Going All Out
Knowing when to go wireless and when to simply go with less wires
- By Peter Boriskin
- Mar 01, 2018
When we use the term “wireless” to look at access
control technologies—or, truly, any security
system—the reality is that we often use it as a
catch-all term for the many technologies on the
market that work in some way to wirelessly communicate
with one another. While there are true wireless solutions, the
term “wireless” can also include many solutions and applications that
might be more accurately called “less wires” or, in some cases, a hybrid
of wireless technologies with traditional hardwired systems.
It’s critical to understand these differences, because when seeking
out a solution for a particular building, the appropriate buildout may
come down to the facility itself, network capabilities, or the level of
comfort an owner or IT department has with a technology. Understanding
the many types of offerings under the “wireless” umbrella
means more opportunities to solve the challenges a location is facing.
It is not uncommon to run into an administrator who initially says
no to wireless, only to find that some of the “less wired” solutions
actually work well in their environment. Nor is it rare to find locations
that hadn’t considered a streamlined access control solution as
they assumed the building would require new wiring to bring such a
solution to fruition.
A Quick Primer on Terms
Wireless. Wi-Fi solutions are typically as straightforward to install
as placing a lock on the door. Additional infrastructure is not required
to support that lock as it already contains all the necessary
components onboard to store a database, make a decision, react to
credentials and conduct the process of access control.
Less wire. Dedicated network—which use wireless technologies
other than common Wi-Fi infrastructure—essentially creates an adhoc
network in a particular location. The process here is that an access
control panel connects to a hub which communicates wirelessly
to the lock. This eliminates that greatest cost and difficulty of wired
access control, the wiring at the door, providing greater flexibility to
bring access control to more openings and more applications.
Hybrid. We’re now seeing a blurring of lines in the wireless space as these different types of technology work together. For example,
the perimeter of a building might have access control, and you want
total control of that for a lockdown. But the interior might not need
that same level of security or control. In this scenario, you could be
applying both wireless and less wired solutions to offer the appropriate
level of security.
A unique solution also exists in this space through data-on-card
methodology. In these situations, while most of the locks are wireless,
there are a few hotspots within the system that are hardwired to
communicate data to a server. This is done to support buildouts of
new systems in existing facilities where some wiring currently exists.
Each of these types of deployments has a place in today’s buildings—
be they urban hospital, rural school or a barn with no network infrastructure
at all. And while not every location is the same, there are a
few trends we see in the industry that are dependent on building use.
Following are a few of the uses I have seen over the past few years,
ranging from very common examples to much more unique and surprising
Resiliency. In the past year, we have seen the need for government
buildings, hospitals, and other critical facilities to be resilient in the
face of natural disasters. Because of this, truly wireless devices that
operate on their own, have a high value.
In a flooding situation, where water has partially submerged a
building—and potentially knocked out power—an access control device
that stores its own information, has its own battery and makes
its own decisions will continue to run and operate as long as it hasn’t
fallen below the water line. That means the building remains secured,
and can still offer access in the result of an emergency.
Education. Depending on the size and type of school or university,
there can be hundreds or thousands of doors and openings to secure.
When you’re operating on that scale, a wireless solution is often
the best way to enable access control at all of these openings.
A typical example of this is a university with residence halls containing
3,000 to 4,000 doors. There is simply no feasible way to do a
wired access control system. But, with an existing wireless network in
place, the cost of the install suddenly becomes affordable.
Less Wired and Hybrid Applications
Government. This is somewhat new, but it is a variation on a theme
we often see in government: the need for extremely secure wireless
access control and credentialing. To that end, the federal government
has begun implementing FIPS 201 Personal Identity Verification
(PIV) for all federal employees and contractors. That means everyone
working in a federal facility is issued a PIV ID Card, and those cards
are used to access Wi-Fi and Power over Ethernet locks on doors,
cabinets and other openings.
This new mandate for PIV devices does not come with funding
for facilities, making the use of wireless critical, as it saves on cost in
Further, it allows for PIV enabled devices further into a facility,
such as on server racks, file cabinets holding sensitive data, medicine
cabinets, and other non-traditional openings that need to be kept under
lock and key.
Heritage buildings. Old, artisanal wooden doors or marble walls
are common features in heritage buildings that no one wants to cut
nor drill into. Further, older buildings often have asbestos concerns
laying within the walls, a consideration that means no major construction
can take place during retrofits.
In these situations, where simple upgrades to a few doors can
properly secure a location, using an ad hoc network that provides
wireless connections to a central hub may make the most sense. Plus,
using locks that are low impact in installation further protects the
intrinsic value of the building.
Automated car garages. One of the more unique locations where
I’ve seen a less wired solution work is in an automated car garage. It
was a facility that stored vehicles on automated racks within a vertical
storage space, and the access control panel at the front of the
facility—which was wired into the server—communicated wirelessly
with the racks in the interior of the building.
It is a unique solution to be sure, but it is a great example of how
an ad hoc wireless system can fit with nearly any facility to improve
and digitize access control.
Hospitals. Moving back to a larger vertical, we see specific use in
healthcare facilities for ad hoc networks that create less wired solutions.
For example, while every door of an existing facility may be on
a hard-wired access control device, several internal openings could be
quickly upgraded with new technology.
Consider how emergency rooms currently put patient belongings
in a plastic bag that is kept with the incoming patient, and how that
might be improved by designing a cubby system that locks with a
bracelet provided to the patient.
Narcotics and other medicines are often stored in a central pharmacy
area in a hospital for security purposes. With the appropriate
access controls on a medicine cabinet within patient rooms, the facility
may be able to operationally change how they provide care.
Little changes like these can be done in a way where a proprietary
wireless network is created, then connects from a hub via one wire to
the server side.
Multifamily. If a building is a retrofit they likely don’t have a single
wireless provider through the building and they surely don’t have
wired access control in the building. Even in some new construction,
it may not be the appropriate solution to wire every door.
In these scenarios, we look to solutions that provide the wireless
data-on-card methodology. How this works is that nearly all of the
doors within a facility are not connected to any network. Rather, the
card holds the access information telling the reader what it is and
is not allowed to do. Then, at the point of entry to the facility—be
it garage, front door, or other access point—a wired access control
panel reads the data from the card and updates the audit trail and any
necessary changes to the credential.
In this scenario, the exterior access points are all wired, and likely
connected to a cloud, but all the data is being continuously stored
and updated through the card—not the access control point on every
lock in the building.
Partnerships and Future Use
The scenarios above are a primer—far from inclusive—but giving a
general idea on the innovation and inspiration behind access control
for door security solutions.
To fully tap into the technologies, products and solutions available
I always recommend developing long term partnerships. Building
owners and managers should find integrators and manufacturers who
are invested in their success. And integrators and manufacturers must
be working together to share the insights and developments they are
seeing from the needs of end users.
By establishing these connections, and taking
a consultative approach, there is nearly no location
that can’t be secured with some form of wireless
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Security Today.