Recent breakthroughs in cellular technology as well as other advances promise to carry machine-to-machine communications (M2M) beyond their current industrial and transportation uses and into more mainstream applications. Mike Ueland, vice president and general manager of Telit Wireless Solutions North America, describes the technology and where it’s heading next.
- Could you provide a brief definition of M2M?
In simple terms, M2M technology is defined by the wireless transmission of data from one device to another with no human interaction. The exchange takes place between wirelessly enabled devices and computer systems, and this communication can occur over a wide range of technological platforms, from low-power radio frequency (RF) to cellular network technologies. With the present range and ubiquity of cellular networks, most M2M applications today send and receive data through a cellular connection.
- What are the broad categories of M2M applications?
M2M technology fits into two distinct subcategories: telematics, referring to mobile applications and services, and telemetry, based around fixed devices. Telematics applications include devices used for fleet maintenance, asset tracking, and in-vehicle navigation systems. Telemetric M2M deployments, on the other hand, come in the form of smart utility metering, parking meters, remote displays, and other remote monitoring applications.
Aside from the distinction between telematics and telemetry, one could also categorize M2M applications in terms of markets. M2M devices already have a strong presence in the automotive market and are starting to penetrate the healthcare and consumer device markets.
- Do you have any figures estimating the number of M2M clients in use? Is it growing?
According to Analysys Mason, M2M deployments for 2010 reached approximately 62 million, but this number is set to sharply increase during the coming decade. Analysys Mason predicts that by 2020, the number of M2M deployments will reach 2.1 billion.
- What application dominates, if any?
Historically, M2M has focused on vertical market applications, like fleet management, remote monitoring, and utility meter reading. However, today there are also a number of emerging applications with a consumer focus, including pay-as-you-drive auto insurance, Smart Grid automation, e-readers (e.g., the Kindle, etc.), and connected personal navigation devices. Aftermarket automotive applications continue to dominate for module-based designs, but we anticipate a great opportunity and significant growth in the deployment of onboard infotainment systems within the next few years as the connected vehicle becomes the standard.
- What are some unique applications?
The applications that I consider the most unique are those that have the power to influence consumer behavior. Pay-as-you-drive insurance programs, for example, utilize M2M technology to provide insurance companies with real-time information about actual driving behavior. Based on good driving behavior, consumers can earn significant discounts on their policies (up to 30%) and effectively make the road a safer place.
Another example of an influential M2M application is a pill reminder device from Aaah. GlowCaps from Aaah wirelessly connect pill bottle caps to provide medication reminders to seniors and monitor prescription adherence, providing this information to physicians and pharmacists. By monitoring medication consumption, GlowCaps helps seniors stay healthier and reduces costly trips to the doctor and the emergency room.
- What are the main components of an M2M product?
The core components of a module-based M2M application include the module itself (see the figure), antenna, microcontroller, and some sort of power supply. Additional inputs and outputs, audio connections, and a SIM card holder for GSM applications are optional and depend on the specific requirements of the application.
- Is licensing, certification, or testing of the product necessary? Who does the engineer contact if so?
Unlike other wireless technologies, cellular operators require that developers earn network-specific certification for their product in order to launch it on their cellular network. In addition to carrier certification, there are potentially other industry certifications that are required, such as PTCRB (PCS-1900 Type Certification Review Board), prior to launching an embedded cellular product.
Most applications, those with less than 1 million annual units per year, should use a pre-certified cellular module. A pre-certified module will reduce time-to-market, technical risk, IPR (intellectual property rights) risk, test equipment for the production line, and other supply-chain considerations. As certification requirements vary by technology and carrier, Telit helps customers by guiding them through the process and acting as a key contact for engineers.
- Where does the user of the M2M product go for the cellular service? Are the regular carriers the source or different ones?
Cellular M2M devices run over the same cellular networks as your typical mobile handset. Major operators such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, in fact, have started to turn to M2M and its great market potential as a revenue stream to offset the low growth rates in their core voice business. These carriers have demonstrated an interest in promoting M2M technology by establishing dedicated organizations and business units to support M2M deployments.
- The basis of most designs is the module. What are some basic guidelines for selecting a module? What are the key specs?
Module selection is largely determined by the size and requirements of the application itself. For compact designs, engineers must select a module that maintains the smallest form factor possible while meeting bandwidth requirements. Other applications might require a more rugged module that can withstand extreme temperatures, as in the case of an in-vehicle telematics device, for example.
