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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Home security company tries to scare people off DSL

Have you ever seen a company react with such disgust to a technology that they missed the boat completely? I saw it happen with a home security outfit that eventually was acquired by another place which did "get it".

Telco demarc box

Quite some time back, I lived in a house which had both a security system and a DSL connection. The security system had been installed first, so it basically "ruled the line". It had been installed (like so many I've seen) with a fresh pair of runs out to the demarc - that is, the little plastic box outside where the telco's wiring stops and your house's wiring starts.

I found these guys would usually pull a line with at least two pairs inside. One of them would go straight on the terminals in the demarc and would take the phone line directly to one side of a special jack they installed right below the security system's box. The box plugged in to this jack with a special connector which was bigger than the usual RJ-11/14 you might use for an ordinary phone. Then, the other side of that jack ran back through another pair to the demarc where it was jumpered over to the original house wiring.

By doing this, the security system would be the first thing on the line, and it could seize it if it really needed to dial out. Even if someone was already on the phone, it could just cut the line to the house, wait for it to clear, and then grab it for itself. This is generally considered to be a good thing.

The special jack it used allowed you to disconnect the system from your line without screwing up the rest of your house. There's a little bit of magic in there which connects the incoming side of the jack (the first pair) to the outgoing side (the second) when the cord is not plugged in.

Anyway, with all of this in mind, now imagine the situation when you get DSL. Back in those days, they tended to ship the "self install kit" as a box with the modem/bridge and a bag full of in-line filters. These filters were intended to be installed between every phone and the wall. Trouble is, they would not work in the special security system jack.

Also, the security system itself was sufficient to kill the DSL just by being plugged in. Whatever it did messed up the higher frequencies needed for things to work. Clearly, it needed to be behind a filter, but how?

DSL filter

The solution wound up being to install a whole-house filter in the demarc itself. This involved snapping a small box into the demarc. In there, it would connect directly to the telco-provided terminals which were the "bare line". Then it provided its own set of terminals which were behind the filter. This filter worked both ways: DSL noise would not make it to the voice side, and noise on the voice side would not make it to the DSL side.

Hooking the security system up to the terminals on the new filter fixed the security system problem, but it introduced a new catch. Remember that I said the entire rest of the house was wired "behind" it. This meant all of the house jacks were automatically filtered and didn't need those ugly little in-line filters.

Unfortunately, it also included the jack in the bedroom where the DSL bridge had been installed. Since it was filtered, it was now effectively dead as far as DSL activity was concerned. The filter worked too well.

The only way around this was to climb up into the attic and pull a new line straight from the demarc and drop it into the bedroom. It was connected directly to the "raw" side of the line (in parallel with the filter) outside, and went directly into the DSL bridge inside the house. This actually worked out nicely since this new run was nice clean category 5 cable with no crimps, bends, snags, splices or openings. I think our effective speed actually went up a little.

So now for the part where the company doesn't get it. They used to send out these fliers with their bills. They had these horrible nasty warnings about DSL service and what it could do to your system's ability to dial in. I think they even tried to use the general FUD technique to scare people onto cable modems.

They should have embraced it. Think about it. Everyone who's bothered to get DSL now has always-on IP connectivity to their house. Sure, in 2013 you might say "so?", but around 15 years ago, this was a Big Deal. People who had full-time IP in their house day and night were on the leading edge and were probably willing to buy shinier and more costly things than most of their customers.

Instead of saying that DSL was the devil, they should have come up with new training for their installers and help for customers who wound up in my situation. Then, having worked out the reliability issue, they could move on to expanding their feature set.

A dialup security system is offline until it needs to be online. This means you don't hear from it too often. If something screws up, the company only finds out the next time it misses a scheduled check-in, or if it is triggered somehow. Now, if they had plugged into their customer's shiny new IP connectivity, they could have had a link to their systems continuously.

I'm not saying this would have replaced the dialup link. That would be foolish, particularly given how wobbly IP can be vs. POTS. But, for normal operations, how cool would it be to have your whole house online and being actively checked from afar instead of hoping it can call for help when something bad happens?

They could have done so much with this. Services previously only offered to business customers who had dedicated alarm circuits could now start showing up in homes. Instead, they freaked out and tried to kill DSL, and of course that didn't work.

Where are they now? Gone and absorbed into some other company.