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Machine-to-Machine Communication

August 29, 2012


Ericsson, the Swedish technology firm, has a vision of the world in which 50 billion devices are continuously connected and communicating. On its website, the company writes:

“The vision of more than 50 billion connected devices, based on ubiquitous internet access over mobile broadband, devices or things will be connected and networked independently of where they are. Falling prices for communication, combined with new services and functionality connecting virtually everything to serve a wide range of commercial applications, individual needs and needs of society. The 50 billion connected devices vision marks the beginning of a new era of innovative, intertwined, combined products and services that utilize the power of networks.”

Although the connectivity between devices will be unseen and unheard by most individuals, consumers will be impacted by machine-to-machine communication in any number of ways. The most obvious way, perhaps, is that machines will be fighting for the same bandwidth as human communicators. The number of machines trying to get connected will far outnumber human beings. The Ericsson site admits that networks must learn to support “the exponential growth in the number of devices” as well as “meet the needs of specific vertical industries.” It continues:

“An additional challenge to consider when developing new ecosystems is the need to integrate applications over different networks, and even different network technologies. In industrial applications that need to interact with various, constantly-connected devices, integration across networks may become a necessity. … On top of that there may be the challenge of integration across different generations of mobile networks or integration of fixed and mobile services, and even integration across different mobile standards to secure service.”

The site notes that “the cost of cellular machine-to-machine (M2M) modules is estimated to be falling at an annual rate of 15 percent, which makes connectivity-based services increasingly affordable.” It also asserts the belief that humans will gladly make room for M2M communication because “the human aspect of more than 50 billion connected devices goes way beyond smart living and new gaming devices.” Sayantani Kar calls the connectivity that includes both humans and machines the “internet of things.” [“Look who’s talking,” Business Standard, 30 July 2012] He writes:

“Using the wireless modes that we now use for communication such as GPRS, wifi, 2G, 3G and LTE networks, machines are increasingly blipping bytes to each other. You could get your home appliances to do your bidding even when you are out of the house. At another time, a pacemaker could warn you about an odd heartbeat and the nearest hospital. … In their arsenal are machine-to-machine (M2M) services that will eventually make machine internet a reality. Setting aside the science-fiction connotations, M2M applications are growing roots across the world. Some countries are mandating the use while others are adopting these ad hoc.”

A. P. Sriram, chief operating officer, Tata Teleservices Ltd., writes, “The wireless Machine to Machine (M2M) market is increasingly growing across the world and covers a wide range of applications such as remote management, automotive, metering, industrial data collection and healthcare.” [“Machine 2 Machine (M2M) Communication – Fastest growing Segment,” Telecom Lead, 18 July 2012] He continues:

“Some very interesting developments have been made on the M2M business segment that enables machines to communicate with each other efficiently, leading to the applications like home security or even Vehicle tracking on the click of the cell phones! Over the period of time M2M applications have become a hot topic in the wireless industry. While M2M apps can be used for many purposes (smart homes, smart metering/electricity meter reading, fleet management, mobile workforce, automobile insurance, vending machines, etc.), and in many sectors (healthcare, agriculture, commercial, industrial, retail, utility, etc.), smart metering applications – or smart grids – present the biggest growth potential in the M2M market today.”

Kevin J. O’Brien reports, “Berg Insight, a research firm in Goteborg, Sweden, says the number of machine-to-machine devices using the world’s wireless networks reached 108 million in 2011 and will at least triple that by 2017.” [“Talk to Me, One Machine Said to the Other,” New York Times, 30 July 2012] Commenting on Ericsson’s prediction that as “many as 50 billion machines [will be] connected by 2020,” he writes:

“Only 10 billion or so are likely to be cellphones and tablet computers. The rest will be machines, talking not to us, but to each other. The combined level of robotic chatter on the world’s wireless networks — measured in the digital data load they exert on networks — is likely soon to exceed that generated by the sum of all human voice conversations taking place on wireless grids. ‘I would say that is definitely possible within 10 years,’ said Miguel Blockstrand, the director of Ericsson’s machine-to-machine division in Stockholm. ‘This is a “What if?” kind of technology. People start to consider the potential, and the possibilities are endless.'”

O’Brien notes that machine-to-machine communications is not new. In fact, he writes, it “has been around for more than two decades, initially run on landline connections and used for controlling industrial processes remotely.” He continues:

“With advances in mobile broadband speeds and smartphone computing, the same robotic conversations are now rapidly shifting to wireless networks. When the total amount of data traffic generated by machines overtakes that created by human voice conversations — or possibly before — mobile operators will have to choose who waits in line to make a call or receive an e-mail — the machine or the human. ‘It really does raise some quandaries for the operators,’ said Tobias Ryberg, an analyst at Berg Insight. ‘Most mobile networks are set up for human communication, not for machines. So there will have to be a whole revamping of the system to make this possible.'”

