M2M technology: realising the promise

An article by Erik Brenneis, head of machine-to-machine (M2M) smart services at Vodafone Global Enterprise.

The common theme behind smart metering, in-car technologies and other initiatives… is that everybody benefits

Machine-to-machine communications, or M2M, has been around for more than 20 years. As a result, it has become well-established in providing connectivity across a number of different sectors, including utilities, security, fleet management and automotive.

Yet it now looks set to grow dramatically, as individual industries identify the benefits which this quantum leap in performance can deliver, to both providers and end-users alike. Expectations are high, but will this ultimately turn out to be a false dawn high on expectation but disappointing in delivery?

On the evidence to-date of two industries in particular, the M2M promise already looks to have greater substance than most in matching advanced technology to real-life need.

Regulatory driver

M2M technology is set to move up a gear in the automotive sector as a result of the e-Call initiative, an impending EU regulation requiring all cars to incorporate a connection that would send an emergency message to a service centre in the event of a crash. Many details, such as how it will affect existing cars, have yet to emerge. However, it is anticipated that from 2014 it will be mandatory for manufacturers to fit an e-Call box to all new models sold in the EU.

As soon as an airbag is deployed the hardware black box automatically sends impact sensor information and GPS co-ordinates to the nearest emergency service agencies. This includes the precise location and nature of the incident, making sure help is on hand as fast as possible.

According to EU Commission estimates, e-Call will save around 2,500 lives a year, by cutting response times – especially where accidents occur in remote areas or at night.

E-Call will form part of a broader in-car communications system, offering the potential for a range of added-value functions delivering real revenue growth, by creating a significantly enhanced user experience.

The connection will enable remote diagnostics, enabling a dealership to advise of a mechanical problem. In addition, enhanced automatic navigation aids can dynamically show – and update in real time – points of interest such as hotels with rooms available or provide the ability to research and make restaurant reservations.

At this early stage the automotive supply industry has yet to determine areas of greatest development potential, one area which may well prove especially attractive is that of in-car Internet services. M2M-based services could connect to other IT platforms, providing car owners with an integrated range of personalised radio and other entertainment applications.

Smarter metering

EU legislation has mandated the availability of smart electricity meters in all homes within member states by 2020. This is certain to be followed by other utilities such as gas and water, as part of a broader emergence of the smart home.

By installing a SIM card in the meter, electricity or gas usage can be read remotely, providing the utility company with a number of benefits. Efficiency is improved, as estimated bills and expensive meter readers are superseded by a correct reading every time. In turn, customer service is also improved significantly.

Although smart metering technology is still in its infancy, network providers are forming strategic international partnerships with meter manufacturers and meter systems providers/systems integrators. The goal is to integrate the M2M connectivity platform seamlessly with the metering software, in order to provide robust and comprehensive real-time data and analysis regarding electricity usage.

In addition, M2M solutions can be used to improve efficiencies, by replacing regular servicing with on-demand servicing. Rather than removing equipment from service for scheduled maintenance, built-in diagnostics can schedule minor servicing to be done on an ad hoc basis and major servicing only when necessary. It can also record a full audit trail of defects, usage, maintenance activities and any external inputs.

Global network

In both applications, a ruggedised global SIM is essential to ensure seamless, cost-effective coverage across all networks.

For the automotive sector, the inherent mobility of the installation requires truly global network availability which can accommodate the anticipated increase in data volumes associated with in-car applications.

In the context of smart metering, the value of a global, proven network partner lies in the ability to develop a common solution which can be offered across multiple geographies. This replaces the need to undertake a costly and error-prone iterative process of developing a new solution when expanding into a new geography.

Similarly, for the utility customer, the ideal network provider must offer stability, both in terms of robust connectivity at a domestic level and financial solidity to support a long-term relationship.

Benefits for all

Analyst firm Berg Insight predicts that M2M will double its share of mobile connections by 2015. Although the technology is still in its relative infancy, the reasons for such projections are not hard to find.

The common theme behind smart metering, in-car technologies and other initiatives that will revolutionise our lives is that everybody benefits. Manufacturers and service providers win, as M2M-based devices help them become more cost-efficient and creative competitive edge through enhanced innovation in completely new markets. End-users win, as M2M helps them become more energy-efficient (so saving money), improves their quality of life and even saves lives. And the regulators and governments win, as M2M is key to making better use of finite national resources.

To take full advantage of this potential however, M2M providers must bring together technically-advanced yet robust technologies and first class service support, within a strongly price competitive offering available on a global scale. Tough demands indeed, but hugely rewarding if successful.

M2M technologies will have almost universal application across other commercial and consumer environments. This is one of those seemingly ambitious predictions that could end up being seriously understated.

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