With all applications, a customer’s network coverage and data speed requirements will be crucial factors in their module choice, as modules are designed to connect with specific network technologies.
- How does one choose between GSM and CDMA type modules?
When designing an application with low-bandwidth data requirements, 2G remains the most cost efficient option for M2M. Within the realm of 2G, GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technologies are the two options for deployment. GSM is the global standard for cellular networks and has been adopted widely across geographies, making GSM the best option for companies looking to launch their applications internationally.
CDMA, on the other hand, though less popular in Europe, is a viable option in North America and Asia. Within the U.S., CDMA is generally considered to hold a significant advantage in widespread coverage and reliability, offering quality-of-service benefits over GSM. Developing for either technology offers its own unique cost advantages. While GSM components are less expensive, pricing on CDMA M2M service plans can provide better savings over time depending on the data requirements of the application. (The figure shows a typical 3G module.)
- What are the usual interfaces on the module to which the application is attached?
The application attaches to either USB or UART (serial) interfaces on the module to send commands and instructions to the cellular module from the microcontroller or application processor.
- What external circuitry is usually needed? Embedded microcontroller? Sensors?
It depends on the application. Typically, embedded controllers and sensors are both core elements that allow for wireless M2M communication.
- What is the typical wireless path range that can be achieved? Is it just to the nearest cell site?
In cellular M2M devices, the module will always communicate to the cell towers. Therefore, the choice of technology and carrier network coverage is very important, as this will determine the quality of the connection and overall performance of the application. Typical range is up to several miles, but that will vary with the network and the environment.
- How do the latest 3G and 4G technologies impact M2M?
Though second generation (2G) networks are the standard for the M2M space, largely due to the low bandwidth requirements of most M2M applications, 3G and ultimately 4G networks will slowly work themselves into the mix as they offer more widespread coverage.
In their current state, 3G modules are more costly than their 2G counterparts, and for most M2M applications, the low levels of data transfer render this technological upgrade unnecessary. 3G modules also run larger and require a more costly data service plan, increasing the overall size and cost of the application. Some devices, however, call for heavy-bandwidth data traffic such as video distribution, for example, and will thus demand a 3G connection.
Engineers may also look to 3G modules that are backwards compatible with 2G networks, as this will combat device obsolescence in the event of 2G network shutoff. This is especially important for applications such as smart utility meters that are designed to last between 10 and 15 years.
Designers weigh these and other factors in choosing their modules and will soon consider 4G options as module providers supply new technology compatible with these networks.
- Is there any software development needed in the design?
Embedded designers are able to develop their hardware and software interfaces around the embedded module. Embedded cellular modules are controlled by a central microprocessor through AT Commands. Module suppliers like Telit publish their own AT Command instruction set, which includes not only common AT Commands that are supported by all manufacturers, but also provider-specific commands that control unique module feature sets.
- What is Telit’s role in the industry?
As a module company, Telit plays a central role in the deployment of M2M applications. In addition to providing the module itself, enabling the cellular connectivity of these devices, Telit helps engineers determine the proper avenue for connecting their applications to cellular networks and guides designers through device development. Maintaining relationships with wireless operators and other hardware providers, Telit offers not only its own expertise but also a network of trusted partners to facilitate the design process.
- Do you have any advice for an engineer designing or contemplating an M2M project?
Especially for engineers with little experience in the M2M space, it is crucial to choose an established module supplier and cellular carrier partner early in the process. These relationships will be the key to ensuring that best practices are followed and reduce technical risk. Partnerships will additionally accelerate time-to-market and help engineers capitalize on the vast opportunity in M2M.
Though the design process is more complicated than that of standard embedded designs, considering the additional certifications and unfamiliarity with the technology, the ubiquity of cellular technology and the widespread reach of networks make an undeniable case for the business opportunities in integrated cellular devices.
- Are there any online resources, organizations, or other info sources available?
Originally created for Telit customers, Telit has established its own Technical Support Forum with open access for the entire M2M community. System integrators, developers, and partner companies can exchange opinions and ideas amongst themselves and receive valuable assistance, at any time, in their daily work from the four Telit Technical Support Centers (TTSCs) around the world. At the same time, the open forum offers an invaluable technical knowledge database on everything concerning M2M.