Top 5 City Surveillance Concerns

Author: John Honovich, Published on Aug 05, 2012

City surveillance projects are hard, one of the hardest in all of surveillance. They need lots of outdoor cameras, generally distributed over large urban areas, connected by complex networking systems that hopefully will reduce crime. Because of the challenges involved, city surveillance outages, failures and public problems are commonplace.

Here are 5 top concerns we have experienced:

  • Connectivity: 80% of a city system's cost (and headaches) routinely come from the networks that connect cameras to recorders.
  • Integrating Other Systems: Connecting other surveillance and security systems can add huge costs and headaches
  • Funding Problems: City surveillance funding is too often feast or famine
  • Maintenance: Failing cameras and components routinely plague city surveillance systems.
  • Lock-In: City surveillance users can unknowingly and painfully become locked in to vendors or service providers, adding significant cost and problems.

Inside, we dig into each one, offering solutions to these issues.

Recognize Long System Lifespans

City surveillance users should keep in mind that their systems will regularly need to last 10 years or more. Regardless of how cutting edge one wants or thinks their system is, it will almost always have to last many years. Even the most science fiction type system install will grow to become antiquated and yet will still need to be used.

Because of this, funding maintenance programs will be critical, as we examine below. Also, be careful about taking risks on unproven technology because if you make a mistake your city will be stuck with it for many years.

Be Cautious About Vendor Overselling

Vendors love city surveillance projects because they are big deals using other people's money with naive customers. If you are a city surveillance buyer, be very careful about this. Too often, buyers, flush with grant money will throw it at the flashiest vendor presentation who promises them the world. As we examine in the lock-in section, this can result in the city being burnt with systems that do not work as promised or systems that cost a fortune to upgrade and maintain.

Lumpy Funding Problems

City surveillance buyers often experience feast or famine conditions. One year, they may get a grant for hundreds of thousands of dollars and then might struggle to get pennies for years to follow. This fosters strange dynamics and peculiar problems, most commonly splurge buying on technology or sites that are not really needed because the buyer fears that they will not see such money ever again ('use it or lose it' budgeting).

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The best long term decision cities can make here is to pre-pay for long term maintenance costs, as we examine later.

Connectivity

Cameras will be dispersed throughout a city or at least throughout key downtown and urban areas. The video feeds from those cameras will have to be sent to a central location for recording. Sending video from cameras to recorders is a part of almost all systems but is especially challenging for city deployments.

Problem: Connectivity across large metropolitan areas can be very hard and expensive. While fiber is the most reliable method, it is often far too expensive to justify due to regular requirements for trenching and laying new cable. Because of this, wireless systems are typically used in city surveillance. Those are generally private, custom built networks dedicated to city / security use and are low powered plus cannot transmit through building or other obstructions. As such, these networks can become quite complex and subject to outages. Additionally, even though wireless is usually cheaper than fiber, it can still easily run $10,000+ per camera connected just for the wireless setup, far more than the camera itself.

Solutions: While mesh wireless may be the most common means used in larger cities and all options have drawbacks, here are a few non traditional approaches that should be considered:

  • Edge storage / recording: Instead of continuously streaming video to a central recorder, the video can be recorded inside the camera itself. While a network is still needed for live viewing and investigations, this can substantially reduce the demands on a wireless network (lower bandwidth requirements, more immune to outages, etc.). Downside - 3rd party VMS support is still limited (see Genetec Trickling and Exacq Edge) and using SD cards often limits storage to 32GB (which can be insufficient for longer storage requirements).
  • Point to Point wireless: Instead of wireless mesh systems that can cost $5,000+ per link, consider using simpler point-to-point or point-to-multipoint links from Ubiquiti, who was voted integrator's favorite wireless surveillance offering and costs 90% less than wireless mesh systems. Downside - You cannot build complex, self-healing, large scale wireless networks and will have to find wireline connection points (e.g., cable modem, T1, etc.) every few blocks to transmit video back to a central command.
  • Cellular networks: Instead of building one's own wireless network, consider using the local cellular / mobile provider. As 4G / LTE networks become more common, bandwidth is becoming sufficient for IP video surveillance. Cities should make sure they negotiate directly with providers to ensure no caps or restrictions are placed (which should be feasible given the powers governments have to regulate / impact carriers). Instead of spending $10,000+ up front per camera for a mesh system and then face significant maintenance costs (and potential headaches), simply pay X per month per camera to the carrier. Downside - The biggest issue will be PTZ latency which is hard to determine but will likely be an issue if the cameras need to be controlled in real time.
  • VSaaS: Instead of building a completely private system, use cloud based video systems to connect cameras back to the city's central command. Cameras can be installed at the outside walls of various businesses, city sites, etc., connected into their power / local networks and then be transmitted into the cloud. This will dramatically decrease costs for connectivity, down from thousands to tens of dollars. Downside - Will be considered too insecure for most cities and will not integrate into traditional VMS systems. For now, this is best for smaller, neighborhood systems but will clearly mature in the next few years.

