Every day in publications such as M2M Now, we can read of new, exciting and useful M2M services emerging within the vertical segments. For example, Intelligent Transport Systems which integrate operational systems with enhanced passenger experience, and advanced Smart Grid and wider energy applications which will help to conserve our precious resources. Beyond this, the concept of the Smart City promises to bring all of this together into one coherent organism through which we can live safer, greener and healthier lives thanks to the Internet of Things.
But before we can even think about arriving at that destination, there is one obstacle that we have yet to widely discuss, let along conquer; that is crossing the verticals with advanced new intelligent and automated services and applications. At the
New complexity in the value chain
Part of the reason for this gap in our thinking is the enormous complexity of the ecosystem and value chain in M2M services and capabilities. From the communication service provider (CSP) perspective, the advent of SmartPhones saw the beginning of a fundamental change in the value chain, a change which saw them with a diminished share of the total revenue due to new application and content providers who were originally termed over-the-top players.
The concepts of M2M communications and the Internet of Things takes us further along that path, to the extent that it is estimated that for a telco limiting their offering to pure connectivity, their share of the revenue pie will not exceed 15%. So, here we are in a situation where the only member of the M2M ecosystem that could be argued to be ‘vertically agnostic’ has, in fact, a limited ability to pull together the different parts of an advanced, socially-focused ecosystem by virtue of their limited share of the spoils.
Table 1 shows a few examples of the type of solutions that require co-operation across the verticals, and the benefits they bring. This is by no means exhaustive, but serves to give us a glimpse of the prize, and the type of capabilities we aspire to.
Table 1. Solutions requiring co-operation across the verticals, and their benefits
Putting the brakes on traffic management
As we try to understand the solution to this problem, it is worth considering an example where perhaps it is easy to identify the barriers to progress – that is the management of city centre traffic flows. Here we have a scenario where the technologies exist today to build an automated traffic control system which senses traffic flow and automatically makes decisions on how to redirect the traffic to avoid the jams.
This is a classic M2M communication challenge which we can solve by enabling traffic control technologies to communicate, in real-time, with traffic signals and on-board vehicle systems, using real-time prediction algorithms to create intelligence within the solution. So, technically the problem has a reasonable solution which would not be too difficult to implement, but that which requires intimate collaboration between the municipal government, the transport vertical and automotive manufacturers and hence, in real life, things are not that simple.
We must grapple with issues such as the accessibility and availability of big data, standards, control of data quality for either non-profit public access or licensing for commercial use, plus of course that the investment in such a solution has some political implications on local, state and central government priorities. All of these are complex issues, coupled with the fact that we need to integrate solutions like this into other initiatives aimed at reducing the overall number of vehicles on the roads such as congestion charging and driver education programmes designed to change behaviour. Taking all this into account presents an enormous mountain to climb and it is not hard to understand why it is taking time to happen.
Beginning the journey
Several cities/projects offer partial solutions to this challenge. In Shanghai there are large electronic signs over major roads that display real-time traffic information and congestion on nearby arterials and freeways with green, yellow, red colour-codes (red being severe traffic) to guide drivers away from congested roads. Shanghai’s central business areas also have real time signage indicating the number of parking spaces in nearby car parks and garages.
San Francisco is experimenting with a parking availability trial that involves real-time charging and space availability delivered to smartphones and PCs that enable trip planning in advance. The city discovered that people circling business districts looking for parking contributed to over one third of all congestion.
Another example is the Highways Agency network in UK, where more than 10,000 road signs are managed along with CCTV cameras to monitor the traffic, and to use this information to dynamically open the hard shoulders on the road side to ease the flow during peak congestion.
But so far no solution has gone all the way, and so far there do not seem to be any legal frameworks, regulatory requirements or standards developed to support the re-use of government information resources for city travel and traffic.
Are we building silos?
So we have a scenario, which broadly speaking applies to many of the cross-vertical M2M challenges, in which we have the technical capabilities to implement a solution but we are held up but the way we organise our society, our cities and our institutions. We must also face the fact that right now, whilst our M2M/Smart City progress is being made mainly in vertical stovepipes, we could be building up a problem for the future. At some point we will be faced with the challenge of integrating these massive silos, and at that time their compatibility will be key, and it is this compatibility that will diminish unless we succeed in developing integrated solutions from an early stage.
It is not as simple as laying this at the doorstep of our government, but it is also interesting to note where the progress is actually being made. Smart cities themselves are not being driven and funded as projects very often by governments, but instead by private sector verticals, but where they are, these kinds of issues are being resolved more quickly. So perhaps we can conclude that increasing the involvement of government in a leadership role in Smart City initiatives involving key M2M applications would result in a better outcome, faster.