|Issue:||Europe II 2013|
|Topic:||The one trillion device question|
John Aalbers is Chief Executive Officer at Volubill, a real time Policy Management and Data Charging vendors. Mr Aalbers previously served as the VP of Charging and Billing Products at Intec Telecom Systems.Prior to joining Intec, he built successful businesses in EMEA and APAC for CGI (Computer Generation Inc.) culminating in the sale of CGI to Intec. He has direct experience in sales and business development, strategic and product marketing, delivery and support, acquisition integration and customer and partner management. He serves as an Executive Director of VoluBill S.A.
John Aalbers holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from the University of Melbourne.
There will be a trillion M2M devices by 2020 – virtually every thing around us will be interconnected via a network. In theory, we will even be able to lace human organs with Nano sensors to report on our health in real time. With everything connected the networks will be hard pressed to keep up, and a distress call from a patient’s pacemaker will need priority over someone’s TV re-run; policy controls will have to be at the center of M2M’s success.
When I think about the evolution of M2M, a line from the hilarious American TV show The Big Bang Theory springs to mind: “Everything is better with Bluetooth.”
That’s an over-simplification of M2M, but it does somewhat illustrate the sentiment of this movement. A better way to truly imagine M2M’s potential is this: look around the room you are in and imagine that virtually every thing you see is able to autonomously communicate with every other thing, even things on the other side of the world, via a digital connection. Such a grand promise, however, is not without its challenges.
By 2020, there are likely to be more than one trillion connected devices, equivalent to more than 250 times the current number of mobile phones in the entire world. And although M2M traffic is predicted to account for only about five percent of all global mobile data traffic, Cisco forecasts that traffic from M2M will increase 22-fold by just 2016.
But what does such an increase in data traffic mean for telecom operators? What are we going to use one trillion connected devices for? What is required to keep these devices secure, reliable, and useful?
Some of these questions are more easily answered than others. But, even as we can imagine some of M2Ms uses even now, fully comprehending how we will use trillions of new connected devices is all but impossible, and thus understanding the full impact that M2M will have on how to manage communications networks is equally opaque.
As cultures become more digitally-driven, entire economies and new industries may be built around the Internet of things, each with their own set of new needs and priorities. One thing, though, is certain: to make the most of M2M, we must understand its potential, complexities, and what solutions are needed to make this important technology work.
Five percent of all mobile traffic may not sound like much, but within that volume will be some of the most important everyday communications for society. The best example of how mission-critical M2M is likely to become is found, in my opinion, in healthcare.
A couple of years ago, I attended a conference at Berkeley University where a speaker said that it would soon be possible for nano-technologies to emit and receive digital signals. Even more amazing is that one of the theoretical uses for this is to lace human organs with Nano machines capable of independently monitoring and reporting on various health conditions in real time. Likewise, other medical devices like pacemakers, blood pressure monitors, even hip replacements, could be turned into digitally-communicating machines that would be able to, for instance, automatically call an ambulance in an emergency. With people’s health and wellbeing hanging in the balance, there are few applications where M2M’s immediate benefits are more apparent.
There are, however, ones that are less theoretical. In more rural communities like in the American Southwest and in some places in Australia and Africa, energy companies often find it difficult and costly to maintain their infrastructure. To know whether equipment is working, utilities must either wait for something to go wrong, or proactively send trucks and technicians out to inspect things. In most instances, though, the equipment would be ok, and all the utility company would get for its efforts was a fuel bill and a request for overtime pay.
As technologies have matured that can harness renewable sources of energy like sun and wind that are often abundant in such regions, grid operators have started to deploy self-sustaining power generation plants in these communities equipped with M2M technology. Like the medical devices that can automatically monitor and communicate in emergency situations, these sustainable power stations can report on how each component is operating, and even alert the utility that a part needs maintenance in advance of something truly going wrong. These solutions are saving the utilities operating costs and ensuring that customers have a more reliable power source.
