M2M continues to race ahead

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As anyone attending last year's Orange Business Live event will remember, M2M is growing into quite a phenomenon. Ten years ago, it was a smart concept with few deployments behind it. These days, businesses across many vertical sectors are using it to lower production costs, optimize the supply chain, lower energy consumption and increase operational efficiency. How many M2M devices are we talking about? Globally, about 412 million within four years according to the latest figures. There's an interesting overview of embedded M2M as the pervasive Internet in this M2M trends podcast.

About 1.5% of cellular network connections worldwide are used for M2M applications, showing that there's a great deal of headroom in the network for more. Utility metering is expected to become the most widespread application, offering lowered operational costs to utilities and more control over energy consumption to consumers. We looked at the main issues surrounding smart metering in this blog. But, hard on its heels will be the maturing of healthcare remote patient monitoring solutions, intelligent transport systems, manufacturing monitoring and security applications such as vehicle tracking and CCTV. We have written about telematics in this blog and recorded this podcast with Romain Jourdan, an Orange expert in in-car telematics.

M2M rubber hits the road

In terms of personal security, the European Commission's eCall initiative is probably the furthest-reaching of its kind undertaken. With nearly 40,000 people killed on roads every year, and 1.7 million injured in road accidents in the European Union alone, M2M has the potential to be the biggest road safety technology of all time. Forget ABS, power-assisted steering or traction control, the EC's eCall promises a very simple benefit to the motorist involved in an accident: time saved equals lives saved.

M2M would automatically place a call to the emergency services in the case of an accident and the location of the vehicle can be found immediately using GPS. The first few minutes of any accident are crucial to the chances of survival of occupants who are facing grave injuries, and eCall is projected to save halve response times in cities and reduce them by 60% in the countryside. You can see how it works in this video.This principle can be applied to Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) that promise to reduce vehicle energy consumption by pointing out the shortest route, alert motorists and emergency services to accidents or transport blockages, and also adapt lighting to the prevalent road conditions. Such adaptive lighting takes a feed from local weather reports and dims lights in good conditions, saving local councils money and giving them back budget that's better spent elsewhere, particularly as governments respond to the global recession. ITS also promises to improve the efficiency of any enterprise that relies on transporting products in specific environments by the most direct and economical route possible, automatically pay road tolls, and dynamically responding to changes in transport conditions thanks to M2M.

Modulating the cost

What can we expect from the technology that actually delivers these possibilities, the M2M module? Although the module market has been under pressure to deliver improved designs that conform to the requirements of different applications, there are a number of general trends carrying through from 2009. These include the integration of greater functionality like satellite integration, WiMAX modules, lowered power consumption and probably the biggest development of all - a move from 2.5G to 3G network support. This increases the available bandwidth and opens up a swathe of new applications that require higher data speeds. It's also actually more economical for service providers to supply coverage in densely populated areas using 3G as it makes better use of the spectrum. It follows that over time, the cost of operating an M2M 3G network could fall as service providers reduce prices due to this economy of scale.

Also on the list for module developers is building in greater reliability and compatibility. Many machines that are connected over the M2M network by modules have long life-spans (think of industrial machinery or even just cars) during which time technology moves on. Therefore, there's also been a focus on making the functionality of modules flexible by developing units that are FOTA (Firmware Over The Air) upgradeable. Using the very network normally required for powering an application, an M2M module can automatically upgrade itself to optimize its effectiveness and stay ahead of future requirements.

Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.