Small City Surveillance Leasing Investigated

By Carlton Purvis, Published on Aug 22, 2013

Is leasing cameras a good solution for municipalities with small budgets? A small city in Ohio is participating in a trial to find out. By paying month to month instead of buying its own system, Canton found a way to provide its city with a surveillance system while avoiding extra costs for maintenance and repairs. We interviewed city officials and the integrator, examining the system and the pros and cons of the contract.

Background

Canton, Ohio recently entered into a leasing agreement with a local security company Buckeye Protective Services for a video surveillance system. It costs the city $12,750 to lease the system for six months. That includes 30 cameras, 30 days of cloud storage, alert monitoring and maintenance.

Some years ago, Canton wanted to add city surveillance. The city and a neighborhood association raised enough money to put around 12 cameras at the cost of around $2,000 per camera. But after police had some issues pulling footage, they found out that many of the cameras were not recording at all. The ones that were recording had run out of DVR space. They city was at a loss. They did not have the resources or expertise to troubleshoot the system on their own and did not have the budget to hire an integrator to do it. They pulled the cameras down and started looking for other options.

“We talked to a few other companies that had IP cameras that you could use a wireless card in. We met with a company that provided cameras and DVR in a box that you could mount on a pole and record for 30 days, but those boxes were about $6,000 - $8,000 each, which was cost prohibitive to us because to get the kind of coverage we wanted it would come out to be thousands,” said Canton’s IT Director, Patrick Barton.

The city needed enough cameras to cover downtown -- around 30 -- but was limited to at $15,000 budget for the project.

Their IT director noted, “The reason I like [Buckeye’s] proposal is because we are not camera experts in the IT department, nor do we have camera experts working for the city. I’m also in the process of reducing our hardware footprint when it comes to servers. We’ve looked at some hosted server solutions and data centers so this was another opportunity to not have to go buy a camera and own it and then maintain it. If something happens to it we have the ability to replace it.”

Plan Details

Cost

Installation costs $175 per camera and $85 per month, per camera. Canton had its engineering department install the cameras (so they saved $5,250 on installation fees). Their leasing agreement is for five months, so the city is paying $12,750 for complete downtown coverage, staying well within its $15,000 budget.

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Cameras

The system is comprised of 30 fixed cameras [link no longer available] recording at 3 FPS at 640X480 resolution with H.264 compression, communicating via installed cellular modems. “This is something we had specifically OEM’d for us,” said the integrator. They say they usually buy the camera equipment and operate as a wholesale distributor, providing the equipment to alarm dealers, but decided to work directly with the end user in the case of Canton. A minimum lease is six months.

“If I decide that in each quadrant I want to upgrade from these wide angle cameras to PTZs, I can switch those out as my needs change. It gives us a lot of flexibility. Otherwise if I had 100 cameras already, then I’d have to buy separate PTZs and put those in,” said the city's IT director.

Monitoring

The cameras are not monitored live. Motion alerts are sent back to a command center at Buckeye Protective Services where they are verified by an operator. Operators respond by alerting the city or appropriate authorities.

Data Storage and Transmission

Buckeye Protective Services has its own cloud service and private cellular network that it uses to store and transmit video. Video is constantly recording, overwriting video that is older than 30 days. The city can login from a web interface to monitor cameras and retrieve video.

Video is transmitted using 3G (or 4G) depending on the location.

Powering the Cameras

The city mounted the cameras at intersections with existing traffic cameras where power and outlets were easily accessible. The cameras can connect to a standard power outlet and power is provided by the end user. 

Less Expensive than Buying and Maintaining a System

Barton says that even if the city re-ups the contract several times, he believes it will still pay less for this system than it would to purchase its own.

“I’m sure there is probably a break-even point, but we’ve got to factor in other things. We’re not just talking the cost of purchasing software and equipment costs. There are man hours to maintain the equipment. There is equipment that has to eventually be replaced,” he said. “What if that break-even point is three years. Then I’m stuck with equipment that is three years old. But with this company, I can decide I don’t like this solution anymore and we can get something else and I don’t have to dispose of the old equipment.”

Limits of the System

Cellular Give Flexibility, Limits Image Quality

Using cellular service to transmit video gives the city flexibility when it wants to change camera locations compared to the amount of work it would take to relocated cameras on a wireless network or connected to fiber.

However, there is only so much data you can efficiently push over a 3G (or 4G) network. Multi-megapixel cameras could be problematic, given increased bandwidth demands. Additionally, adding PTZs maybe prove a challenge with 3G because of latency.

Images May Not Be Good Enough for Identification

The frame rate and resolution are both low so it is questionable how much usable video would available to an investigation. Using 640x480 resolution at 3fps may be good for transmitting over a cellular network, but you may not get a lot of detail that would help verify an unknown person's identity. 

Could Buy Cameras For Similiar Amount

For the cost the city is leasing these cameras, it could probably buy the same cameras and then own them outright. Buckeye Protective Services says it makes back the cost of the cameras in about six months. If the city bought a set of cameras they could own them shortly.

Of course, higher quality cameras (and PTZs) and recording would cost more, but as it stands, the city is getting a lower quality solution and will eventually pay over and over the cost of buying these cameras.  

Future Plans

The cameras were most recently placed along the parade route for Pro Football Hall of Fame events [link no longer available]. The city was happy with the system’s performance for that event. In the coming weeks, the cameras will be relocated to their planned positions downtown. 

The city says that after six months if they are satisfied with its performance, they will likely sign a longer agreement with Buckeye Protective Services. The city does not have any PTZs as a part of this system, but this is an offering Buckeye is working to introduce. They will cost more per month than the fixed cameras. We will follow up with Canton in six months to get the city's thoughts on the system's overall performance and see if they plan to sign a longer lease. 

The Canton Parks Commission has also leased five cameras from Buckeye Protective Services.

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