There are plenty of trends in the alarm monitoring and home automation markets but pulling them into a clear shape of the future isn’t the easiest thing to do. It’s not just technology that’s up in the air, the business model is changing, too. The one thing that is apparent is that communications paths are the key.

What will the future of the monitoring industry be? It’s tempting to imagine a complete takeover by internet giants but given the professional market and consumers are twitchy about those giants’ hunger for personal data , the market has a real opportunity to reinvent itself as the trustworthy choice. Teamed up with increasingly flexible solutions such a reinvention offers suppliers and users the best of both worlds.

Something interesting that came out over the summer hols was the news Google, Apple, Amazon and the Zigbee Alliance have formed a new working group that plans to develop and promote the adoption of a new open standard for smart home devices. Supporters and contributors of Connected Home over IP include IKEA, Legrand, Resideo, Samsung SmartThings, Schneider Electric, Signify (Philips Lighting) and Silicon Labs – it’s a solid line-up with plenty of technical and retail clout.

Connected Home over IP project will simplify development for manufacturers and increase compatibility for consumers seeking to easier integration of smart home solutions. The project aims to enable communication across smart home devices, mobile apps and cloud services, and to define a specific set of IP-based networking technologies for device certification.

The project will make it easier to build devices that are compatible with smart home and voice services such as Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Google Assistant and others. Development work and protocols from existing systems such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Weave and Zigbee Alliance’s Dotdot data models will be incorporated into the new standard. While most these systems depend on Wi-Fi or direct connection, ZigBee is the one with most potential when it comes to supporting constellations of lower power edge devices.

ZigBee is an open global wireless standard catering to low-cost, low-power machine-to-machine networks ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 2003. The frequency is IEEE 802.15.4 in familiar unlicensed bands such as 2.4 GHz, 900 MHz and 868 MHz and the protocol is designed offer simple to use, secure, reliable wireless network architectures.

Essentially, the specification is a packet-based radio protocol for battery-operated devices across a range of topologies with a battery life of many years. Why not just use WiFi? Because WiFi has a data rate of up to 100Mbps for home and commercial data networks and needs to be supported by mains power. ZigBee, while it complements WiFi, is all about preserving battery life, which in some cases can extend past the life cycle of the device. Because ZigBee nodes can go from sleep to active mode in 30ms or less, the latency can be low and devices can still be responsive, particularly compared to Bluetooth wake-up delays, which are typically around 3 seconds. The fact ZigBee nodes can be dozing most of the time means power consumption is very low.

Furthermore, the ZigBee protocol is designed to communicate data through hostile RF environments. Features adding to its robustness include support for multiple network topologies such as point-to-point, point-to-multipoint and mesh networks. There’s low duty cycle for long battery life, use of Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS), up to 65,000 nodes per network, 128-bit AES encryption for secure data connections, collision avoidance, retries and acknowledgements. Compared to the simple 433Mhz sensor comms of most wireless alarm sensors, there’s really no comparison, even if you don’t combine this tech with lithium ion rechargeable batteries.

The specification goes on to complete the standard by adding 4 main components including network layer, application layer, ZigBee device objects (ZDOs) and manufacturer-defined application objects which allow for customization and favour total integration. As well incorporating a pair of high-level network layers to the underlying structure, the key thing here is ZDOs. These are responsible for tasks including device roles, management of requests to join a network, device discovery and security.

On the network side, the ZigBee network layer natively supports both star and tree typical networks, as well as generic mesh networks. Every network must have a coordinator device for its creation, the control of network parameters and basic maintenance. Within star networks, the coordinator must be the central node. Both trees and meshes allow the use of ZigBee routers to extend communication at the network level.

A strength of ZigBee is the ability to support mesh networking. In a mesh network, nodes are interconnected with other nodes so that multiple pathways connect each node. Connections between nodes are dynamically updated and optimized through sophisticated, built-in mesh routing table. Mesh networks are decentralized in nature; each node is capable of self-discovery on the network. Also, as nodes leave the network, the mesh topology allows the nodes to reconfigure routing paths based on the new network structure. The characteristics of mesh topology and ad-hoc routing provide greater stability in changing conditions – including jamming – or failure at single nodes.

Whether ZigBee makes headway in the market or we continue a hybrid trend balanced between Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave and basic 433Mhz is yet to be seen. Given the weight of the players involved and the capability of ZigBee, you’d expect it to have a future impact. But the trust issues with big internet players remain and it’s hard to see them going away, no matter how clever (or scarily invasive, depending on your point of view), proffered technology becomes.

Another change coming in communications is mobile networks, with Telstra announcing its 3G shutdown and Optus certain to follow suit. Telstra recently revealed it would shut down its 3G network in June 2024 and repurpose its bandwidth to support 4G and 5G. Meanwhile, an Optus spokesperson said it had not determined an end date for its 3G network but given it closed 2G around 12 months after Telstra did, a closure of 2025 is a realistic expectation for security installers.

“Today, as part of our program to continually upgrade our network to the latest technology and expand our 4G and 5G coverage, we’re announcing the eventual switch-off of our 3G technology,” said Telstra group executive, Networks and IT, Nikos Katinakis. “This will not happen until June 2024 – more than 4 years away.”

“In May 2019 we launched 5G with the release of the first 5G devices in Australia. As an early adopter and pioneer of 5G, we are on the cusp of the latest mobile technology worldwide.

Regardless of what telcos tell us about the advent of 5G, I think alarm installers can safely put it to one side for the time being. But they’ll need to ramp up their transition plans to ensure customers are supported by 4G when 3G is switched off in 2024. Given many areas, including metropolitan areas in Australia, depend entirely on 3G, this process is likely to be more challenging than you’d think.