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Is 3G suitable for CCTV?

CCTV cameras on poleMore and more customers are asking us to install CCTV using the 3G network for connecting cameras to their system. We’ve also seen some tender specifications coming out with this requirement. So much so that we get the feeling that many people think that any internet connection will do for transmitting video from a camera. But this is not the case, hence this post to explain the technology and the findings from our experiences out in the field.

With fixed line connections like ADSL and fibre you’re mostly spoiled for choice data-wise with excellent download and upload speeds, with a caveat that in general the further you are away from the phone exchange, the slower your connection will be. Today, these speeds range all the way up to 300Mbps+ downstream and 19Mbps+ upstream, depending on the provider and what you’re prepared to pay.

3G, on the other hand, is a mixed bag when it comes to speed, though theoretically, at the best reception levels 3G is capable of delivering 7.2Mbps download but the average is usually around 1Mbps. Upload speeds are around a maximum of 1-2Mbps. 4G promises 100Mbps download and 20Mbps+ upload, but network coverage is still not sufficient for effective use, so I won’t discuss 4G at this time.

In the same way, actual speeds data limits are a factor between connectivity types. Fixed lines typically have a far greater allowance and are often completely unlimited if you’re willing to pay a little extra, though even this is usually covered by a fair use policy. One notable exception is Zen Internet, who don’t charge for upload usage and unlimited really does mean unlimited. This makes using fixed lines with video-hungry applications the most desirable option.

Mobile data allowances vary wildly with provider and cost but typically cover the area between 1GB and 5GB of data transfer allowed per month and this is usually a combined figure (upload + download). With video, this is rarely enough and so overage charges or length of contract come into play as decision-making factors. Long term contracts, in particular, often go against the nature of why 3G is chosen in the first place (short term installations). One way around this is using pooled usage services which aggregate data between multiple sim cards and connections, but with this flexibility of service usually comes a price premium or other negative factors.

While, as previously mentioned, fixed line connections often suffer from a slowdown in data speeds as the distance from the exchange increases, this is rarely a problem except in the most rural locations. In these cases mobile and 3G can be a better option, though 3G suffers from a similar issue in that where population densities are high the 3G signal is strongest. It’s simple economics.

3G blackspots remain throughout the country, and on top of this, variability in the signal can have a serious impact on the efficacy of any service using that connection. Weather and atmospheric conditions play a part in signal strength, so much so that in some cases this can be the difference between a strong connection and one that is up and down like a yoyo. Of course, mobile service providers won’t explicitly admit that weather can affect signal, but we’ve performed extensive on-site tests and find this very much to be the case, particularly where mobile signal strength is not great.

A problem which is increasingly affecting both fixed line and mobile connections is that of the shortage of IPv4 addresses. There are no more IPv4 addresses available and the remaining IPv4 ranges have recently been snapped up by the major telcos and data centre providers. This means that where a fixed IP address is needed, you may not get exactly what you’re after. The mobile operators have a solution for this in that some can provide business-level 3G connections with VPN access allowing remote access to any device using the 3G signal so long as the user is authenticated through the VPN. Whilst this is a secure solution it adds a level of additional complexity to what should be a simple setup.

Should I use 3G for CCTV?

In my opinion, NO. It should only be used as a very last resort. It very much depends on the criticality of the service you want to run on the 3G connection. CCTV is often critical and losing connection to a camera in a security recording or alerting scenario is an absolute non-starter. With 3G the variability of signal is far too high and there are no guarantees of service. If you insist on using 3G for CCTV, or are forced to do so due to location or timescales, then you should consider using multiple SIM providers and a router which can switch providers/SIMs when one goes down. The success of this will also depend on signal strength and often, except in cities and densely populated areas, only one provider will have a good, strong 3G signal.

Modern network-based security relies on video streams which consume large amounts of data. Commonly, recording takes place using either MJPEG or H.264 as the compression / video transmission method and both formats will use far more than the standard 3G data allowances over the course of a month. For example, a single video stream running in low quality at 128kbps will use approximately 40GB over the course of a month if run continuously.

In a reactive scenario, for instance where the camera sends an alarm trigger to a remote operating station for the remote operator to log in and take control, I would still recommend against this unless you have access to a truly unlimited data allowance, can guarantee no variance in signal strength and have no false alarms.

Are there other scenarios where 3G is acceptable?

3G is great for general web browsing and internet access, but it’s also very useful for file uploads. For instance, 3G can be used to periodically upload images to a remote server or, in cases where a quick or guaranteed response is not required, for security camera recordings. If being used in this way it’s very important to do your sums and work out just how much data is likely to be used, then get an appropriate data plan. In cases where security cameras upload images on a motion trigger, this calculation is pure guesswork and this scenario should be avoided.

My conclusion is therefore very simple: use 3G only if you absolutely have to and only with non-critical services, or suffer the penalty of drop-outs and lost data.

Published on July 7th, 2014 by Kevin Bowyer

5 Responses to “Is 3G suitable for CCTV?”

  1. george says:

    would appreciate like Phil a recommendation on a system to monitor remote areas on a farm where i have no wifi, but I have solar Power source since it is out in the fields in a distance but if possible would like a system which i can monitor from a pc/mobile if possible

  2. Roger says:

    @Phil –
    Wireless bridges, like KBC Networks' WESII-KT can provide point-to-point connectivity for that kind of distance, provided there is a clear line of sight. Depending on your location, solar power can also be a viable option to power the camera and wireless. This would provide connectivity back to a head-end DVR or NVR.

    Regarding 3G/4G, it is definitely not built for 24/7 streaming but for instances where wireless or hardwired connectivity is not available, and on-demand connection can be a suitable solution. KBC's ThruLink product offers a secure and stable connection for IP traffic across a cellular or other WAN.
    (yes, I work for KBC) 😉

  3. Lawrence says:

    @Phil Hi Phil, I can help WiFi your farm buildings using point to point and can achieve good secure robust connections over 20KM if needed and not bank breaking prices. we also install all your security camera needs Please phone 03333 22 3434

  4. Phil says:

    Can you recommend a system to monitor remote areas of a farm almost a mile from the farm buildings please (wifi does not go this far sadly – nor mains power)?

  5. raghu says:

    How to connected