Magazine Article | January 26, 2012

M2M To Drive Wireless Connectivity Growth

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Pedro Pereira, Field Technologies magazine

Carriers beef up networks to handle increased data traffic.

Consumers had their turn sending wireless connectivity demand into the stratosphere, and now carriers see machines taking over. Carriers expect staggering growth starting in 2012 driven by M2M (machine-to-machine) technology, and to accommodate it, they are working to beef up networks, improve voice quality, and expand wireless coverage.

Looking back at the past 12 months, carriers say consumers were at the wheel, driving up connectivity demand with tablets and smartphones. Video and audio-streaming applications, particularly, have generated mindboggling amounts of data traffic. And, as consumers drive up wireless traffic, enterprises meanwhile are looking at how to leverage advanced mobile applications, particularly in the rugged device space.

"The new opportunity is in the world of connected things," says Howard Faber, VP of sales, transportation, and distribution at Verizon Wireless. "The growth in that space is endless. Even a year ago, when I was talking to large enterprises, they were still focused on applications on devices like the Android. Now, it's how to get M2M-connected." Faber expects to see M2M growth rates of 400% to 500% in the next three or four years.

Already in 2011, says John Tudhope, director of product marketing, applications, and solutions at Sprint, U.S. carriers handled more data than voice traffic. "Within the next three years, data traffic is expected to be 66 times what it was in 2008," Tudhope says. Globally, according to research by Analysys Mason, M2M connections will grow to 2.1 billion devices in 2020, up from 62 million in 2010.

The Enterprise Will Demand Specialized Mobile Devices
With M2M, the market for devices built for specific industries or that handle specialized applications will widen. Despite the popularity of consumer-focused devices, Faber says enterprises will gravitate to purpose-built rugged machines. They are more expensive than typical consumer devices, with prices ranging from $800 to $1,500, but offer a shelf life of six or seven years, he says.

That is not to say businesses will shun smartphones and tablets. "Many smartphones and tablets offer features such as signature capture and bar code scanning, but companies that perform these functions on a large scale may require specialty devices," says Mobeen Khan, executive director, advanced mobility solutions, for AT&T Business Solutions.

Such is the case in field service organizations, where rugged handhelds are used extensively. "Handheld computing devices can capture bar codes and electronic signatures, access technical documentation, run custom forms, and even provide biometric security features to control access to the device. One device can now replace multiple ones, streamlining the service process even more," says Tudhope.

Away from the field (in industries such as healthcare), M2M is eliminating paperwork, increasing productivity, and performing critical functions, says Brian Allred, senior account manager, M2M, for wireless booster maker Wilson Electronics. "Many home health monitoring devices can send data back to healthcare providers or interface with your own smartphone," he says. "Companies can get important and sometimes critical data back to their offices almost immediately rather than having to wait several hours to several days. It is a lot easier for companies to go truly paperless now."

Expanding Cellular Coverage
The projected vertiginous M2M growth puts considerable strain on carrier networks, and the carriers are responding by investing in new technology to improve speed, coverage, and overall quality. AT&T says it made 48,000 upgrades to its wireless network last year and deployed HSPA-plus (high speed packet access) to nearly 100% of its mobile broadband network. "Enterprise users should expect to see faster speeds, more advanced devices, and an increasingly robust set of mobile applications for business in 2012," says AT&T's Khan. On the 4G front, AT&T has launched 4G LTE in 15 markets and had expected to cover 70 million users at the end of 2011.

4G coverage to increase significantly in 2012, while continuing to offer WiMAX-based 4G. "Our goal is for Sprint customers to enjoy 4G capabilities without a need to consider whether the technology is LTE (long term evolution, a 4G technology) or WiMAX," says Tudhope.

Verizon has been adding new markets to its 4G LTE broadband network and expects to be in 190 markets at the end of 2011, covering more than 200 million Americans. Faber says in addition to providing the widest coverage, Verizon has made changes in marketing and sales. To keep the carrier attuned to specific customer needs, he says, Verizon has created enterprise business units focused on specific verticals, such as rail, airlines, and distribution.

Common Corporate Wireless Challenges
The proliferation of mobile devices in the workplace has created challenges for the enterprise, including device management, security, and cost control. Carriers say enterprises need comprehensive management plans and security policies to address the challenges.

Sprint offers customers a suite of managed services to remotely monitor and manage mobile devices that includes security, life cycle and billing management, and reporting and analysis. "Implementing a comprehensive mobility management solution is a necessity for organizations of all sizes in order to adequately manage the growing volume and diversity of mobile devices in the workplace," says Tudhope.

Khan says AT&T is working to address mobility security risks. "As smartphone adoption continues to grow, technologists and researchers expect criminals to step up efforts with new delivery mechanisms for attacks," he explains. Businesses, he adds, must be proactive in protecting their networks through mobile device management. AT&T offers a product called Toggle that compartmentalizes business data into walled-off containers on personal devices to reduce risks.

Another challenge businesses face, says Allred, involves cell tower proximity. "Distance from the cell tower will always be a difficulty for any sort of application in a rural area. Obviously, the farther away you get from a cell tower, the lower amount of signal you get," he says, pointing out signal boosters address this issue.

The Concern With Mobile Data Privacy
The proliferation of mobile devices and M2M growth will prompt businesses to send and ask customers for more and more information. Airlines will ask for more travel plan information to sync up with car rental services and hotels, for instance. Or, retailers will want to push out information to smartphones of potential customers who are within a mile of a store to draw them in. This adds value, says Faber, but also raises privacy questions, and individuals ultimately have to decide how much of their private data they want to share to take advantage of these types of services.