Friday, April 19, 2013

Using a CloudCam as a Senior/Nanny Cam

My mother is an older retiree on a fixed income who has experienced fainting episodes lately, and occasionally falls; she also has helpers who we suspect of abuse. This started to have an effect on my wife and I; we were constantly waking up in the middle of the night with nightmares, or premonitions of something bad happening to my mother. After a while the anxiety started to get bad and we resorted to driving down to see my mother. This was taking a toll on our time, money, and on our car since the trip was a 6-hour drive. I had to look for a solution. I started researching IP cameras that I could set up so that I could watch and record what was happening in my mom’s house remotely.
There were a few obstacles I had to consider before purchasing anything, though. One of the biggest hurdles was that my mother had no high speed Internet - no cable, no DSL, just a simple phone line. Most IP Cameras require a high speed Internet connection. I also didn't want to spend a ton of money on the internet service or the camera itself, and I needed something quickly. The solution I came up with was:
1. Purchase a Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile 3G/4G hotspot and use that as high speed Internet connection
2. Purchase an affordable IP camera at my local electronics store and connect it to the hotpsot for Internet access
The plan sounded straightforward, but unfortunately I encountered a lot of issues before finding a workable solution. Below is a timeline of my experience setting up a "nanny cam" for my mother:
Thursday 01/24/13: Bought a T-Mobile Hotspot since my mother lives in a T-Mobile 4G coverage area and T-Mobile doesn't charge any overage fees for data usage (unlike Verizon and AT&T). Since I wasn't sure how much data I'd be using with this setup, I figured T-Mobile would be a good place to start.
Friday 01/25/13: Purchased two "cloud" IP cameras from Fry's Electronics: a D-Link model and one from Belkin. I tested both cameras on my home network everything worked fine. Video quality was the same as an old 1.3 Megapixel Camera - not excellent, but sufficient.
Saturday 01/26/13: Made the 3 hour trek to install. Set up the cameras to connect via WiFi to the T-Mobile Hotspot...and discovered that I could not view cameras over the T-Mobile 4G network. I quickly determined the problem: the cellular network sits behind a NAT firewall, which blocks users from displaying a public IP address. Without a public IP address, I'd never be able to access and view the cameras remotely. If I wanted to use the Belkin or D-Link camera over 3G or 4G internet, I was going to have to get a static IP address from the carrier, and that is prohibitively expensive. T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, and US Cellular all charge $500 for a static IP address; Sprint only charges $3 a month, but Sprint wasn't going to work for me due to the second major problem: these cameras use a TON of data! The Belkin and D-Link cameras are constantly streaming (regardless of whether anyone is remotely viewing the stream), meaning they could easily use 60-80GB of data in one month. Most 3G or 4G data plans have 5GB or 10GB monthly allowances and hefty overage fees thereafter; even though T-Mobile doesn't charge overage fees, they do throttle your connection down to dial-up speeds after a few gigabytes.
I gave up on the Belkin and D-Link cameras and returned them to Fry's.

Sunday 01/27/13: Ordered an indoor wireless day/night CloudCam from 3Gstore. The CloudCams work differently than traditional IP cameras and don't have any IP address issues - they will work over literally ANY internet connection. The Belkin and D-Link cameras actually boast that they do this as well, but obviously that is not accurate! The CloudCam also doesn't use nearly as much data as other cameras, since it's not streaming constantly - it only uses data when someone is remotely viewing it. 
Knowing all that, you might be wondering why I didn't just purchase the CloudCam to begin with.  The answer is simple: I was looking for a cheap solution. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for!
indoor cloudcam
Thursday 01/29/13: Received the CloudCam IP Camera. It took me about two minutes to set it up with my home network, and then I switched it over to connect to the T-Mobile hotspot. What happened next felt like nothing short of a miracle: I was able to view a live feed from the camera on my Android Phone! No fancy setup, no static IP address necessary - it just worked.
I also set up the camera to record (it supports MicroSD Cards up to 32GB or you can configure it to record to a NAS drive) so that if need be, we could review footage. Since the camera has a built-in microphone and even works in the dark, I was confident that I'd be able to monitor my mom's well-being and safety.
Friday 1/30/13: The camera was working great, but problems arose with the T-Mobile hotspot. A common issue with these hotspots is that when they've been on for an extended period of time, they overheat and shut down, requiring a power-cycle to reset it (which is obviously a problem since this was set up at my mom's house and I can't do that remotely). To ensure a more stable and reliable connection, I decided to return the T-Mobile hotspot and instead went with a Verizon UML290 on a pre-paid plan; I paired the UML290 with a Cradlepoint MBR95 router to create a WiFi network for the camera to connect to. Using the router also allowed me to take advantage of the "ping target" feature, which ensures that the connection is always on and will not go dormant.
Saturday 1/31/13: I pack up my gear and headed to my mother’s house. I plugged in the router with the UML290 connected, mounted the camera, and we were up and running:
the camera is hidden in the cracker box!
I can pull up a live stream of my mom's house anytime from my Android phone (there's an app for the iPhone/iPad, too)
UPDATE:  3/1/13: The system has been up a full month and has been working great - no issues or failures - and I used only 1GB of data for the entire month! That is daily checking in on my mother by my wife and I on our phones and computers. We have peace of mind and it isn't costing us an arm and a leg.
Total costs: