Today’s alarm systems are more connected to digital systems than ever before. From choosing the right security monitoring service to setting up alerts so that owners receive immediate notifications, being online in some way is usually a requirement.
That creates an important choice for owners and installers to discuss: Connecting a security system by cell/GMS data (using local cell phone towers to enable calls and online activity), or via Wi-Fi, which uses the local network created by a router. Alarm systems are available with either connection option – so which is better?
Each has their pros and cons, and one type of connection may be a better choice in certain circumstances than others. Let’s take a look at those pros and cons, and what installers should keep in mind when working on the best connection for a client.
Data Connections for Security Systems
- Highly reliable: As long as there is a cell tower in range, these systems will be able to go online and offer alerts or connections to monitoring services. Since cell grids are generally ubiquitous, these systems don’t have to worry about managing connections or having a specific device in place to offer internet. Cell towers are also well-maintained and quickly fixed if something goes wrong, so it’s less likely that connections will be dropped. Unlike a local Wi-Fi network, bandwidth isn’t an issue, either: A cell connection won’t get overloaded by too many devices on one channel and isn’t affected by other devices in the building being online.
- Extra call capabilities: While it’s not a feature on every alarm system, a cell connection generally makes it easier to make calls through the system. Wi-Fi-only systems are less likely to directly facilitate calls the owner may want to make to fire or police departments. They are also less likely to work with the current text message platform on a phone (in which case a third-party app is usually required).
- Easy installation: Cell connections are just as wireless as Wi-Fi connections, and that’s great news for installation. Security devices that need a cell connection can be placed nearly anywhere, and dead zones are a lot less likely with a cell connection than with Wi-Fi. That helps save on installation costs vs. a wired setup, too.
- Usually requires a cell plan: Alarm systems don’t connect to cell towers for free. That’s an additional subscription that needs to be paid for. Sometimes this is rolled into professional monitoring services, where it can result in a higher monthly fee. Sometimes it can use an existing cell plan, in which case the provider will have to offer the service and it will eat into monthly data limits. Either way, there are extra costs to consider.
- Cell networks are phased out: Cell phone networks don’t last forever. With all the talk of 5G these days, don’t forget that 3G was once the primary network…but not anymore. In 2022, 3G networks are being entirely shut down, and security devices that relied on 3G connections will no longer work, which means they must be replaced. That’s not very exciting for owners, especially when it’s clear the same will eventually happen with 4G, and so on. Wi-Fi doesn’t really experience the same phase-outs.
- Vulnerable to power outages: When the power goes down, nearby cell towers can’t operate, and you can’t just move an alarm system over to another part of the grid like you can with a phone. Local hard storage can help a little here, but systems won’t be able to call for help in a blackout.
Wi-Fi Connections for Security Systems
- More affordable: Wi-Fi connections don’t require anything other than the current internet package used on the premises. That makes them the more affordable option most of the time.
- Works well with smart devices: Wi-Fi connections also mean that security systems can connect to smart devices. That allows for new synergies, like using the same platform to control multiple device, or using additional screens to “look out” of security cameras, and so on. Cell plans can’t enable that.
- Isn’t phased out like cell networks: Wi-Fi primarily uses channels on the 2.5Ghz and 5Ghz bands, and that’s not something that’s going to change for the foreseeable future. New upgrades like Wi-Fi 6 are incremental improvements that don’t make older devices obsolete. Upgrading can still offer benefits over time, but it’s not a necessity.
- Placement issues: Alarms need stable Wi-Fi connections, and that can be a challenge when devices are placed on exterior walls. This may limit placement.
- Network reliability: Wi-Fi networks are subject to delays and dropped connections based on available bandwidth and other factors that cellular connections just don’t have to worry about.
- Also vulnerable to power outages: When the power goes out, the Wi-Fi goes out. That means local storage is also important here.
With both data and Wi-Fi offering advantages, it’s always possible to find a system that can support them both, although this may be more expensive. Most importantly, alarm installers should work with their clients to future-proof any new alarm systems so that they will be operable for many years to come. If a system involves potential obsolescence, owners should understand the risks involved and know that upgrades may be required as time passes.