Magazine Article | November 19, 2008

What Do You Know About Wireless Modules And M2M?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Industry experts explain the differences in wireless modules that power M2M (machine-to-machine) solutions and provide examples of how M2M can impact your business.

Integrated Solutions, December 2008

Wireless technology provides us with a constant person-to-person communication we have come to depend on — I know I feel stranded when my cell phone battery dies or I forget my phone at home. Many businesses also rely on the technology to receive calls and emails around the clock and stay in contact with mobile workers. However, today's wireless technology has evolved to enable M2M communication as well. M2M is wireless data communication between two machines. This communication is made possible by a wireless module, which transmits data from one machine to another (usually a server loaded with software to decipher and manage the information) over a cellular network.

If you're unfamiliar with M2M, it can be a complex technology to comprehend. The first step to grasping M2M is to understand the types of wireless modules that can power these solutions and how they work. Next, you should realize the scenarios in which M2M can be deployed and the business benefits it can provide. Recently, I sought the help of some M2M industry experts to offer insight on what you need to know about wireless modules and how M2M can affect your business. 

Understand Wireless Module Differentiators
"The first difference to consider with a wireless module is the infrastructure it uses, which determines the cellular carrier you'll be able to use for your M2M solution," says Mike Ueland, VP and general manager North America at Telit Wireless Solutions. There are two main network infrastructures — GSM (global system for mobile communications) and CDMA (code division multiple access). Cellular carriers, including Sprint, Cingular, Verizon, and T-Mobile, operate on either of these networks. "Being aware of the differences between the two infrastructures will help you pick a carrier that uses the network that aligns with the goals you hope to accomplish with your M2M solution," says Peter Fowler, president of Cinterion Wireless Modules. "And if you already have a preferred carrier, be sure to choose an M2M solution with a wireless module that is compatible with its network."

Arguments can be made for both GSM and CDMA, but it is most important to choose the network that best aligns with your company's goals. GSM is a worldwide standard, allowing worldwide coverage. GSM also uses SIM (subscriber identity module) cards. The SIM card itself is what is tied to the network, so SIM cards can be removed and put into another device without carrier intervention. CDMA is a proprietary standard designed by Qualcomm in the United States. CDMA traditionally has faster data transfer speeds, between 300 Kbps (kilobits per second) to 700 Kbps compared to GSM's 70 kbps to 140 kbps, although both technologies continue to increase speeds. According to an M2M module market research report by ABI Research, about 75% of modules shipped last year were GSM-based compared to 25% CDMA-based.

Data throughput is another wireless module differentiator. "M2M applications that require basic data-only transfer can use a lower cost, lower throughput module," says Effi Goren, director of strategic marketing, wireless modules at Motorola M2M. "For example, one common application of M2M is for AMR [automated meter reading]. Since the wireless module is transferring only data, and the data isn't time-sensitive, a low throughput module [approximately 85 Kbps] will work just fine." On the flip side, there are more sophisticated high-speed modules that can transfer data, voice, images, and GPS information. Navigation devices are an example of an instance where a high-throughput module would be valuable. Current navigation devices have the capability to download maps, provide construction information, and recommend alternate routes. You may not care if your AMR module takes 4 seconds or 45 seconds to transfer meter data, but you do want the map on a navigation device to load quickly. For this to occur, a higher speed wireless module, which usually has speeds of around 2 Mbps (megabits per second) upload and 7.2 Mbps download, is required. "It is important to select the right module and feature set at a price that makes business sense," advises Fowler. "Don't spend extra money on unnecessary 'bells and whistles' [such as integrated GPS or Java programming capabilities] if you don't need them. However, don't skimp on a feature that can add value to your solution or that may be needed in the future." With any technology deployment, it is important to take into consideration how you expect the solution to grow with your business in the coming years.

The three experts I spoke with also agreed on the importance of being sure the wireless module in your M2M solution comes from a reputable vendor. While many module vendors are touting surprisingly low-priced modules, the experts see this as a red flag. Wireless modules must meet regulatory requirements of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), and carriers have to certify the performance of the module before it can operate. These tests should be complete before you ever purchase the M2M solution, but the point is to verify that these steps have been taken.

M2M Applications And Business Benefits
There are various applications for M2M, including the AMR and navigation applications previously mentioned, that have the ability to decrease the need for service personnel, increase logistical efficiency, and decrease wasteful practices. Hospitals can use M2M to remotely monitor equipment performance from a central location. By doing so, proactive maintenance repairs can decrease instances of equipment downtime. I recently wrote a case study about Wawa, a convenience store chain using M2M to monitor and control refrigeration units in more than 250 of its stores from one location ( Data from each refrigeration unit is sent to one server, and from that server, Wawa can monitor temperatures and make adjustments as needed to maintain consistent product temperature and reduce product loss.

M2M also can be used to monitor inventory levels in vending machines. "By monitoring vending machines, companies eliminate unnecessary trips to locations that don't need replenishment yet," says Goren. "Eliminating unnecessary trips reduces unproductive worker time and can provide substantial gas savings." PAYD (pay as you drive) insurance and fleet management are other common M2M applications. PAYD uses a wireless module to enable the insurance company to monitor location, speed, idle time, and vehicle diagnostic information and charge customers based on their driving. "M2M is used for fleet management in much the same way," says Ueland. "It can ensure proper vehicle maintenance, decrease idle time to reduce fuel consumption, and increase driver safety." Electronic tolls (e-tolls) are another application of M2M technology. "With e-tolls, the government can automate the billing of truckers for highway usage by placing a wireless module in the truck that will let them know how many miles the trucker drove on the highway," says Fowler. "This streamlines the process, which M2M can do in many different instances."

As you can see, M2M can provide numerous business benefits. Yankee Group reported more than 11 million cellular M2M modules were sold in 2007 in the United States, which shows that many companies recognize the improvement in business processes that M2M can provide and are taking advantage of it. Further, according to the experts I spoke with, the growing adoption of M2M is causing prices of the solutions to drop, even while the technology advances and improves. All the more reason you should think about where M2M could fit into your business to streamline operations and contribute to your bottom line.