Integrating Other Systems

Often, cities will want to integrate their city surveillance system with existing ones owned by the city or key private entities, such as malls, popular tourist attractions, prisons, hospitals, etc. The city can benefit from quicker response to problems and better coordination in dealing with threats across the region.

Problem: With no standards for integrating recorders or access control system, hundreds of manufacturers on the market and limited off the shelf support for integration, unifying a city's surveillance system can routinely cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars. The projects can often take months to deploy, require custom development and break if systems integrated in change in the future. The term for this is PSIM and it continues to have many problems.

Unfortunately, that is only the first of two major problems. Connecting to other organization's systems often means connecting to other secured networks. Getting in either requires making a hole in that secure network or setting up a secure tunnel / VPN. The latter is a security risk often rejected while the former takes significant negotiation and planning.

Solutions: No easy solution exists though cities can avoid problems and frustrations about this by recognizing it upfront.

Maintenance

Maintaining city surveillance systems is one of the most common and costly problems.

Problem: Because most city surveillance cameras are outdoors and because they frequently use wireless networks, the frequency of failures and service calls increases dramatically compared to traditional indoor wireline systems. This is made worse by the regular failure of cities to secure long term maintenance funding.

Solutions: Since there are two core problems, two distinct solutions exist:

  • Cities must make sure they have funding for maintenance. While they may dislike limiting the total number of cameras up front, it is far more prudent to fund 10 cameras with 5 years of maintenance than 20 cameras with no maintenance. Without maintenance funding, systems will far apart, defeating the original purpose and causing horrible bad press.
  • Try to minimize the use of custom built wireless networks. Consider cellular / 4G as the service provider will maintain as part of the service. Try to limit wireless complexity by frequently connecting wireless links to wireline connections with the local cable or telephone companies. Read our wireless surveillance maintenance guide for more recommendations on best practices to reduce problems.

Lock-In

Lock-in to specific vendors or products is routinely ignored but can create huge problems down the line.

Problem: Most surveillance products are not standards based and many are only available through a limited number of suppliers (sometimes only one or two in any given region). Often, once you have a product in place (e.g., wireless mesh routers, VMS or PSIM software), you will have to use that same product anytime you expand the existing system to maintain compatibility. In the same manner, many products are only available from a certain reseller or integrator. Often, the products that vendors are most excited about selling you are the ones they know you cannot buy from anywhere else.

Knowing this, vendors often will bid very low, at or under cost, just to lock in the account (i.e., your city) for years to come. They correctly anticipate that the buyer will not understand this. Then in years 2 - 10, they can charge a lot more, knowing that their competitors are blocked out.

Solutions: Check carefully how easy or hard it is to replace or mix in different products in a given category. For instance, cameras this is generally feasible, however, with recorders/VMSes, PSIMs and wireless network, it can be very tough. Likewise, before a product is purchased, check with the vendor on what other re-sellers or integrators can sell or service the product. Be especially concerned about companies who service their own products as they can easily make it painful to use anyone else.

And More

These are certainly not the only challenges in city surveillance - just five of the ones that are the most painful and often overlooked. We are happy to discuss more and about other concerns in the comments below.

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