Too Good to be True

6 hidden costs of “low-cost” cameras for the government market

There has been a noticeable increase in mass-produced, lowcost cameras available in the security industry. Low prices can be hard to resist, especially considering the tight budgets faced by government agencies at all levels. But an irresistible price tag on a security camera can come with hidden costs— some of which could impact the security of your government facility.

Low-cost cameras are an off-the-shelf, commodity-type product; their extremely aggressive prices are generally created by reducedquality camera components, minimized features, and less research and development than you would find in other cameras. These necessary concessions to create the attractive price point introduce several potential problem areas: reliability, durability, performance, security, support and reputation. Integrators and government customers should fully consider these “hidden costs” before deciding to purchase the cameras.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these potential problems:

Reliability

Many mass-market products experience high failure rates. While that is fine in some markets (one day your TV turns on; the next day it doesn’t), performance and reliability are paramount in the government security market. The camera—and the system—must be working when a terrorist attack, shooting or other incident occurs. An integrator’s reputation hinges on whether the camera (and entire system) is working when there is an event. That alone is a steep cost—not to mention the burden of quickly or repeatedly replacing a low-cost camera. Buying a model that can be trusted and will remain functional for years is actually worth a lot more than it might appear on the surface. If you replace a $100 camera three or four times, or if the camera isn’t working when it is needed most, then you should have bought the less cost effective but overall more reliable camera in the first place.

It takes planning and time to install a security camera, and it should only happen once. It costs money to roll a truck out to a client’s site, haul in equipment, climb a ladder and install a replacement camera in a project that should be long completed. For integrators, where time is money, and rolling a truck is a major expense, this can pose a hidden cost that should be accounted for.

Durability

Low-cost cameras struggle with reliability because they aren’t built from durable components, which cost more. If the product isn’t wellconstructed and well-made, then the housing isn’t going to hold up.

Look at the ratings for the camera’s housing. For example, IP-66 refers to a housing’s ability to keep out foreign objects, such as dust and water. IP stands for Ingress Protection. When you look at manufacturer specifications, you should see the IP-66 rating—at a minimum. Don’t be afraid to call the manufacturer for the certificate and for references; ask them how the cameras have held up so far or if there have been any issues. Anybody can say their camera is IP-66 (or any other specification). YouTube has plenty of videos featuring “IP-66 testing,” but dunking a camera in a bucket does not constitute IP-66 testing or certification.

In addition to lower-quality parts, some inexpensive cameras will actually use refurbished parts or an older design that includes multiple moving parts. Newer cameras that have undergone more research and development more commonly use solid-state designs with no moving parts. These have measurably lower failure rates.

Many government facilities gravitate toward PTZ cameras because operators can move them around quite efficiently; however, the downside of this is that inevitably when you’re panning and tilting the camera, it will only record what it can see where you’ve positioned it. This creates the possibility of missing an incident.

There are cameras available today that can capture the whole 180-degree view, so it doesn’t matter if you’re digitally zooming in on another area. The device will always capture the whole 180-degree view—without moving parts.

Similarly, many so-called day/night cameras are typically equipped with a mechanical IR cut filter that is moved out of the way for “night” mode. To do away with moving parts, look for a monochrome camera, which not only provides better image quality in extremely low light, but will also be less prone to failure over time.

Performance

All camera companies will claim to have reliable, durable cameras with high performance. Just because that’s what it says on the web site or the box doesn’t mean that is what you are going to get. Ink on a box is not performance in the field. I’ve spoken with too many integrators who have to deal with sub-par performance issues after the installation. They are tinkering with cameras to accommodate poor low-light performance, transmission issues and more. Talk about a hidden headache. Run the cameras through their paces, read reviews, talk to actual users and make sure they really do perform (especially, if the cameras are claiming features that seem to be high end).

If you are considering a camera where the price seems “too good to be true,” do your research. It is the best thing you can do to protect yourself. Reach out to the manufacturer and ask for references. They should be able to provide you with a list of current customers—ideally, some of which are also in the government market. Existing customers’ feedback is a huge indicator of the experience you will have.

Speak with a few customers before you make a buying decision. Ask how many cameras they have installed, if they came programmed or with the listed features as promised, how long they have been in operation, what issues they have had (if any), and what their overall experience has been working with the company. If a company has been putting out a sub-par product and is just selling on price, they won’t have a lot of quality customer testimonials. That is a huge red flag.

Security

Low-cost cameras can take shortcuts on security, yet high-profile hacking incidents have exposed the importance of firewalls, user authentication and solid standard security practices at a minimum. Don’t get caught installing cameras that can be easily hacked.

You can increase the security of your camera by knowing where the camera is manufactured and where all the components come from. Consider this: To closely control security, the Department of Defense (DoD) only allows certain brands of smartphones into its facilities. DoD officials have to verify that a smartphone’s chip and components are free from bugs, backdoor viruses and hidden coding that can be activated remotely. Because codes and programming can easily be written into electronic components, including camera components, it is something an integrator should be able to account for in order to win projects in government markets. The last thing any government agency wants is to be connected to a camera that’s been programmed to record video, audio or sensitive information without your knowledge. Such a device in a government facility could quickly lead to concerns over national security.

It takes time and investment to include open standards, such as ONVIF, in a camera. This has led some companies to avoid open standards completely and suggest they are linked to potential security issues. However, open standards are unquestionably the future of the industry. Responsible manufacturers will invest in the testing and preparation needed to bring products to market that both support standards and are secure.

Support

It may not seem like a big hidden cost now, but if you end up spending hours figuring out how to read a poorly written manual, or too much time on the phone solving one issue, you’ll wish you had assessed the component more thoroughly. Your time and aggravation levels are important, so look into what kind of support you will receive for the cameras, and make sure your integrator offers a reliable customer service support team. Specifically ask a manufacturer’s references about their support experience.

Reputation

The wrong camera can cost an integrator his or her reputation, which is priceless. That is the highest “hidden cost” of all. Make sure that you are offering products to your customers that you feel comfortable selling and know will perform. You can’t subject your customer to multiple service calls and the hassle of product replacement and expect a glowing review. Failed low-cost cameras will cost you both money and your reputation every single time.

Instead of just reading the price on the sell sheet or that first email, do your research on the cameras and the manufacturer, talk to your peers, read reviews, and put the cameras through rigorous testing. Make sure you are doing business with a manufacturer that can back up their performance claims. Get the details before making a buying decision and consider the six hidden costs of low-cost cameras before determining if a low-cost camera is right for your installation.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Security Today.

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