Were is the Sweetspot in Wireless M2M?

Globecom 2012 – day 1 coverage continued: Happened to stumble into the tutorial session on M2M (M2M for smart grids and smart cities) headed by Mischa Dohler and Jesus Alonso-Zárate from CTTC in Barcelona. Excellent overview of existing technologies and potential applications. There seems to be no doubt that we (the communication community) can get our act together to provide the wireless communication links needed for mobile M2M applications. But it this the bottleneck? Why doesn’t M2M “take off”?

Mischa discussed an interesting comparison between current (cellular) systems, designed for Human communication (not too many users, delay tolerant, download a lot, do not mind recharging our terminals now-and-then) and future M2M systems (which are their opposite on all counts. I would add the service dimension to that:

  • “Human communication” – all successful services (“apps”) are scalable – they adress many users with the same needs (or are willing to adapt to the “app”), they can been enhanced by throwing more bandwidth, storage or computational capacity at them, they are by painstaking design removed from the physical world – they are designed to run every where in the world, on all platforms, networks etc. Apps work everywhere.
  • “M2M communications – are also here (mostly) ruled by the opposite – M2M systems are cyber-physical systems, they interact with the environment which is different everywhere. They work only here and its not obvious how we can improve their performance by increasing bandwidth, storage or computational power. “Apps” have to be tailored to specific environments and systems in a “craftsman” fashion, a work that will not be directly applicable anywhere else.

Immediate success thus lies in applications that actually scale, e.g. Electric Metering applications, where every one of the million deployed does exactly one things, regardless if its deployed in Beijing or in Stockholm. Other applications will work if I can afford the craftsman .. the steel mill where accurate control can save millions off my energy bill – sure, but will I ever get the software that is tailored to control the heating /airconditioning in my house and that will save me a whopping 20 dollars a year?

Misha’s predictions (which were not the ones in the slide set) however make sense (my comments in italics):

  1. The will be no mass-market for Zig-bee, low power WiFi will kill that market. No problem with that one… there is simply too much WiFi out there and a new standard has to 10x better to make it… not in this case.
  2. The telecom operators will miss the train to provide value added services… I would say they were not even in the station. If you fell off the train providing services for human-centric communication, why would you succeed here in an area where you need even more detailed knowledge about the application?
  3. Big systems integrators (IBM, SAP, HP…) will fill the gap and provide value added M2M services. Agree partially – I think we should not forget the process industry manufacturers (e.g. ABB, GE) – they have the direct application competence.
  4. Proliferation will be much slower than predicted before – Can’t agree more. While we have been focussing on (and largely solved) the communication problems, the real bottleneck is somewhere else… in a domain where Moore’s law or more wireless bandwidth is not going to help.

About Jens Zander

Professor Jens Zander is professor in Radio Communication Systems at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. He has been among the few in Swedens Ny Teknik magazine's annual list of influential people in ICT that have been given the epithet “Mobile Guru”. He is one of the leading researchers in mobile communication and is the Scientific director of the industry/academia collaboration center Wireless@KTH. His research group focuses on three main areas – the efficient and scalable use of the radio frequency spectrum, economic aspects of mobile systems and application and energy efficiency in future wireless infrastructures.
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