Intercoms don’t get much attention, but they are standard fare in the residential and business markets. While large estates no longer use intercoms, smaller and mid-size complexes are still big users of the systems as are individual homes.
Today’s intercoms are very different from what we were used to just a few years ago. It’s no longer simply a button you push and a wire initiates a ‘voice call’ to the place you want to visit. Not that voice intercoms are old hat, many residences, estates and office blocks still use them, but video and IP technology has changed the game significantly, as has the ability to integrate what used to be just a simple intercom with other security technologies.
And we would be remiss if we ignored the many video intercoms available, some still providing a fuzzy picture of the person at the gate, but most offering clear pictures and the elite ranges even offering facial recognition. And while wired intercoms are still widely used, manufacturers today are able to capitalise on the benefits of wireless communications over Wi-Fi, just as the broad availability of cellular connectivity has done the same – albeit at a higher cost.
“We are definitely observing a shift towards the incorporation of wireless intercom systems at estates and individual residences,” says Lauren Sher, regional manager at TOA Electronics Southern Africa. “The new generation of smart intercom systems offer a variety of different connectivity options, including LTE, SIP/server or cloud-based connectivity and the assortment and scope of options they offer truly leaves the user spoilt for choice – and the possibilities are endless.”
She elaborates that some of these options include features such as access control via facial recognition, Bluetooth, NFC, PIN, QR code, biometric or card entry options. Then there are also solutions with temperature detection and the integration of third-party apps as well as Wi-Fi capabilities, PoE (Power over Ethernet), built-in offline voice assistance and more.
TOA has seen the demand for stand-alone systems as well as those that are integrated with security/home-automation systems rising in both South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, many customers are looking to move away from GSM (cellular) style intercoms. “They say it becomes too expensive,” Sher says. “However, they also like the smartphone interface where you can open a gate remotely and can see who is trying to gain access.”
Integrators are also increasingly looking at wireless intercom solutions as they are more cost-effective and faster to install and they allow remote access to open the gate, she adds. The option to integrate with other security systems is also useful in many cases, but this is still a growing market. “In short, flexibility and the ability to add on to your intercom is important,” Sher states.
Marcel Bruyns, sales manager for Africa at Axis Communications, says that while the products Axis sells can be linked wirelessly, the majority of systems deployed are wired, using PoE to power the intercom. “A wired solution is less susceptible to interruption and therefore recommended (our units do not have cellular connectivity). We can operate as a standalone system using SIP integration into a standard telephony system, but have the ability to integrate into most VMS systems either by direct device integration or via ONVIF.”
Don’t count cellular out
Due to its broad reach and versatility, Riccardo Battaini from Black Point Tech (BPT) says his company has seen an increase in demand for GSM-based intercom systems in 2020 and 2021. “We have done some research and the main reason is linked to the fears generated by the pandemic. Many customers try to avoid having installer teams in their houses installing cables and more, which can create health problems. A GSM intercom system can be installed with just a few metres of cable and the setup can be done by only one person without entering the premises.”
The second reason is that it requires less work in terms of cables to be laid outside and inside the house, meaning less inconvenience for the customer. Of course, it’s important to remember when using a GSM intercom that each call has a cost and you need to ensure you have the data or airtime topped up.
Audio still a top seller
Bruyns notes that Axis focuses purely on video intercoms, “as we see this as the way forward. Video confirmation of a visitor from a security perspective is much safer and being able to visually verify who the visitor is as well as being able to record the footage is far superior to basic audio.”
While video intercoms definitely win when it comes to the coolness factor, do they win in a cost-conscious society? Moreover, do they win in estates where integration into surveillance systems is more likely to benefit the security operation than a video intercom? The answer is ‘not really, but maybe someday’. However, the integration capabilities of video systems are growing as solution sales become the norm instead of stand-alone once-off purchases.
Video intercom is becoming more popular, but the South African market is still far behind the consumption of video intercoms in Europe, says Battaini. “Our sales are still split at around 50% video and 50% audio, but in terms of units sold, audio is 90% of the total or more.”
He adds that the requirements for integration with CCTV is also growing, but access control and alarm integration are actually more in demand. BPT’s range of products can be integrated with various surveillance cameras, both analogue and IP.
Sher agrees that the balance is tipping towards video-based intercoms, but the chosen solution greatly depends on the user’s budget. “In our experience, when a user only requires audio, it is normally due to budget constraints”, adding that integration with surveillance systems is quite rare as people prefer to use a smartphone interface for access control functions.
As far as integration is concerned, Akuvox (distributed by TOA) has a long list of integration or technology partners including, among others: Milestone, Control4, RTI, Savant, Crestron, FIBARO, iRidium Mobile, LifeSmart, ELAN, Alexa, Vanderbilt, Genetec, ZKTeco, Yeastar, Epygi Technologies, Patton and Network Optix. ONVIF compliance is also a feature.
Bruyns adds that Axis has a list of integrated VMS partners and is also ONVIF-compliant. “In addition, we are an open platform manufacturer and therefore an SDK (software development kit) is available for anyone wanting to integrate with Axis video intercoms.”
The products available
Our final question about intercoms is what products the three companies featured in the article have available, what their integration capabilities are.
Axis currently has four models in its range, all of which are video enabled and have SIP integration. The A8207-VE also includes a RFID reader and support for HID iClass cards. Bruyns says these are aimed at many markets and have been used for residential estates, business premises, educational institutes and healthcare facilities, to name a few.
They can all be used as stand-alone units and are supported by the free Axis Camera Companion management software. “We have a few accessories that can be used with the units, for example, a recess mount is available. The units are able to read barcodes for visitor access control via a QR code reader, with many third-party software packages supported. Facial recognition software for access control via a third party has been implemented and integration into Axis Secure Entry software is available as well.”
TOA Electronics Southern Africa
As noted above, TOA Electronics Southern Africa distributes Akuvox’s range of Smart Intercom Systems. The range includes both audio and video options and focuses on providing solutions for residential, commercial, assisted care/healthcare and public space applications. The range encompasses AI, cloud, Android, SIP, security and other advanced technologies, which enables the user to take advantage of the ‘Smart Living’ concept in everyday life.
Sher adds that the Akuvox range can be used as a stand-alone system and it can be integrated with a wide range of home security and automation systems. “The range has evolved to include temperature and mask detection functionality on some units to cater for Covid-19 requirements,” she adds. Furthermore, additional features like touchless entry is also available.
“Akuvox’s range also includes a pendant that is connected to the user’s intercom system to call for assistance in the event they are unable to reach the intercom. There is demand for this specifically from old age homes, frail care and assisted living facilities.”
Black Point Tech
Battaini says Came keeps developing the IP360 intercom system which is best suited for medium to large projects. “We call it ‘limitless’ as it is really powerful and allows for multi-building and multi-site installations, controlled by one or more porter switchboards installed on PCs. Came BPT in the UK recently finalised a project for a completely new location in Wembley (London) with 3000 apartments all with video monitors installed.
“We also have what I consider one of the best monitors in the market called XTS. It is a 7-inch colour, touch screen with a very high-definition display. XTS can generate a Wi-Fi network and manage several smart devices.”
The products from BPT integrate with other Came products like gate automation and barriers. The company also participates in projects where access control with turnstiles and bollards are required and has a range of on-street and off-street parking system (which include intercoms and access control solutions among other sub-systems).
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