Cellular and M2M: A checklist of cellular considerations for M2M deployment

cell-tower-in-blue-sky

If it seems like everyone has a cell phone these days, that’s not too far from the truth. A recent International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report estimates that the total number of global, mobile-cellular subscriptions is approximately 6.8 billion—similar to the estimated world population. Cellular networks have nearly universal and ubiquitous coverage, with roughly 200 countries connected to an active cellular voice and data network. New technology and picocell deployment are even expanding the current network space, allowing users to access cellular coverage within once-dark zones like shopping malls, large corporate buildings and even underground subway stations.

Over the years, cellular has become the best choice for M2M (Machine to Machine) wide area network communications because cell phone coverage is virtually everywhere. Over the years, cellular networks have developed and advanced to become a natural pair with M2M technologies for the following reasons:

  • M2M is supported best by cellular networks’ near universal coverage—cellular coverage is ubiquitous in all but the most remote regions of the world.
  • Reliability is critical for M2M applications, especially those involving security and real-time monitoring and alerts. Cellular outages, though rare, can be noticed and acted upon immediately, versus less reliable alternatives such as Wi-Fi connections.
  • Data costs have fallen significantly, resulting in increased use of and access to M2M capabilities. The cost for a connected machine to report small amounts of data can be as little as $1/month.
  • More people can afford to cellular-enable products and assets because costs have decreased significantly over the years.

So while it’s clear that M2M and cellular belong together, cellular M2M deployment strategies must be carefully crafted.  The following are major points to consider for cellular M2M deployment:

  • Global network markets. Currently, global cellular networks are primarily based on 2G and 3G GSM, with few exceptions. Global LTE is trickier—it is still only found primarily in developed nations, and coverage is limited to major urban areas.
  • Product lifecycle and network longevity. In light of current and future network infrastructure changes driven migration to the 4G LTE network, careful consideration must be made, and all mid-to-long term product and network roadmaps should seriously consider a strategy based on LTE or LTE with fallback support for 2G and 3G.
  • Module cost.  For those considering embedded solutions, there are still significant cost differences between 2G, 3G and 4G LTE modules, and while LTE modules are the most cost prohibitive, costs are expected to drop as LTE deployments increase. Many factors influence module cost, such as module vendor, purchasing volumes and feature support, and it is best to work directly with one of the leading module vendors for more specific pricing information.
  • Deployment environment. For those deploying M2M solutions using external cellular routers or gateways, make sure you deploy networking devices that can stand up to the deployed environment. Consumer-grade products won’t hold up in environments that need hardened or industrial-grade solutions.    
  • Data cost. When engaging on a new cellular design or considering cellular technology for M2M or IoT applications, it is critical to engage with the cellular carriers early to formulate data plan options and costs.

Many factors need to be considered when deploying cellular M2M products—and these factors will continue to evolve. Making the right decision is critical and can help prevent overrun budgets, delays, frustration and end-user dissatisfaction. Cellular and M2M are a perfect pair, but only if proper considerations are made when designing the next great M2M application.

 

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