M2M technology ushers in the age of total connection

Machine-to-machine (M2M) communications is transforming the world into one where everything and everyone is networked.

"I’m friends with my toaster on Facebook and my laundry sends me a message to tell me when it has dried,” says Jari Arkko, internet architecture expert at Ericsson Research.

Arkko is showcasing his “connected home” at the company’s research labs in Stockholm. He says the technology for ubiquitous connected devices is already here.

“When I check my incoming events feed I see things like the laundry is dry and my toaster is toasting,” he says. Sensors in the room plateau when his washing has finished drying, or his toaster has turned off, which activates an algorithm to notify him on Facebook.

“It is a simple user interface, even though it sounds crazy, it’s more natural as it provides the opportunity to have information in one go.”

The number of connected devices is set to double over the next eight years to 50 billion globally, according to the trade body for mobile operators GSMA and Machina Research. If these estimates are correct, communication between these connected devices will explode.

M2M telematics service for trucks and buses

Telematics manufacturer Openmatics is the latest business to sign up to M2M technology, having partnered with Orange to offer telematics services for trucks and buses. Under the deal the location and status of trucks and buses can be monitored, enabling fleet operators to plan and manage their businesses more efficiently.

Data will be recorded and received by an on-board unit and will be transmitted over the network via a web-supported portal.

Orange Business Services will provide Openmatics’ communications infrastructure for data transfer, ordering, activation and tracking through its international M2M centre in Brussels.

Arkko says that, in the future, consumers and businesses will have fully networked environments using social media platforms as the common interface: “We now have the capability to use the networks we have and the IP to communicate where we need to go,” he says. “Social media is not perhaps as widely deployed as it could be. Anything that you need to know and interact with could be represented in this manner, such as the copy machine telling me it’s broken and needs to be repaired, to more abstract things.

“There are a lot of programmers that can do web-based applications, using platforms such as Facebook or Google. It is surprisingly easy. Now any school kid with programming expertise can link things up. I have 200 ports in my house, but that is not enough for me. I’ve run out! We are on the brink of the networked society, many of the tools need for building these things are here.”

Open source, wireless LANs and next-generation networking tools such as IPv6 will be key in arriving at this point, he says. “The boom will come when people realise the fun we can have with these things.”

The spread of M2M by sector

Certain industries are already seeing an uptake in M2M, particularly where regulations are driving adoption.

“M2M can support and enhance business processes”
Dan Bieler, Forrester

The UK government has set a target to have 53 million smart meters in homes and business by 2020. Key to this is the use of M2M technology as the meters will communicate with a central datacentre, which then sends messages to the utility companies, which will alert the user about their energy usage.

Smart metering is already widespread in Italy, Sweden and France because of regulatory enforcement.

Ana Tavares Lattibeaudiere, director at GSMA, says the connected automotive sector is another area that will grow fast. In 2014, e-car regulations will start taking effect, where cars will have to automatically send out information about their location after a crash.

Other sectors include the monitoring of chronic diseases such as diabetes. Diabetics who monitor their blood sugar levels can have their results sent straight to their doctor.

Lattibeaudiere says such an automated process would be far more user-friendly: “The problem with email is that it tends to get neglected or lost and doctors often don’t have time to look at them.” Dan Bieler, principal analyst at Forrester, says there is a difference between the M2M and consumer environment and enterprise.

Read more about M2M

“From the consumer end it’s about having a lot of apps in the home, communicating with each other and elements of smart grids, such as electric and water meters. This includes applications in healthcare, monitoring heart rates which are linked up to a central database, so doctors can get in touch and inform patients they should have a check-up,” says Bieler.

“In the enterprise space there are a number of solutions and metering in the context of facility management. It’s being used to monitor areas such the oil industry, measuring holes in pipelines, asset tracking is another big area, as it is being used to track devices in hospitals.

“The range of applications is extremely widespread. It is quite horizontal in nature, being used to monitor, meter, navigate and notify in all sorts of sectors. But having said that, M2M surprisingly is still not a top priority. Our research found only one in 10 sees it as an important area.”

One reason for this is that the return on investment is often hard to demonstrate. In austere times the focus of the CIO is often on how to cut costs and reduce headcount: “It’s difficult therefore to come up with the required funding,” says Bieler.

“In some instances, companies are struggling to define which processes they want to support with that solution. But it is clear that interest is growing.”

Network and connectivity issues

One issue for the deployment of M2M is the lack of seamless connectivity for wireless and patchy 3G coverage. The GSMA says spectrum will be crucial in achieving a more networked economy, supported by a sufficiently flexible regulatory environment in the telecoms sector and in other industries. In the next four years the mobile industry will invest $793bn in expanding the coverage and capabilities of mobile networks, according to GSMA.

Networks provider Ericsson forecasts mobile data traffic will grow tenfold between 2011 and 2016. But even with new spectrum, mobile operators will need to be able to manage the fast-rising tide of traffic on their networks, both to deal with congestion and tailor delivery to specific service requirements, it warns.

Bieler says lots of small bits of data can add up to significant amounts, which can easily be underestimated. Smart metering in itself does not include a huge amount of data, but in theory it involves millions of meters sending information every 15 minutes.

Regular upgrades will have to be part of the broader M2M scenario, he says, raising the question of who should bear that cost. At the moment it looks like it would fall on carriers. “It will be a combination of developments, additional broadband technology, HTML5 will help and IPv6 of course. Plus the recognition that it can support and enhance business processes. There are a number of possibilities where M2M can play a role, such as automating processes that, in the past, would have been handled by people,” he says.

Bieler believes that M2M will eventually become embedded into business processes.

“I don’t see one part tipping the move to M2M, but several step changes, such as the 2014 EU regulations for cars that will certainly have a large impact on the automotive sector.”

Warren East, CEO of microprocessor company ARM – which manufactures embedded chips for M2M technology – recently told Computer Weekly the initial growth of this market will be slow. “Over the next five years I’m not expecting there to be much take-up – the opportunity will be over the next decade,” he says.

Bieler agrees. “In the next five years enterprises will start to see the value in M2M, it will be seen as a necessity and start to become more widespread,” he says.

Picture Credit: Thinkstock

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