Richard Feynman, Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and all-round genius, gave a seminal paper back in 1959, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, which is now widely seen as heralding the birth of nanotechnology. Many of the concepts that he explored today seem strangely relevant to the next stages of growth for the communications sector where new technologies – and a curiously human drive to connect everything to everything – are already opening up new markets to well-established players as well as a host of new entrants.
“China is targeting (the Internet of Things) as a major growth area for the country’s industries.” – Peter Zimmerman, Nokia Siemens Networks
What exactly you call this new market will probably depend on your business focus. For some, it’s machine-to-machine – or M2M. For others, it’s all about embedded devices – or connected devices.
However, just as has happened with so many other emerging telecoms and IT sectors over the years, it’s going to be important not to limit a wider vision too early on by becoming caught up in semantics as Jeff Edlund, Chief Technologist at HP’s CME division explains. “There is a big vocabulary problem here. There’s nothing especially new about M2M – and the industry has been doing it for years – but these have usually been in very narrow and siloed applications areas. You still run across people who only interpret things in terms of the technologies in use – such as NFC versus RFID versus Contactless Payment – for example.
“What’s catalysing the change is the availability of ubiquitous connectivity – and a new generation of sensors,” says Edlund. “That’s why there’s work underway at HP Labs on our Central Nervous System for the Earth, or CeNSE concept. The research and development programme aims to build a planet-wide sensing network using billions of tiny, cheap, tough and highly sensitive detectors.”
Complementing this all-encompassing vision are other concepts, like Ericsson CEO, Hans Vestberg’s recent prediction of 50 billion internet-connected devices by 2010. Andreas Hessler, Director of Ericsson’s 50 Billion Devices programme comments, “While M2M applications have been around for a while, a lot of our strategic direction is oriented to supporting consumer electronics – though boundaries naturally blur when you have devices that can essentially ‘look out’ from the internet through web cams and sensors, as well as ‘look in’ to access applications, information and content.”
Hessler continues, “Ultimately – and especially given the appearance of IPv6 and its ability to eliminate IP address exhaustion – everything will be addressable. The challenge for the communications sector will be to turn this connectivity into both a service and a business. For this reason, it’s vitally important that we don’t become too focused on developing extensive proprietary solutions.
“Many vertical market industry sectors already have their own protocols, engineering environments and specific market needs and it would be wrong to try and replicate these. There are some especial challenges for CSPs and the wider community: what’s the business model when a basic connectivity service might only bring in a few Euros a year – and how do you cope with provisioning and support with hundreds of thousands of consumer devices being activated almost simultaneously?” asks Ericsson’s Hessler.
This focus on understanding M2M from a service perspective is also echoed by Peter Zimmerman, Head of Smart Objects/M2M at Nokia Siemens Networks. “While we’ve had concepts like ‘The Internet of Things’ for a while now, the reality is that it’s a very fragmented environment with a certain lack of clarity about the direction the emerging value chain could take. That said, however, a lot of co-ordination work is underway. China, for example, is targeting this as a major growth area for the country’s industries, while in Europe there is the Future Internet Assembly coordinating a range of activities.
“Essentially, we need a new term here: ‘Smart Services’ to connect Smart Devices,” Zimmerman adds. “And there’s a key role for CSPs here in running premium services able to handle mobility and data quality and integrity. In many cases, the data load won’t be heavy at all but managing hundreds of thousands – or even millions of devices presents its own particular challenges.”
One of the organisations already playing a major co-ordinating role, as you might expect, is the GSMA with its Embedded Mobile programme, partnering across different verticals to try and develop best practice for the integration of mobile connectivity into different devices.
Ana Tavares, Senior Director, Strategy and Technology at the GSMA highlights current strategy says: “Terms can certainly be confusing in this area, which is why we decided to call our work ‘Embedded Mobile’ and we’re working with a wide number of different vertical markets and specialist vendors in areas like health, automotive and the utilities to see how we can all best work together. A number of these solutions will be on show at MWC this year in an ‘Embedded Mobile House’ in the courtyard there. We’ll also be releasing the second edition of our Guidelines for this area. Some of the topics we address in these include provisioning, test and certification, regulation, and policy and roaming, security and fraud.”
“Many large CSPs (are) keen to enter this market.” – Nigel Chadwick, Stream Communications
While co-ordination work continues in a variety of ways across multiple sectors, a number of hardware vendors and specialist service providers are already finding ways of successfully building businesses. Nigel Chadwick, Managing Director at Stream Communications, a specialist M2M MVNO, sees many large CSPs as keen to enter this market and exploit their strengths in network coverage, but simultaneously aware that it’s not currently worth building a business themselves.
“We’re essentially about giving mobile service providers a ready-to-go platform that they can re- badge to quickly get into areas like CCTV and security, digital signage running dynamic content and remote telemetry monitoring,” says Chadwick. “It’s a low margin business and we’re able to use our specialist knowledge in things like ruggedised SIMs, interconnects to OSS/BSSs and network reliability to get to market very quickly.”
A complementary perspective also comes from Mark Lucas, Sales Director at Eseye, a company focused on bringing M2M connectivity to device manufacturers. He says that M2M is an enabling technology – not an application in its own right. “In many contexts, M2M is about enabling and extending service delivery for product manufacturers, as many applications are basically extensions of products. If you’re a car manufacturer and one of your new vehicle options involves offering some sort of remote telemetry service then you need support for that – at a fixed cost – anywhere that that vehicle is shipped.
“Say you’re a medical fridge manufacturer and each of your products might hold tens of thousands of dollars worth of temperature-sensitive vaccines. You need an end-to-end solution that can be retro-fitted to existing products, connect in a variety of different ways – and send data back to an easily managed portal that can track and record temperatures for audit purposes – or send out automatic alerts. A service necessarily involves far more than just connectivity,” according to Lucas.
Opportunity for CSPs
The potential this holds for the future of CSPs is emphasised by Kevin Meagher, CEO of device management specialists, Intamac. “This is where CSPs have competitive advantage and opportunity. They have the infrastructure to manage the network and deal with customer service. Manufacturers want to embrace these new technologies – but they need the infrastructure in place to roll out a new generation of intelligent devices. Finally,” adds Meagher, “consumers won’t want to go to multiple websites to monitor and control individual devices – they want someone to pull them together on a single GUI. Leveraging broadband and exploiting the web by using cloud- based platforms is the key to success.”
Certain caveats do, however, need to be taken into account, as Peter Thompson, Chief Scientist at QoS/QoE specialists GoS Networks explains: “If the market really does accelerate to meet predictions there’ll also be exponential growth in the volume of data transiting the network. Some will be low-priority and not time-sensitive, but a significant proportion will be real-time and mission- critical and it will be essential to be able to manage this. CSPs deploying M2M solutions need to consider how they will cope with this demand from the outset.”
A final caveat also comes from a well-known industry anecdote. Back in 1995 a woman in Massachusetts kept being pestered – every 90 minutes – by silent calls. After months of this and an estimated 2,688 calls, police and the phone company finally tracked down the culprit. It was an empty oil storage tank in a basement, plaintively trying to tell its old supplier – long gone out of business – that it was now empty. The autodial number had been reassigned to the woman’s home.
This is a clear case of a real ‘Ghost in the Machine’ – and one to keep in mind as we give machines more connectivity and intelligence .