it a few minutes after 5PM. Otherwise, they’re either late, or negligent. Find out in real-time if this is happening. We have an owner of a chain of tanning salons in a major metro area who keeps tables on all his locations this way (look for a customer feature of him soon).
  2. Working parents? Make sure your kid disarms the system at 3PM, when they come home from school. Even more importantly — consider it URGENT if she doesn’t disarm the system by 3:15 PM — something went wrong. If no alarm activity happens at all by 3:15 PM then contact me ASAP.
  3. Elderly parents? Keep tabs on whether they’re active. You want to know if the front door hasn’t opened in two days.

These are all non-emergency events — presence management. We help supplement alarm system monitoring to provide these features. And we use standard equipment, with no expensive upgrades at a lower price than the competition.

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • PaulSweeney January 9, 2007, 2:28 am

    Just fantastic. This is a true "home run". Great great service, real problem identified, future proofing in progress. Thanks for bring this to our attention.

  • Jason Patterson January 10, 2007, 11:52 am

    I used to use NextAlarm but found their system to be pretty spotty and their service to be very slow to return emails (try finding a phone number for them, I dare you). In all honesty I think the problems with their system were more about it being based on my broadband, which can be up/down a few times in a day. But, even so…I did lots of research the second time around and found a better solution from uControl (www.ucontrol.com). They use 3 ways to communicate to the monitoring center, broadband (wired or WiFi!), cellular (built-right into the box), and your phone line, regardless of whether it’s traditional phone or VoIP. Their system automatically figures out which path to communicate over if your broadband is out or whatever. They also have a ton more features on the management portal and allow you to arm/disarm, check status from the web or your mobile phone and get notifications over email, SMS, etc. It does cost a bit more than NetAlarm, but I feel much more secure (read: my feels much more secure) with uControl. Anyhow, I saw this write-up and just thought I’d share my experiences with this product and let you know about a solution that might fit better for some people. Keep up the good work!

  • Bryan Field-Elliot January 11, 2007, 9:36 pm

    Jason,

    I'm sorry to hear about the troubles you apparently had with NextAlarm. I'd love to be able to talk with you about your experiences so that we might improve things (if we haven't already since your incident), and perhaps even win your business back. But, it turns out, we have no record whatsoever of any prior customer named Jason Patterson. Oh well.

    If, in fact, you really are an actual former customer of NextAlarm, I would be glad to hear more details — please email me at bryan@nextalarm.com.

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