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How to Select and buy RTUs and Central Masters in 2023

By Andrew Erickson

August 9, 2023


Alarm monitoring technology has been a bit of an "unsung hero" in the telecom world for decades now. Acting as the watchful eyes and ears, these technologies ensure that your network operations run smoothly 7x24x365.

They alert the necessary personnel on your team when something is amiss. With the rise of digitalization and a more interconnected world, the importance of efficient and advanced alarm monitoring systems has never been higher. Customers, including and especially people with an emergency situation, are increasingly intolerant of any service outage.

A glimpse into history easily shows that monitoring systems, primarily consisting of Remote Terminal Units (RTUs) and central master stations, are mission-critical. They ensure the operational efficiency of telecom networks.

Yet, as with all technologies, monitoring devices must adapt and evolve to meet the challenges and opportunities of modern times.

What are the key changes we're seeing in 2023 that require adjustment of your remote monitoring tactics? Let's dive in!

Quick Review of RTU Concepts

An RTU is a microprocessor-controlled device that interfaces objects in the physical world to a remote monitoring system of some kind. This can be a distributed control system or SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system or even just an RTU operating independently.

RTUs are designed to read and process data from external sensors, execute control commands from the master. They can sometimes make autonomous decisions based on the data they receive.

RTUs play a crucial role in gathering data such as temperature readings, HVAC system statuses, or the operational status of equipment. They can also control device outputs based on commands or predefined logic. For instance, an RTU can be programmed to turn off a device when certain temperature thresholds are breached.

In modern telecom, RTUs are indispensable. They are essential in monitoring various systems. This includes the HVAC, ensuring that the propane tank doesn't run out of fuel, and maintaining the operational efficiency of the tower light controller.

RTUs act as the first line of defense, picking up any potential threats and immediately relaying them for corrective action.

Quick Review of Central Master Stations

While RTUs are scattered across different locations, gathering data, your "central master station" acts as the central hub where all this data is collated and analyzed. Essentially, it's the "brain" of your alarm monitoring system.

Master stations regularly poll RTUs for updates or wait for unsolicited ("asynchronous" because they are not on a synchronized schedule) messages from the RTUs. Masters analyze this data, and if an anomaly is detected or a threshold exceeded, alarms are triggered.

"Alarm" responses could range from a simple email alert to more sophisticated actions, such as dispatching maintenance teams or re-routing network traffic.

New Challenges I'm Seeing in Alarm Monitoring Technology

Alarm monitoring systems have successfully overseen telecom operations for years in the basic RTU & master station architecture I described above. However, modern realities have compelled this technology to evolve rapidly to properly handle new challenges:

The Disappearance of POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service)

With advancements in technology, traditional POTS phone lines have largely gone away. These copper phone lines, once commonly used for dialer RTUs, are becoming increasingly scarce. Digitalization and the rise of mobile and broadband networks have resulted in a gradual phase-out of POTS.

This decline poses a challenge for legacy RTUs designed to communicate primarily via these phone lines. Without this communication method, they can't communicate.

In my work with DPS clients, we react to the elimination of POTS lines by deploying a new RTU with LAN (virtually all models have this) or within a wireless modem if no LAN is available.

The Rise of Wireless Communication

With the shrinking cost and increased availability of wireless communication, many organizations are turning to this method for their alarm monitoring needs. The benefits are numerous: better range, flexibility in installation, and scalability.

At DPS, we're seeing increased interested in things like LoraWAN communication for use in oil fields and other distributed operations. It's all part of the ongoing evolution toward the "Internet of Things" (IoT).

Many modern RTUs are now being designed or retrofitted to support wireless communication. This not only ensures consistent communication with the central master station but also allows for real-time updates, enhancing the monitoring system's efficiency.

Interestingly, we released several wireless-capable RTUs at DPS during the 2G network era. These worked fine, but our RTUs are very durable and easily outlasted the 2G networks they used to communicate. As a result, I now tend to use external wireless modems for my clients, as these can be replaced in the next 5-10 years when older networks are turned down.

