M2M and the promise of LTE/4G

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter’s approach.

Fourth-generation Long-Term Evolution (LTE) cell technology will be a boon for machine-to-machine (M2M) technology, providing the bandwidth needed to help us realize the promise of everything becoming connected. The trick will be figuring out where and how to use 4G to complement existing 2G and 3G M2M networks, many of which are performing just fine.

Twenty years ago the concept of remotely monitoring and/or controlling distributed assets and devices was mostly reserved for large and expensive investments like power plants and dams. Today's new connected products exemplified by e-books and cars (think OnStar) are coming to market with increased frequency. And that's just the world that the average consumer sees. On the business-to-business side, M2M has become an integral part of telematics, marketing, power monitoring and the smart grid, manufacturing, fast food, security and healthcare.

ROUNDUP: 5 things you need to know about LTE

One early leap in the development and deployment of M2M technologies involved 2G networks and the move from analog to digital. According to Beecham Research, "over 90% of existing wireless M2M modules, excluding e-readers and similar consumer devices, operate on 2G networks."

There are several reasons for this market penetration: 2G is "cheap"; it delivers enough bandwidth for many tasks; 2G networks are the most widely deployed worldwide and support a large variety of embedded, reliable, low-cost components.

2G is sufficient for applications that have low bandwidth requirements and are cost-sensitive. Automatic meter readers for the Smart Grid, many home security systems and basic telematics service are examples of perfectly acceptable 2G applications.

But one challenge for the operators is that it's more expense to move a bit of information over 2G than 3G and 4G. So as operators are looking to make more efficient use of their spectrum, 2G is less than ideal.

After 2G is, of course, 3G. 3G has actually given us a glimpse of what 4G is going to look like, because we know where 3G leaves end users desiring more. 3G opened new doors in M2M, with its ability to provide more data at faster rates, support for video and its capacity to send large packets and files.

On the consumer side 3G technology is standard in most products, including e-readers, tablets, PC cards and dongles. On the B-to-B side we've seen larger amounts of data transmitted as more complex applications continue to come online across industries. Examples of applications include remote patient monitoring, remote industrial equipment management and monitoring of sensor networks.

Because 3G offers a vast increase in the speed over 2G, developers are able to produce interesting and richer applications that require more data. For these applications, the incremental cost of moving from 2G to 3G is easily justified. 3G can simply do things that 2G can't.

Entering the world of 4G and LTE is a different matter, because in this instance, some existing 3G applications may just be "made better." And better is sometimes not worth the additional cost to the consumer.

Where does 4G promise to excel? What are some of the barriers to transition? These are common questions for curious observers. In the final analysis we will probably see a future (three years out) that has a place for 2G, 3G and 4G. There are a couple of significant drivers that will come to play as the operators go through their capital replacement cycles.

One of the most important considerations involves more efficient use of spectrum. Spectrum is a limited resource and costs billions of dollars. If you look at the impact of products like the iPhone that can literally overtax a network, you can see that being able to get more data through the same resource will be a significant driver for operators to upgrade to the latest technologies.

For companies deploying M2M solutions, many technology decisions begin at the device side with an assessment of the form factors of equipment involved in a deployment. 4G involves more complicated devices. There's more engineering embedded in them, and in short, they take up more space. There may be devices that simply can't be engineered around the space that a 4G solution requires because of their form factor -- as long as 2G networks are around, that is.

Another issue is how long the 2G networks will remain active. This is not a simple question, but relies on a number of factors: whether the 2G network is fully depreciated, the cost to operate the network, assurance of supply agreements (think of utilities and their meter deployments) and, as mentioned, the requirement to make efficient use of the limited spectrum.

4G deployments have already begun in Europe and are now beginning in the U.S. Verizon is in the process of deploying a nationwide LTE system, which will provide close to ubiquitous coverage with speeds of up to 100Mbps.

With the historical context of 2G and 3G established, what does this world look like and who is going to play in it? Well, that depends on where you're standing.

Let's start in the home. An LTE-enabled connected household may sport some features we'd all like to see. Imagine transmitting video from your 4G-enabled camera to the cloud and having it appear on your grandmother's TV.

