With M2M, the machines do all the talking

Machine-to-machine applications: what they are, what they do, and why they need their own networks.

M2M screenshotThe shift from transporting voice to delivering data has transformed the business of mobile carriers, but there’s yet another upheaval on the horizon: machine to machine communications (M2M).

In M2M, devices and sensors communicate with each other or a central server rather than with human beings. These devices often use an embedded SIM card for communication over the mobile network. Applications include automotive, smartgrid, healthcare and environmental usages.

M2M traffic differs from human-generated voice and data traffic. Mobile carriers are adapting by creating entirely new companies for M2M, such as Telenor’s M2M carrier Telenor Connexion, and m2o city, Orange’s joint venture with water giant Veolia. I talked to Göran Brandt, head of business development at Telenor Connexion and Rodolphe Fruges, VP of M2M at Orange Business Services about the future of mobile and M2M.

Why did Telenor start Telenor Connexion?

Göran Brandt: Telenor Connexion was founded in 2008. We knew from our experience with running business-critical applications on the normal mobile infrastructure that it was not good enough. A system originally built to serve voice services, mobile office applications, etc. is not ideal for M2M. This could lead to disturbances or downtime due to normal mobile service windows. For example at night, voice customers are expected to be sleeping.

Why did Orange launch a mobile service operator specifically for water metering data?

Rodolphe Fruges: Smart metering for utilities — water, electricity and gas — is a relatively new market where we see key advances in M2M taking place. To address this market, Orange has joined forces with Veolia Eau, a market leader in the water industry, to create m2o city, a joint venture dedicated to smart metering.

To be clear, m2o city is not a “mobile operator.” That would require a GSM
license. Rather, it is a “service operator” that provides the low-energy radio
network that carries water metering data on behalf of local water distribution
companies.

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How is the data carried in M2M applications different from human-generated data?

Göran Brandt: In M2M applications the amount of data sent and received is normally small. A meter reading equals only a few hundred bytes of data. M2M devices can cause problems if working incorrectly. If hundreds of thousands or even millions of electricity meters act at exactly the same time (they normally have a very precise built-in clock), that would result in network congestion.

Rodolphe Fruges: The difference is not the data itself but where the data originates, in this case self-contained mobile devices. These devices are generating a huge amount of data with more frequency. With m2o city, utility companies are dealing with 700 times more data than before. This is why service providers like Orange, who have the expertise and technical infrastructure to accommodate these data loads, are vital for these companies.

The data also varies between applications. For water metering, we are typically dealing with a very small data set, a few times a day, at regular hours. For security applications, the device can be silent for months before sending a large data payload, in this case video.

What network management strategies, technologies or processes does M2M rely on?

Göran Brandt: For a normal mobile carrier the customer interface is usually the customer help desk. In M2M you need to let your customers into your technical systems, so they can, in real time, see the status of their SIM card population and answer questions like “What country is a specific SIM card in?” and “Is the SIM card connected to a mobile data network or not?”

Rodolphe Fruges: Creating processes and mechanisms are really essential for smart metering. You have to manage millions of devices with very specialized SIM cards across varying environmental conditions. A phone user can easily call a help desk to report a problem with his or her phone, but the device itself cannot make this call.
The challenge on our end is to create automatic mechanisms that can validate
whether a device is working or identify the source of any potential problems.

Certain M2M applications, such as streaming security videos, generate a high volume of data comparable to the data streaming occurring on mobile phones, but you can also find M2M alert applications running SMS data levels. What changes is the number of devices that are being managed rather than the volume of data.

A key issue with smart metering is meters situated in hard-to-reach areas, such as basements where it may be rough to get a strong mobile signal. The
solution is network intermarries, which is like a meshed radio network that grabs the
data from a meter and sends it to a data concentrator. This is exactly the
type of network technology you will see deployed with m2o city. It’s also applicable in other M2M scenarios, like a connected automobile that is roaming across networks. We constantly adapt to the least cost network when roaming or alert our customer when an event, like a vehicle that might be stolen crossing a border, are triggered on the network.

What are the biggest current M2M applications? What do you see developing in the near future?

Göran Brandt: Automotive (cars and trucks), energy (smart metering) and security (burglar alarms).The automotive industry is a sector where Telenor Connexion has extensive experience. We are working in close collaboration with both car manufacturers and telematics service providers to enable cost-efficient and reliable connectivity solutions to vehicles around the world.

There are massive smart metering deployments currently being planned. The energy sector is moving toward renewable energy sources and the implementation of smart grids. Intelligent meters are going to form the foundation of tomorrow’s smart grid infrastructure.

Healthcare monitoring via wireless networks is an emerging application area with huge potential. Tens of millions of patients in Europe alone could potentially benefit from some form of home healthcare monitoring solution, if it had been available. Examples of conditions suitable for remote monitoring are cardiac arrhythmia, hypertension, sleep apnea and diabetes.

Are there obstacles preventing M2M applications from become mainstream?

Göran Brandt: Most M2M customers work in a multi-country or even global scenario (basically all countries where they sell their products), and they expect a single solution covering multiple networks in multiple countries. It’s a challenge to provide flat pricing in multi-country roaming situations. It’s equally challenging to offer M2M customers Service Level Agreements stating exactly what uptime and availability to expect, including roaming networks.

Rodolphe Fruges: The M2M applications are enormous, but it has led to some fragmentation in the market. Verticals such as the automotive industry have been hampered by the number of competitive players trying to outdo one another. A lack of
standardization has also been a deterrent impeding newer and more reliable
M2M solutions.

Photo: Screenshot from Telenor Connexion website

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