M2M technology is changing the traditional priorities of telecoms companies, with devices autonomously intercommunicating and monitoring each others’ processes. Sophie Peacock speaks to Mobeen Khan from AT&T about how mobile operators are gradually actualising the possibilities of connecting a vast spectrum of assets to their networks, finding new sources of revenue and improving efficiency across a range of industries.
"Over the next few years, we'll see numerous companies, start-ups and entrepreneurs building machine-to-machine solutions that are very niche and targeted towards certain verticals," declares Mobeen Khan. As machine-to-machine (M2M) practice leader, and the AVP responsible for industrial and enterprise internet of things (IoT) portfolio at AT&T, Khan is part of the company's pioneering developments in M2M solutions. Cellular M2M technology appeared in 1995 and kick-started the acceleration of the IoT, enabling devices to communicate over wireless networks, and is now a rapidly growing sector of the telecoms industry.
Yet, many of the current applications of M2M are far from obscure and are instead tailored for ease of daily use by the general consumer, with the smartphone as the control centre. One of AT&T's innovative digital life products is a connected home that comprises a wide spectrum of M2M solutions. Users can be anywhere and, via their smartphone, access the camera in the house, the door locks, the garage doors, the lighting or the heating. The technology also has great success in its application to lifestyle management, facilitating user connectivity on the go.
"I can have a FitBit or some other activity-tracking bracelet on my arm," Khan explains. "It collects my sleep stats and my vital information, and this is sent to a healthcare management platform for me to review. If I go to the gym and I work out on the treadmill, then I can connect my smartphone to the treadmill via an app that captures all the data of my exercise.
"My car is also linked up to my phone so that I can play my favourite playlists through its radio or run diagnostics on the vehicle. All of this is happening through my phone."
As Khan points out, these are not visionary processes: they are here today, and the expectation is that their popularity will continue to grow. Consumers see a variety of use cases around them every day, helping M2M applications in general to become increasingly prevalent, even anticipated.
Phone it in
A multitude of industries are already benefitting from groundbreaking M2M solutions, some substantially more than others. AT&T's applications particularly thrive in four sectors: connected car and fleet management services; asset management, which includes equipment monitoring, oil and gas monitoring, supply chain tracking and cargo tracking; smart cities, an area primarily focused in the US; and the healthcare sector.
"Those are the areas where we feel the M2M solutions are enjoying the most growth in terms of related industries, and we are seeing pretty good traction with them, in the US and globally," Khan says.
One assumes that people's increasing dependence on their smartphones to manage almost every aspect of their lives has directly driven the demand for corporate M2M solutions. Khan won't say how definitive this correlation is but that smartphones themselves are inevitably central to applications for businesses and their employees.
Consider a fieldworker's dispatch application, where the smartphone is the basis of the entire solution. Khan explains: "This is a good demonstration of our platform capabilities - M2X [AT&T's M2M cloud solution] and control centre, displaying the data through salesforce.com and channelling it through a developer environment in Heroku. The machine data comes in, goes through the control centre and M2X, and generates an event in salesforce.com that says, for example, that a certain machine is broken. This then triggers a ticket and dispatches somebody."
Consistency is a vital concept to the practicability of M2M solutions, in terms of industry-wide standardisation and the amount of services one carrier can provide. AT&T customers looking to have their assets or supply chains tracked outside the US often use the company's global connectivity SIM and control centre products. These allow customers to use a single SIM solution that can be built and supported regardless of where the assets are mobbing to, and without the need for multicarrier relationships.
"The market is changing very fast," Khan explains. "A great number of new technologies are being developed, so I have to look at them in terms of three layers: connectivity, platforms and M2M solutions. On the connectivity side, I think the biggest advances are going to come from making sure that carriers like us address opportunities not just for connecting assets via one network or cellular technology, but for the ability to offer a multinetwork approach to connect assets as well."
This is something that AT&T is doing now: incorporating other forms of communications, like satellite, Wi-Fi and other mesh technologies, into its offerings. It strongly believes that customers who need different connectivity types should be able to acquire and manage them all through a single interface.
Costs for M2M solutions' underlying components - sensors, processes and wireless-connectivity assests - have fallen to a significant low, making the decision for firms to invest in them much more straightforward. However, many industries still have doubts about the business benefits they will yield or how the technology actually works.
According to Khan, there are broadly two sets of challenges that exist for the progress of M2M technology. One set is technical in nature - how can myriad device types on numerous operating systems be successfully connected? Those connection solutions need to be standardised or an integration effort needs to at least be made between platforms.
"There's also the need to take the data and integrate it into enterprising systems," he says. "How do I get data into my enterprise system that I've been using for decades on SAP or salesforce.com? So I think it's vital for those integration issues to be overcome."
The other set of challenges is on the business side. There is a big industry focus on ensuring that data being collected through these devices can make an impact from a process point of view, and from the way people are actually using this data to make changes and gain operational efficiencies - "That cultural and operational change that fully recognises efficiencies still needs to evolve," Khan suggests.
Often, advances in technology that eliminate some form of human effort are met with scepticism from those who see merits in pre-established methods of use.
For example, the main reason many of us dislike selfie sticks is because they removes the opportunity to ask a stranger to take a picture of you and your friends.
However, the consequence of the increasing sophistication of M2M communication may not be, as some technophobes perhaps fear, that the prevalence of IoT will inhibit human- to-human communication; rather, M2M developments could increase the hands-free approach to digital management and allow users to prioritise aspects of procedure that technology, as yet, can't replicate, such as dextrous human skills or social relations. For end users, M2M itself is not the goal but, rather, the foundation of the technology that interlinks their devices and assets - their car, their central heating and so on - to facilitate new products and services.
On the platform
Customer concerns about privacy and security will determine the viability of many M2M applications, but so will the future of their financial and practical capability. For this reason, future-proofing is a vital aspect of M2M development, in every aspect of its application.
"We need to continuously push the envelope on the quality and resilience of the integral factors that support M2M solutions, whether it's the cost factor, the form factor, the reliability, the coverage and signal issues, the battery life, the security issues, or the user experience and interface," Khan says.
AT&T is currently undertaking vast R&D in these fields, and investments from big and small companies promise to make solutions better. Market forecasts vary but most are optimistic, and with encouraging client feedback, it makes sense for firms like AT&T to hold the future of the IoT steady in their sights.
"We have invested not just in our core connectivity but far beyond that as well," Khan explains. "So when we look at the IoT, we are investing in many layers of the solution stack, which includes the connectivity platforms, application and solution platforms, as well as, in many cases, M2M solutions that include hardware/software services analytics bundled under the same price and contract."
With more than 25 million devices on its network, AT&T is looking at even greater expansion if the growth of M2M technology and the IoT proves sustainable, potentially benefitting an even broader spectrum of industries.