Home healthcare and senior management with video and patient data will be important as the population continues to age. LTE technology will provide the bandwidth to provide smooth video-to-video communication, and this same bandwidth will enable robust social networking and wireless gaming. LTE will extend into mobile entertainment on demand, and could have a profound effect on how Hollywood and the television networks decide to deliver their content.

Let's leave the house and look at the car, or any moving vehicle, because LTE will have a sizable impact on the telematics space. LTE offers the promise of transforming vehicles into real mobile communications centers, offering heightened security, infotainment and a host of outbound data flow. Here's a short list of what the M2M connected car of the future might like:

• Safety and security: Tracking and stolen vehicle recovery, wrong way driver alerts, emergency assistance, crash notification, approaching emergency vehicle warning, maintenance alerts, remote door unlock.

• Connected experiences and infotainment: Interactive gaming, car as a mobile hotspot, full Internet experience with real-time news, movies, etc; personal CE device integration.

• Cost savings: Location-based coupons, eco applications, low gas prices.

• Convenience: Weather, concierge services, Bluetooth and voice features, vehicle diagnostics, electronic vehicle charging station.

Security is an obvious area and utilizes some of the same features found in the connected car or in the entertainment sector. Real-time video access to monitoring systems anywhere is an easy extension of what's already happening with surveillance today. But what are the enhanced applications?

Homeland Security has many potential applications for M2M LTE solutions, from border monitoring to remote facial recognition, TSA screening and facilities monitoring and management. The military is actively involved in pushing this technology to its limits with its drone programs, remote surveillance technologies and control over field distributed personnel and equipment. The military has historically been a driver of technology, and this current burst of activity will begin trickling into the mainstream within the next few years.

M2M connected healthcare is another area where LTE will enhance current applications and provide an opportunity for the development of new and needed solutions. This market is still nascent and complicated, with ecosystem issues such as liability, payer and regulatory issues, but the promise of M2M-enabled LTE solutions is too important to ignore. Some research suggests the market for telemedicine devices and services will generate $3.6 billion in annual revenue within five years (Health Data Management, October 2009).

There are a myriad of applications currently being planned or slated for enhancement. These include electronic medical record population and processing, treatment advice and education, home health management and medical asset tracking. At-home chronic care and at-home diagnostics are two of the strongest and most interesting aspects of this category, offering a host of monitoring services that could supplement or in some cases replace the need for personal in-home visits from health providers.

Utilities are another important area where existing M2M applications will be enhanced and new applications will be developed with the advent of LTE. The M2M utilities vertical is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 42% over the next several years.

There is an ongoing dialogue concerning the Smart Grid, which seems to focus primarily on meter reading. As discussed, much of this is served by 2G solutions. The backbone of this grid will lie in management and control, which will serve to create greater efficiencies and "greener" energies.

LTE will affect Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) -- systems used to monitor and control transmission and distribution equipment, field engineering, the automated meter infrastructure and inventory management. One of the key advantages of LTE-enabled M2M solutions will lie in reducing the high costs of data collection and on-site services and remotely managing and tweaking power generation and T&D facilities for maximum efficiency based on increased access to more robust data.

As happens when any new technology comes to the market, there are opportunities from incumbents as well as new entrants. The move to 4G is no different. Factors that may propel or hold back adoption or development include:

• Availability and cost of modems

• Device form factor requirements

• Useful life of legacy devices versus replacement costs

• Availability of other technologies

• Ubiquity of network coverage

• New service pricing models

• Speed of market adoption for new technologies

• Legislation

It is likely that as LTE becomes the new standard and reaches a point of ubiquity, the older technologies will eventually be phased out and replaced. The ultimate promise of M2M and LTE will be a world in which connectivity is expected and demanded. That day is coming soon.

nPhase, a 50/50 joint venture between Qualcomm and Verizon, provides advanced machine-to-machine (M2M) cloud platform services to leading wireless operators and enterprise customers with the most demanding needs for data reliability, coverage, security and innovation in M2M. nPhase is headquartered in San Diego. For more information see www.nphase.com.

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This story, "M2M and the promise of LTE/4G" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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