Machine-to-machine sector revs up
Machine-to-machine, or M2M, communications sounds like science fiction but happens 24/7 worldwide for applications as simple as utility meter reading and as complex as energy load shedding during peak usage times.
Not only is M2M happening daily, it is growing and extending its reach tremendously. The FocalPoint Group predicts the demand for wireless M2M applications will measure in the “billions” of dollars by 2008 — and vendors and service providers are taking notice. Currently, wireless pager-based communications networks provide a seamless glue to link remote devices and control servers for monitoring, control and operations (MCO) applications in the utilities industry, for vehicle fleet management and for other remote-monitoring applications, but cellular phone-based M2M systems are predicted to displace pager networks during the next few years.
Pager company SkyTel has leveraged its investment in its North American two-way network to become a major player in the M2M space, with hundreds of thousands of deployed monitoring units and more than 150 developers and value-added resellers in its portfolio. SkyTel started out in the M2M space by selling airtime to value-added resellers and working with Motorola to create a device dedicated to M2M applications on the company’s network.
“We said, ‘Well, this is a great [pager] network, but what if we could use our other assets in communications? What else can we do to grow the business?” said Steve Davidson, product manager for SkyTel Telemetry. “Last year, the company started to take an even stronger look at telemetry.”
SkyTel first added an end-to-end product for fleet vehicle tracking, selling a complete package that included airtime, hardware, and application and billing software. Marketed to metropolitan companies with small and medium-sized fleets, the product was successful enough to spur SkyTel to develop a more generic telemetry device and supporting services that could be applied to a wider range of applications. “Let it be something that can monitor a gas tank, or a vending machine, or an HVAC, or whatever,” Davidson said.
Today, SkyTel provides either simple airtime on its network or a complete turnkey solution that corporations can tap into, with the company providing the network, device installation, Web site for data reporting and customer service staff. Called SkyTel Remote Access, the solution provides customers with a ready-to-go M2M solution. “You simply manage the physical integration of the device into the host assets. There’ll be a little work [the customer] will have to do, but it’s a lot faster,” Davidson said. “You’re getting it all delivered and serviced from one company. If a part doesn’t work, you can call one number.”
SkyTel’s 900 MHz pager frequencies provide a key advantage in buildings. “Two-way paging technology is the absolute thing for in-building penetration. If you are monitoring inside, you want something that can penetrate indoors,” Davidson said. For applications such as monitoring HVAC units buried in the basement of a building, such coverage is crucial. “There’s a lot of store-and-forward and guaranteed-for-delivery algorithms built into the network that you don’t find in cellular technology,” he said.
However, turnkey solutions aren’t for everyone. One of SkyTel’s early customers, Carrier Air, primarily buys network airtime. Carrier has a wireless thermostat that it sells to utility companies. Installed into a home or business, the utility company provides a monetary credit on the customer’s monthly bill in exchange for allowing it to set back the air-conditioning unit during high power demand, saving the utility from having to buy electricity at peak rates.
Aeris.Net has a more focused approach to the M2M market. “We are a specialized network operator focused on the embedded market, embedded devices,” said Robert Schoenfield, senior vice president of marketing and business development. “The devices are embedded in something — in a truck, in a pipeline, in a host of different devices. If an exception occurs, it self-reports.”
The company’s patented Microburst service operates everywhere there is wireless coverage, delivering data wirelessly onto CDMA, GSM and AMPS wireless networks through the cellular telephone network’s control channel. “We have two SS7 systems to route messages from the cellular network, so it typically takes three to six seconds — with confirmation. When you’re dealing with very mission-critical applications, it is critical to know that [the] message will get through,” Shoenfield said.
Aeris.Net has more than 800,000 devices utilizing its network in May and an additional 1000 devices being added daily. Microburst initially was designed to deliver 25-digit-long data packets in a very rugged environment with high reliability and low latency, but some customers are asking for longer message sizes.
“We’ve implemented our SMS service on the SS7 network, so our DirectSM service can deliver 150 bytes in both directions,” Shoenfield said. “One other approach is a packet radio, like EV-DO.”
Aeris.net has leveraged its mastery of telephone networks to automate the provisioning of services for customers in the home-alarm sector. “When [an alarm system] gets installed in your home, all the installer has to do is turn it on. We’ve thinned out a lot of steps in installing and deploying devices,” Shoenfield said. “Wireless is currently around five percent of the alarm market, but companies are looking to use it as the primary means of communication, with the backup being the phone line. A wireless message gets to a central reporting station up to 30 seconds faster before a landline dialer even makes a connection. There’s also the cost savings of not having to run outside phone wires.”
The company also is bullish on lower-end telematics, specifically in-the-field vehicles wired with electronic reporting systems. “OnStar has educated the market for quite a while, but it’s a concierge service,” Shoenfield said. “[People] would like to have stolen-vehicle-recovery and airbag-deployment messages sent automatically, along with some convenience features like remote start. Those are really pure data mechanisms and as the cost of the device, and the cost of service become sub-$10 per month, it becomes very affordable.” The per-month cost for an embedded vehicle monitoring system — with a GSM location chip — is about $250 with an additional $3 to $7 per month for airtime.
Siemens also is bullish on M2M but doesn’t believe pager frequencies are the way to go. “The analog [pager] network is being shut down. OEMs that used to work with the pager network in the commercial industrial field are now moving to GSM,” said Peter Fowler, Siemens’ North American vice president of sales for M2M equipment, citing Honeywell as one example.
Erik Michaelsen, an analyst at ABI Research who focuses on ubiquitous networks, echoed Fowler’s view that GSM is the wave of the future.
“The cellular [GSM] momentum is picking up; there’s more capabilities being added every year. Pager networks might work nicely for simple solutions, but as larger companies get involved, they’re going for better bandwidth and more reliable communications,” Michaelsen said. “With more embedded applications, you’re going to want larger bandwidth connections to do firmware upgrades to devices in a way that you can’t do with pager networks.” Michaelsen said the cost of developing and producing GSM-based M2M boards can piggy back off cellular manufacturers, decreasing the component price.
Siemens is the global leader for GSM OEM solutions, with 38% of the worldwide market in 2004. The company offers several different board-level products that integrate a GSM radio designed and pre-certified to transmit data and voice.
“If you have Cingular/T-Mobile coverage in the U.S., then you have coverage for machine-to-machine,” Fowler said.
Device manufacturers have the choice of integrating three different data speeds into their solutions, according to Fowler. The basic GSM/GRS data rate is about 115 kb/s, while the higher-speed EDGE service can deliver a maximum data rate of 364 kb/s. In November, Siemens will introduce an high speed downlink packet access-standard board capable of speeds up to 10 Mb/s to complement Cingular’s high-speed data service rollout. Per-unit cost for a GSM board is “sub $100,” Fowler said.
In North America, Siemens has an additional advantage because it is one of a few companies willing to customize its GSM product for Cingular, “The U.S, is a very difficult market to address,” Fowler said. “Cingular requires a second module.”
Nokia, RIM and Novatel all left the North American M2M market because of the high cost of developing a separate GSM solution.
In contrast, Siemens’ GSM module is finding its way into the new Fiat automobile line, point-of-sale providers such as Verifone and theft-recovery applications.
Advanced messaging network
- SkyTel network operating center
- Base transmitter
- This transceiver reports remote data and is the actual “paging device.”
- Base receiver
- Frame relay