Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications have gone from a dream to a reality. Currently, millions of machines communicate with each other without human intervention and that number is set to grow. Numerous sensors are connecting with each other and transferring data at increasing rates. From refrigerators to traffic lights, all manner of objects have been or will be connected and enabled to communicate.
M2M communications is clearly a growth industry. The explosion of networked connections in the past few years has led to the development of what has been termed the Internet-of-Things, with M2M as its backbone. According to industry experts there will be a whopping 50 billion physical objects linked to the Internet by 2020, with the average citizen owning between three and five networked devices each. This future of communicating objects is already being leveraged by businesses and it is certain that a future of connected devices will mean both convenience and complexity for future users.
The technology that is driving the adoption of M2M communications has been up and coming for many years. Cellular M2M modules imbedded in an everyday object can turn it from traditional to “smart.” For example, smart appliances still perform their assigned tasks, but with smart connectivity, that appliance can communicate with the manufacturer about repairs or upgrades.
The technology is not particularly new – we have been using similar technology to communicate for many years. However, it is the ability for the object to send data without any human interference that is the crux of M2M communications. “M2M communication had initially been a one-to-one connection, linking one machine to another,” Sowri S. Krishnan, Vice President, Mobility, Cognizant, gives a bit of insight into the development of the technology, “But today’s explosion in mobile connectivity means that data can now be more easily transmitted, via a system of IP networks, to a much wider range of devices.”
What is driving the adoption of the technology behind M2M communication, is the potential for companies to use the technology to benefit their bottom lines immensely. Businesses are able to leverage the M2M technology to better understand their consumers, and to improve efficiency. Fleet management, asset management, predictive maintenance and predictive advertising are just some of the ways in which businesses can use M2M communications to their benefit.
The business generated by M2M communication is not going to be a drop in the bucket, either. “According to Cisco’s research M2M connections are worth $6, 372 trillion to the IoE economy,” says Rabih Dabboussi, General Manager, Cisco UAE. While those numbers may not translate directly into profits for specific industries, it goes to show that there is a great deal to be gained by tapping into M2M communication technology. “Business value creation has shifted to the power of connections and, more specifically, to the ability to create intelligence from those connections,” explains Dabboussi. In short, to know the customer, businesses need to look at the data their devices, the devices with which they interact, create.
Indeed, businesses do stand to benefit, however, it is not only the private sector that is looking to leverage M2M communications. Governments, as well, are beginning to use the technology to streamline the everyday lives of their citizens. For example, traffic can be regulated using M2M sensors imbedded in traffic lights and signals. If a traffic light senses a back up, that data can be used to adjust timings to improve traffic flow. In the future, we may see sensors imbedded in personal vehicles with the ability to contact emergency services if a collision is detected.
Beyond the roadways, M2M devices can be used to monitor municipal utilities such as water and gas. With M2M technology enabled monitoring devices, municipalities can be alerted if maintenance is needed or if an emergency – such as a gas leak – has occurred. Indeed, municipal utility services can even use the data transferred to determine what services are needed for new developments.
The healthcare industry – often an industry that spans both private and public sectors – can also streamline their operations using M2M enabled devices. With connected healthcare devices, patients can be monitored in real time after they have left the hospital. This may result in shorter hospital stays – a benefit for the healthcare provider and the patient.
Smart homes, smart environments, smart grids and connected cars are just a few of the ways in which M2M technology is set to change the lives of the average consumer. With end-users already invested in smart technology, the addition of M2M communications should be accepted easily. In fact, if the technology will likely be implemented in a manner that most consumers will not even notice. Already consumers are accustomed to connected lifestyles, and embedding M2M technology seems like the next step in the process of creating a “smart” world.
The real resistance that proponents of M2M communications may feel is the standardisation of communication protocols between devices. Using the example of a traffic collision – if the sensor embedded in the car, in the traffic light, with the city’s emergency services and the hospital are unable to communicate due to using different protocols, the point of the devices become moot.
Agencies are currently working to ensure that this sort of miscommunication is avoided. Standardisation of communication protocols will be key so that machines can work together. The European Telecommunications Standards Institute, for instance, is currently making progress in developing standards to unite the industry. “The simple fact is that a number of barriers to wide-scale adoption still exist and it will take dedicated cross-industry efforts to break them down,” explains Manfred Kube, Head of M2M Segment Marketing, Gemalto.
Even when a standardised protocol is implemented for all M2M devices, security still remains a concern, and perhaps a barrier to widespread adoption. As we create more and more data using M2M communications, the potential for threats increases. In addition, with information such as healthcare and banking communicated between machines, the damage that an attack could create is also amplified.
“While increasing mobility is rapidly enhancing daily lives and business, it is also driving more complex security threats and solutions,” explains Kube. The issue in the Middle East may be more dire, he says. “Businesses across the Middle East are at high risk, with 65 percent of employees not understanding the security risks of using personal devices to the workplace,” he says. With these attitudes currently in place, it goes to show that the addition of M2M enabled devices will increase the threat surface for individuals and industries alike.
As we move into a smarter world, therefore, there needs to be a more integrated approach to security practices, both from individuals and from businesses. Data security needs to become a priority for those leveraging M2M communications and businesses need to implement scalable, security solutions.
Though there may be some issues moving forward with M2M enabled devices, the technology is being adopted across industries regardless. Paul Black, Director of Telcoms and Media, IDC, META predicts a positive outcome, “M2M technologies are going to be transformative for business, governments and consumers and it is going to influence the way these stakeholders interact, operate, and innovate.” Krishnan agrees, “Clearly M2M is about to radically transform today’s business operations into dynamic, intelligent, data-driven and innovative business processes.” If governments and industries can work through the potential barriers, consumers stand to live in a smarter, more connected world.