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Machine-to-Machine Communications

Machine-to-Machine Communications

Will machine-to-machine communications be the Internet technology trend of the 2010s? Does what we see of M2M today constitute the first signs of a technological development that may turn out to be as revolutionary as the PC era and the Internet at the end of the 20th century? Will the new mobile subscribers of tomorrow include toys, bicycles, cars, and all sorts of machines?

The abilities to read an electric meter from a distance, to send a signal to an alarm response center when an airbag deploys, and to know when a ball bearing starts to deteriorate are some of the applications of wireless machine-to-machine (M2M) technology that are a reality today.

On the surface this may appear limited and not as exciting as robots and virtual worlds. The intelligent home still seems to be only a dream. But tomorrow's surfer can become a more powerful player than today's information seeker on the Web. With M2M, humans can have control over technology, direct it, and surf in the world of the machines. That's the vision.

It's difficult to say exactly what M2M is. There's no pure definition. It involves machines "talking to" other machines wirelessly, and then something outside the machine, something in the environment giving rise to a value in a meter or a sensor, a value that's picked up and sent to a central server via wireless, for at least part of the journey.

The computer system and its operators can then take care of the intelligent behavior. This can mean that power is turned on in a summer cottage before you arrive, that a gate is opened or, in the automobile example that comes up frequently in the media, that a car can automatically notify an alarm response center that an airbag has deployed and the driver is asked, "How are you?"

M2M in Japan
In the world's second-largest economy, Japan, forecasters are going a lot further when they talk about M2M. The prognosis from NTT DoCoMo is for 360-million mobile telephone subscribers in the 2010s, despite a population of 127 million. How does that compute? Well, two-thirds of the subscribers in the 2010s will be M2M connections: the subscribers of tomorrow are toys, bicycles, cars, and all sorts of machines.

M2M consists of digital technology at many stages. It deals with meters and sensors that transmit signals to a computer via radio technology, and with computers sending data to a server via mobile connections or fixed local networks. It can also deal with two-way communications so that, for example, an operator is able to turn a pump on or off.

But M2M is most often based on ordinary mobile telephony, something that the world's biggest mobile operator, Vodaphone, has seized on and already made a separate business area, Europolitan. Vodaphone suspects, as do the Japanese, that this is where the greatest growth in mobile telephony will take place.

It Takes Two to Tango
Other operators are choosing alternate ways to go. In Sweden, for example, Telia has chosen to operate through joint ventures. One is with the M2M operator, Wireless Maingate, which is now a virtual M2M operator selling network services to other M2M players. Another is with WirelessCar, where the focus is on M2M applications for passenger cars, including the now-famous airbag alarm, with the collaboration of automaker Volvo and electronics giant Ericsson.

Other traditional branches of industry can take advantage of investments that have already been made in the development of new technology. The ball-bearing manufacturer, SKF, for example, has long had the technology to diagnose the status of bearings during operation (for example, in the paper industry's giant machines). Now the company is adding wireless technology to the monitoring system and making it even more flexible. The bearing transmits its information via wireless to a receiver somewhere on the factory floor, and the receiver, in turn, passes the information along via the company's local area network.

For certain customers, it could even be possible to take over the job of monitoring. This would involve developing a relationship with the customer - not merely selling products (and possibly spare parts), but also services.

Thus in the commercial arena, we find well-known, highly respected companies that have caught the wave, along with completely new start-ups looking only at the M2M aspect. Among the latter we find DriveIT, for example, working with vehicles to create intelligent carpools that may replace the current rental car system. (In fact, it's in the vehicles and utilities sectors that M2M has taken its first tottering steps. Half of all M2M-oriented companies are working in the smart transportation field.)

M2M Solutions for the
General Market

While certain companies are focusing on specific applications, others are attempting to develop general M2M products that can achieve broad distribution and increase market potential. Unwire is such a start-up company, currently producing hardware for all types of machines. Their product - a little can containing a computer server with GSM communications - is cheap enough to be installed by the thousands in vending machines, where it would call the home office every day and report which items were sold out and how sales went that day.

M2M solutions have their own economy, and there are many calculations left to make. For example, if an energy company invests in wireless technology, someone must evaluate what the investment will cost compared to the manual system. Sending out an employee to every meter costs a certain fixed amount per customer. Would the M2M approach be cheaper if it was extended to all of the company's customers? This is the type of question that many businesses must now attempt to answer.

