Mobile machine to machine (M2M) - is it worth having less to talk about?

09 Feb 2010

With its recent launch of a Mobile Manifesto and a Mobile Green Manifesto, the GSMA has attempted to underline what it believes are key deliverable objectives that the mobile industry can contribute to the ‘outside world’.

There is significant attention being given to extending the reach of broadband, but in particular to focus on the application of ‘low speed’ ubiquity of connection, rather than the often ‘sexier’ high speed connectivity so beloved of most network marketers.  This lower end of the spectrum extends firmly into the machine-to-machine (M2M) application area, which despite being presented on futurologists’ marketing slides for a number of years and having a number of interesting deployments has been struggling to generate greater awareness or get major traction.

There are many possible reasons for this. Operators for the most part, with odd notable exceptions such as the Orange M2M Connect proposition, have been more focused on ‘live’ subscribers pumped up with multimedia needs to exercise 3G networks rather than intermittent trickles of data from remote sensors.   Now that voice and text revenues from live customers are flattening, subscriber bases are becoming saturated and rich media data services are starting to hammer 3G networks, operators could now regard M2M as not only a new group of subscribers, but one that sits there quietly and takes little capacity from the network.

There are significant challenges to overcome, however, and hence the value in the GSMA’s mobile manifesto in that it can, sheepdog-like, round up the industry and point it in the right direction.  For M2M services there are a couple of particular issues to address – interoperability and predictability.

Firstly predictability, for although M2M applications generally have low demands on network capacity, the information they send is likely to be precious and time dependent.  Delivery needs to be assured and have latency guarantees.  For these commitments, operators will expect reasonable returns, and so the business models for M2M will need to evolve beyond simple capacity and traffic tariffs, to incorporate coverage and service delivery commitments with suitable charges.

This might seem to fly in the face of ‘net neutrality’, but although the mobile infrastructure is evolving into all IP based networks, not all packets are equal.  This is a particularly thorny issue with M2M as, if carriers are forced by regulatory pressures to be ‘packet neutral’, this will remove their incentive to invest sufficiently in extending the reach and coverage of networks for M2M applications (which by their nature are less likely to be simply oriented around the population centres so beloved of mobile network planners).

Extending individual carrier networks is only part of the solution, the other is a greater degree of interoperability between carriers for their M2M services, and this requires common standards, which is another piece of the rationale behind the GSMA’s Mobile Manifesto.

Interoperability is a long understood, if often resisted, aspect of technology.  Earlier decades of the IT industry were at times boosted and held back by proprietary (single vendor, or single vendor controlled) solutions. The same has been true in the communications industry, although here clearly interoperability would seem to be a key requisite, and standards and their controlling bodies are perhaps taken more seriously. In this world of networking standards, ‘de jure’ tends to be the accepted norm, rather than the more hit-and-miss ‘de facto’. However, issues with various 802.11 Wi-Fi standards and the early challenges of multimedia messaging (MMS) show the communications industry is not immune to getting such areas well and truly messed up.

Where IT and telecoms meet, with M2M, the problem becomes more complex.  It is not simply a matter of interoperability at the level of the transmission of the message – the bits and bytes – but of their meaning and significance to an application or service. It is all very well to talk about smart grids, smart homes, smart cities, but what makes them smarter is not simply a set of processing devices that can communicate, but the language they will share.

Common approaches and consistent standards are required at higher levels of the communications protocols than many in the communications industry are used to, and this is the cross-over into IT – at the ISO levels 5-7 of session, presentation and application. The problem is that the interpretation of the meanings of these terms often differ significantly between those in the IT and telecoms industries, so a stake needs to be put in the ground. The GSMA’s mobile manifesto is a decent start.

By Rob Bamforth
Principal Analyst, Communication, Collaboration and Convergence

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