Bigger and Stronger Security Requirements

In a digital world, data breaches and cyberattacks have become a growing concern. As alarm monitoring systems increasingly rely on Internet-based communication, they become vulnerable to these threats.

To counteract this, I've seen increased requirements for secure communication protocols. This has resulted in the adoption of standards like TLS 1.2 (Transport Layer Security) and SNMPv3 (Simple Network Management Protocol version 3), ensuring encrypted communication and safeguarding against unauthorized access.

I'm also now right in the middle of an IT-to-OT network cutover for a major DPS client. The goal with OT networks is to put equipment that really doesn't need internet access onto a more secure network with limited entry points. This makes security much easier to achieve, because there are fewer "nooks and crannies" for vulnerabilities to hide.

Embracing the Realities of 2023 to Enhance Your Alarm Monitoring

You can either let the changing world "happen to you", or you can adjust your approach to survive and thrive. Here are several tools you can harness to consistently improve your remote monitoring system:

  • Hybrid Communication Systems: With the decline of POTS and the rise of wireless, a hybrid system incorporating both wired and wireless communication can be the solution. This ensures uninterrupted communication, even if one method fails. This is particularly enabled by the rapidly decreasing cost of low-bandwidth machine-to-machine (M2M) communication.
  • Embracing IoT (Internet of Things): Modern RTUs can now be embedded with IoT capabilities, allowing them to not only gather data but also analyze it in real-time. This ensures faster response times and predictive maintenance, anticipating issues before they escalate. This is particularly important in light of shrinking staff counts and changing expertise at many organizations.
  • Cloud Integration and AI Analytics: By integrating cloud technology, alarm monitoring systems can store vast amounts of data, enabling long-term analysis and trend predictions. Increasingly, I'm hearing from DPS clients who expect monitoring systems to be cloud-based. For many, however, they're quite pleased that T/Mon remains an on-premises hardware-software appliance. That's a necessity for many of my corporate and government clients.
  • Harnessing the power of AI: AI-driven analytics can sift through the collected data to detect patterns, anomalies, and provide insights. This can drastically reduce false alarms and enhance the overall efficiency of the system. This technology is radically overhauling how we all can move from a flood of "data" to useful "information".
  • Prioritizing Cybersecurity: Ensuring that your RTUs, central master stations, and all associated software are regularly updated is mission-critical. Each software/firmware update often includes patches for known vulnerabilities. Often, breaches occur due to human error. Regular training sessions for employees on the latest cybersecurity threats and best practices can go a long way in safeguarding the system. "Social engineering" is as much a problem in 2023 as it ever was.

Future Prospects and Considerations in Alarm Monitoring

What will the future hold for remote monitoring devices like your RTUs and central masters? Here are three trends that you can expect to continue in the coming years:

  • The Evolution of 5G: As 5G networks expand globally, their high speed and low latency offer intriguing possibilities for alarm monitoring, including real-time video surveillance and instant data analytics. There's also the plain fact that 5G has shorter range and requires far more towers and cabinets than 4G/LTE ever did. This increases the need for remote monitoring devices simply to cover the increased site count.
  • Machine Learning and Predictive Analytics: While AI provides the tools for current data analysis, the integration of machine learning can enable systems to predict and adapt to future scenarios. This allows the system to learn from historical data and patterns and improve performance over time. Predictive analytics can be a game-changer in preempting issues, scheduling maintenance tasks, and ensuring optimal performance at all times.
  • Continued Emphasis on Cybersecurity: As technology evolves, so do cyber threats. Continuous investment in cybersecurity and adapting to new security protocols will be an ongoing task for you.

Call DPS to Plan Your Modernized Remote Monitoring System

At DPS, we specialize in remote monitoring devices. Even within that niche, we're specialists in the integration of legacy and modern systems.

For that reason, you should absolutely speak to a DPS engineer about your goals for improving your remote monitoring in 2023 and beyond.

Call DPS at 1-800-693-0351 or email sales@dpstele.com

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson is an Application Engineer at DPS Telecom, a manufacturer of semi-custom remote alarm monitoring systems based in Fresno, California. Andrew brings more than 17 years of experience building site monitoring solutions, developing intuitive user interfaces and documentation, and opt...