The trucks and fleet drivers that these utilities and other logistics and transportation companies operate are themselves another great opportunity for M2M. Even now, many fleets are being equipped with M2M technologies that keep their parent organizations continuously connected to drivers, control the amount of bandwidth they can use, and the sites they are able to access. In the future, this might extend to offering drivers the ability to purchase their own data plan to use for personal and non-business related functions – all controlled from a central location so the enterprise can more efficiently manage its resources.
At a more grassroots level, in the very near future ordinary cars will sport more M2M technologies as the vision of the ‘connected car’ is realized. The very beginnings of this are already being seen as car manufacturers like Hyundai, Tesla, BMW and others have integrated their in-car navigation systems with Google Maps.
A direct extension of this can easily be imagined as, in keeping with their environmentally-conscious brand, Tesla could then integrate its navigation systems with pollution sensors, traffic monitors, and even charging stations. If pollution in a congested part of town becomes particularly bad, the navigation system could route the driver around the problem. Moreover, because the pollution was likely being caused by high traffic volume, avoiding that congested area would likely also save the driver time and driving range, changing where they might need to next charge up their car.
Smarter machines need smarter controls
Delivering an M2M solution requires lots of different systems and providers to all work in automated harmony: hardware manufacturing, hardware customization, application development and support, system integration, network connectivity, provisioning, billing, solution monitoring, mobile network operators, application and middleware vendors, device manufacturers, and even retailers. And let’s not forget that providers’ data traffic volumes will continue to grow significantly over the coming years – even without M2M’s growth fully considered.
So while the societal benefits of more connected devices are abundant, these smart services will require both better automation of all the elements supporting them, and also smarter management of the data they will create and that must run over telecommunications networks.
A popular sentiment for solving network capacity crunch problems, especially in the mobile arena, has been to simply add more capacity. When 2G was around, we were all assured 3G would solve our problems. When 3G got crunched, 4G was hailed as the savior. In November 2012, though, the UK regulator Ofcom declared that “the mobile data spectrum already earmarked for 4G services in the UK will not be enough to head off a serious capacity crunch in the next decade.” Ofcom’s solution? 5G!
5G may indeed free up more space, but it ignores the bigger problem: capacity crunch is an ongoing trend, and for M2M services that will also grow in abundance well in to the future, a smarter, longer term solution to bandwidth management is needed.
These network types themselves present another hurdle for M2M management. If M2M communications require transmitting data across international borders, systems will be needed to ensure interoperability between a continent like Africa, which delivers largely a mix of 2G and 3G service, and Europe or North America where networks are mostly 3G and 4G. Factor in Japan, which uses completely proprietary network technologies, and things are yet more challenging. Even within more developed countries, a huge mix of network types exist – 3G, Wifi, LTE, WiMax, Bluetooth, etc.
This level of complexity requires centralized policy controls to develop and enforce a set of rules that will ensure these connected devices, networks, users, and transaction systems all work in the automated way that is needed to make them useful.
Policy controls are not only required to simplify great complexity, though. An enormous benefit of using policy control and enforcement engines for M2M is the way it allows companies in the M2M value chain – especially operators – to manage data traffic through prioritization and quality of service (QoS). When operators first embarked on their journey to solve the capacity crunch a few years ago, they soon learned that addressing the problem by using heavy-handed controls could damage their customer-friendly image. Comcast’s subjective throttling of subscriber connection speeds that resulted in a ban of such practices, and AT&T’s iPhone-Effect reaction, are two often-cited examples of how blunt, defensive uses of policy to solve the capacity crunch did not go over well.
Now though, operators in some regions are coming at the capacity crunch from the other direction; creating services that offer incremental value to the consumer through prioritization of certain data types or applications in return for incremental new revenues. This is crucial for M2M both from the perspective of needing to manage traffic effectively, and understanding that all data is not created equal: as much as I love The Big Bang Theory, a Hulu video’s data simply doesn’t deserve prioritization on the network over a distress call from a patient’s pacemaker!
I believe M2M’s future is big and bright, and that policy controls will be at the center of its success. With a trillion devices connecting us in ways only science fiction may have imagined for us, smarter networks, smarter services, and smarter machines will become a crucial part of our lives.