The price of available networks is also going to play a major role. What will happen if communication costs increase with the new generation of mobile networks - GPRS and 3G? Pricing on the new networks can be significant for the future growth of new M2M applications (such as multimedia applications) that require wireless broadband.

But as long as we're dealing with small quantities of data, transmission costs will remain low, and in most cases, the established technology (SMS/GSM) is still fully satisfactory for M2M applications.

"Technical standards are usually a method of reducing costs," says Andreas Wigzell, who studies the connection between the economy and trends in telecommunications. "The user interface is often a Web interface, but technical standards are lacking for the interface with machines. Every player seems to be creating his or her own solution for every case. There are going to be small, simplified Web servers built into a chip like some sort of standard component," he predicts.

In general the M2M business is in expansion mode and there are no dominant players and few generalists. These are the conclusions that Ola Eriksson who studies the structure of the industry at the Strategic Management Institute in Stockholm has reached.

"So far M2M is not a major phenomenon. But the potential is enormous, and M2M is going to grow as soon as the big companies see the possibilities for new services and products," says Eriksson.

The credible players haven't had a chance to position themselves because the infrastructure for M2M is lacking. The traditional mobile networks are not well suited to the new types of services. So new start-up virtual operators - such as Wireless Maingate - with their broad perspective on M2M have a newly created role to fill, more as partners and instigators than as competitors to the established European operators such as Telia and Europolitan.

Future Possibilities
There are two primary applications that are driving current developments: vehicles/transportation and meter data. The question is, what other industries will come along in the future?

The companies that succeed in combining access to large quantities of data with an interesting analysis have a future. System integrators will be needed that can help the traditional industries become aware of their slumbering capabilities and discover ever more intelligent systems that can better utilize such things as meter data.

SIDEBAR:
What will drive the M2M industry's engineering
and business sides over the next 10 years?

On the engineering side:

  • There's been a wireless breakthrough with GSM and WAP. We'll see a continuation of more rapid mobile telecommunications in the GPRS mobile network and in 3G mobile telephony.
  • The capability of presenting data to users of various types through the Internet and Web pages makes it possible to surf into machines without having to be an advanced user.

    On the business side:

  • A business will be able to expand by selling services to a higher degree than before. Manufacturing companies that became known for their products and brands can now supplement their physical products with new services to yield increased income.
  • The relationship with the customer can be extended over time. Previously the relationship ended with the procurement of the product. There may have been a service relationship (i.e., in automobile service, spare parts, etc.). With M2M the company can sell services during the entire life cycle of the product, establishing a lifelong relationship with the customer.
  • A higher profile can be given to a company's output, in competition with similar players. Perhaps one automobile is not much different from another, but market shares can now be affected by what service offerings are added.
  • Business costs can be cut. This applies to personnel who can be replaced by automatic M2M control. The classic example is the remotely monitored meter on Barcelona's e-litter bins. No one needs to travel to the meter in order to read it (but you still have to empty the bin). This also applies to costs for damage, since continual monitoring of machines means that breakdowns can be avoided, as in the SKF ball bearings example.
  • Traditional service companies can expand and operate internationally, and create growth in a more dynamic service market. Service and maintenance that must be done manually often prevent service companies from expanding geographically. But with increased automation and computerized monitoring, we can expect economic advantages and business on a larger scale.
  • A new communication channel can be brought into the home and to the end user. Much of the equipment in the home can be remotely monitored using wireless (and cable) communications. There's talk about the intelligent home or the e-home. It's not only alarms and electrical equipment that can be monitored, but also digital and electronic equipment. Couriers who deliver goods can also accept payment at the door through wireless credit card readers. All the new services that can be imagined in the home environment in the near future are going to create many new business areas and opportunities.
  • More Stories By Per Gustafsson Gustafsson

    Per Gustafsson, an IT and science reporter for Swedish radio, is a journalist and psychologist
    whose view is that computers and pyschology need one another. He began his career as a business
    writer in computer publications and was among
    the first in the world to report from inside
    cyberspace...from inside a VR helmet.

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    Most Recent Comments
    Chip Manuel 08/19/02 11:34:00 PM EDT

    Dear Per,

    I very much enjoyed your article on m2m wireless communications. Currently, I am looking for market research on the subject matter.

    I've come across the ARC Group. Do you have any thoughts on where I can locate reputable research on this matter.

    Are people even writting reports about this?

    Please Advise,

    Thanks in Advance.//Chip Manuel