M2M has been tomorrow's technology for many years. Now it appears to be finally maturing. However, as more and more machines are connected, could success bring its own brand of problems?
In 2012 General Electric went so far as to claim M2M, “the industrial Internet”, could potentially add $10-$15 trillion to global GDP. A more recent GSMA Intelligence forecast claims over 13 billion (cellular and non-cellular) M2M solutions will be deployed worldwide by 2020, up from a much lower 250 million in 2014. Leading the way is the US which accounted for 35 million connections or 19 per cent of all global M2M connections at the end of 2013, calculates the GSMA.
What’s driving this growth? In part the mass deployment of M2M sees a big boost as connected vehicles, including autonomous and semi-autonomous cars hit the road. Legislation in the US, Europe and UK government initiatives to drive connected vehicle technology research mean some of the world’s biggest economies already embrace M2M within their vision of the future of road transport. Some analysts believe M2M in agriculture could even increase food production by 70 percent.
Healthcare, agriculture, heavy industry, smart utilities, smart cities and connected home deployments seem likely to boost uptake of connected solutions, as will future generations of SIM-equipped wearable devices, all of which will want to be connected and online 24/7.
Further rapid growth could be hampered by interoperability challenges and bandwidth restrictions.
The M2M industry has grown in silos, meaning standards used in such deployments in one industry are not necessarily emulated in others. “…(A) fully functional digital ecosystem will require seamless data sharing between machines and other physical systems from different manufacturers. The drive towards seamless interoperability will be further complicated by the long life span of typical industrial equipment, which would require costly retrofitting or replacement to work with the latest technologies,” warned the World Economic Forum (WEF) this year.
To avoid such problems in future the WEF recommends new M2M solutions and software should at least coexist with such legacy equipment that’s already in place. They also recommend stakeholders collaborate on long-term R&D in order to solve “fundamental technology challenges related to security, interoperability and management of systemic risks.”
Mobile connectivity is also a problem. 4G/LTE modules for M2M solutions are “significantly” more expensive than 2G or 3G radios, carriers are closing their 2G networks in the coming years so millions of existing M2M devices will have to be upgraded.
One solution might be the GSMA's Embedded SIM specification is supported by all the leading SIM vendors and mobile carriers. This allows carriers to provide scalable, reliable and secure connectivity for M2M connected devices that are often hermetically sealed, such as in the connected car or smart meters. You’re very likely to see these inside connected cars in the next few years, which will account for one in five of new vehicle sales, claims Juniper Research.
Another emerging challenge is bandwidth. As M2M devices proliferate, demands on bandwidth will also grow even while information transmitted by these connected solutions becomes more important.
A sensor-based tank monitoring system that monitors liquid in a storage tank and sends an automated message to a central monitoring station when the level of the liquid in the tank goes below a certain level may not sound so important. However, put that tank in a nuclear facility and it’s clear that these M2M messages may need to be prioritized.
Then there’s the problem of what happens when large numbers of M2M devices attempt to get on the same network in the same area at the same time.
Matt Hatton, Machina Research CEO explains, “network resource management is not based on total traffic volume, it’s based on particular cell sites during peak times of network use. If connected cars regularly cause network traffic spikes in a particular location that can’t be met, there are implications for operators in meeting SLAs and delivering a positive quality of experience.”
In order to support M2M effectively, carriers will need to quickly identify and understand when and where network traffic is generated. “They’ll need to more seriously consider how to cope with these demands for reduced latency, higher bandwidth, more signalling and higher QoS,” said Steve Bowker, Teoco VP Technology and Strategy.
Another solution to bandwidth demand is simply to provide more of it. This is happening, governments worldwide are freeing up spectrum to help provide the infrastructure for a connected planet, but the process is slow. The US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, for example, plans to provide 500 megahertz of new spectrum, but not until 2020.
Putting intelligence into the network is another way to address bandwidth limitation. More intelligent network standards such as the Sierra Wireless-developed LTE-M (the M is for M2M) exploits the flexible bandwidth allocation technology within LTE and aims to provide low data rates over existing cellular infrastructure, explains Beecham Research CEO, Robin Duke-Woolley. Dynamic network management and optimization will also comprise part of the solution.
Read through our wide range of case studies explaining the many ways in which Orange Business Services has helped improve our client’s business processes with M2M solutions.
Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.