Those of us who volunteer for industry leadership at the national level through trade associations face a long laundry list of challenges. Simply trying to define today's contractor or integrator requires a #2 pencil and a large eraser. As I talk to integrators, attend industry events and participate in NSCA board meetings, it's becoming increasingly difficult to predict the future. However, I have observed that those companies that continue to experience steady growth and who seem to be happiest with business conditions are those who have found ways to diversify into areas of related technology.
If you are primarily an audio/video integrator and you live in a growth area of the country, you may not face the same business growth challenges as some of your peers. If you see that your business model and product mix is able to sustain growth for the long haul, you would be well advised to stick to your knitting. If you think your business plan needs some diversity to sustain growth or replace existing and declining business, then you need to look to related low-voltage industries.
In my opinion, security presents the closest link. Having spent my first 16 years in audio contracting, expanding to telephone, school and health care communications and security, I am convinced that audio/video integrators possess the technology chops to tackle security integration more successfully than the inverse. However, there are some things to know about security.
Just like audio/video, security has a number of vertical markets and application-specific specialties. Home and commercial burglar alarm are usually what come to mind when one thinks about security. Many AV integrators have dabbled in premise security systems for schools, churches and business. Some have even built a small recurring revenue stream from monitored accounts. While the burglar alarm segment of the business is growing rapidly, it's the access control and camera surveillance segment that may represent the strongest growth segment of security. And because of the new network technologies employed by both segments, they are the best fit for the abilities of today's integrator.
It's The Network
If you haven't already committed your integration company to becoming a strong network-savvy one, you are about to be left in the dust. While not always the case, AV networks are still primarily discrete networks. Not so with integrated security applications. While camera surveillance systems deserve their own discrete networks simply due to the bandwidth utilized, an increasing percentage of industrial customers are demanding that they reside on the existing network. Access-control systems of any size are great candidates to reside on the network. They take very little bandwidth, and while most require dedicated servers and clients, they can coexist nicely on a business network.
The bandwidth challenge needs to be understood, but more important to hanging your gear on the network is a strong understanding of network security and QOS (quality of service). Security designers and technicians need to have the chops to talk with network administrators who will protect their domain at all costs and who often are not as well trained or smart as they would like you to think they are. They just talk in a foreign language that is pretty hard to argue in.
Complete IP camera solutions are becoming reality. Cameras that plug directly into an Ethernet port to transmit video and receive PTZ control signals are achieving very high-quality standards. Network DVR servers directly record the IP cameras and using internally imbedded browsers, make access from any computer on the network easy and high quality without ever becoming an analog signal. Direct fiber networks between buildings and very large dedicated or even internet pipes between offices are enabling integration strategies only dreamed about in the past.
Sophisticated intelligent software solutions are here that allow cameras to follow activity including zooming for close-ups without the aid of an operator. Facial-recognition software is expensive but getting better all the time. With new camera solutions and a growing public acceptance of surveillance, this market is hot and getting hotter. Today, the average U.S. citizen is captured by a surveillance camera 10 times each day. For those of us in urban areas, the number is a lot higher.
Access-control systems using proximity card readers are becoming commonplace in medium and large business for limiting access, tracking visitors and creating sophisticated access schedules. Most access-control systems don't control every door, but they are increasingly present in sensitive areas, and primarily used for perimeter access control. Multiple buildings are now tied together over the business local and wide area network. Updated schedules and access management (taking individuals in and out of the system) is easily and instantly populated among many buildings and even remote office locations.
Biometric access solutions are finding their way into an increasing number of applications. Single fingerprint readers are most common with integrated proximity card readers that pull up the appropriate print record when presented, speeding up the comparison time. More sophisticated biometric readers are becoming common for high-security areas. As prices drop and processor speeds increase, we will see the more sophisticated applications in wider use.
Integrated access control and surveillance camera systems are no longer the exception, but are becoming the rule. Software, instead of relays, is making the value-added integration of these two technologies easier.