Clearly, humans aren’t going to be making the switching decisions that determine who (or what) gets bandwidth access when networks are overloaded. New algorithms and artificial intelligence applications will be making those decisions based on what kind of data is being transmitted and how such data is prioritized. O’Brien reports that, “currently, about a third of all machine-to-machine communication involves so-called smart utility meters, which perform duties like sending data on household electric and gas consumption to utilities; the utilities use the information to tailor production to actual demand.” He continues:

“In Europe, all households in Sweden and Italy are equipped with smart meters, many of them running wirelessly. In Austria, a law will require five million homes to be equipped with smart electric meters by 2019. Another third is taking place in the auto industry, through car and truck fleet management systems, which allow transport companies or corporate car managers to track their vehicles in real time, or that are used by emergency accident, repair and location services like General Motors’ OnStar system, now installed on a quarter of new GM vehicles. In Europe, similar technology is beginning to appear in preparation for 2015, when the eCall initiative, an E.U. law requiring all new cars to be equipped with wireless transmitters will take effect. The transmitters would automatically report accident data, as well as airbag deployment and location, to emergency responders.”

O’Brien indicates that “variations on consumer applications,” like one used by the British online grocer Ocado, “are expected to provide the biggest growth over the next decade.” O’Brien writes that “Ocado says incidents of spoilage of goods have declined since [it installed] transmitters [in its packaging] last year.” He continues:

“In Japan, the government is considering installing a bigger system of seismic sensors to detect earthquakes, [Yiru Zhong, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan] said. In Calitri, a town in southern Italy, wireless sensors are helping produce caciocavallo, a type of Pecorino cheese made by Caseificio di Cecca e di Roma. The cheese ages in cellars shielded from the searing heat, and sensors regularly send data on humidity to a monitoring station at a local agricultural extension center.”

It’s clear that M2M communications hold the potential of being big business for mobile system operators. In Europe, system operators are preparing to handle the increased business. O’Brien reports:

“European mobile operators have begun exploiting the financial potential of machine-to-machine communication, and have set up independent units to develop the business. Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and France Télécom have all established separate business entities or internal centers to develop new products catering to machines. ‘Right now, this is a nice contribution to our company’s bottom line,’ said Bernd Liebscher, the managing director of Telekom Austria’s machine-to- machine division, which was set up last September. The operator does not break out machine-to-machine sales. ‘But over time, should we assume services for an entire vertical industry, like utility smart metering, we are talking about a significant business,’ he said. Telekom Austria’s mobile networks wirelessly connected 500,000 machines in eight countries at the end of 2011, a figure Mr. Liebscher said would grow 50 percent this year to 750,000.”

O’Brien goes on to detail a number of other uses for M2M communications like providing “traffic and weather updates to 1.3 million users of TomTom navigation systems” or linking “Otis elevators in Slovenia to emergency breakdown centers” or connecting “900 automatic teller machines of Priorbank in Belarus.” He continues:

“The two biggest applications are electronic payment terminals and fleet management. Ms. Zhong, the Frost & Sullivan analyst, estimated that machine-to- machine conversations made up less on average than 10 percent of an operator’s total revenue, but the growth potential is considered large.”

As the Ericsson website noted, integrating diverse networks and devices is going to be the greatest challenge for advancing the internet of things. O’Brien reports:

“For wireless machine communication to become ubiquitous — imagine every home or office window opening and closing automatically to control temperature and humidity — the makers of the modules, SIM cards and associated network equipment will have to agree on broad series of technical standards to enable seamless communication between various devices. Those megastandards do not exist now, and the biggest makers of devices, industry groups and mobile operators have split into different standards- setting groups, which is likely to delay adoption of uniform communications across industries, networks and module makers.”

The Internet has proven that standards can be adopted without providing a monopolistic advantage to any particular company. This kind of international cooperation must continue if the intenet of things is going to emerge fully. O’Brien continues:

“A 2011 research paper produced by researchers at Intel, the leading chip maker, concluded that the lack of broad, overarching standards and technologies that enable mobile networks to keep up with the explosion in robotic communication, are needed to bring about an Internet ’embedded’ in everyday life. ‘I think there will be an effort to work to convergence, but the reality is not there yet,’ Ms. Zhong said.”

O’Brien’s conclusion is that even though we might not be there yet, the internet of things will eventually be achieved. When that day comes, both men and machines will be glad it has arrived.

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