Science-fiction vision of machines talking to machines

In the future, most mobile calls will no longer be made by people, but instead machines will be calling other machines, writes Stephen Pritchard

Machine-to-machine communications, or M2M, is expected to drive the next wave of mobile take-up. There might currently be around six billion mobile users worldwide, but the number of M2M connections should reach two billion by the end of the decade – and continue to grow.

Vodafone, for example, says that its M2M business is growing at 25 per cent a year. “The size of the market is certainly in the high billions,” says Katja Ruud, of the industry analysts Gartner.

But while the image M2M conjures up may be a sci-fi vision of robots talking to each other on mobiles, in reality the technology is rather more prosaic. Indeed, describing M2M as a mobile technology is slightly misleading; many of the machines that are being connected to the mobile networks move rarely, if at all.

Typical applications include building monitoring systems or sensors in lifts and air conditioning units, on surveillance and traffic cameras, and even vending machines. M2M is often used to provide status or maintenance information: a lift needs a service, a vending machine, a refill.

“M2M can bring real improvements in companies’ operational performance because it means people don’t have to drive around in white vans,” says David Stansell, a mobile communications expert at PA Consulting.

Although much of this equipment could be connected to a fixed computer network or telephone line, it can be cheaper, quicker or more practical to use a wireless connection instead.

The falling costs of mobile connection hardware – now below US$10 per device – makes using a wireless network far cheaper than running cables to remote equipment. Using cellular networks saves both materials and labour, especially in hard-to-reach locations, and it gives equipment owners the option to relocate hardware if they need to later.

M2M can improve companies’ operational performance because people don’t have to drive around in white vans

Use of M2M communications in equipment that really is mobile is growing too. Early examples of M2M projects include construction equipment and railway wagons, both expensive items of plant.

“Embedding this into manufacturing machinery or plant allows the people who own it to make decisions in real time,” says Mobeen Khan, director of advanced mobility solutions at AT&T, a telecoms provider. And, as the cost of the chips and network charges have fallen, the technology has moved into smaller vehicles.

The automotive industry, meanwhile, is becoming a significant user of M2M, for in-care maintenance, monitoring, safety and entertainment. Security-conscious South Africans have long had access to car lock security services which can shut down stolen cars in seconds. Services, such as eCall, which call the emergency services if there is an accident, are now mandatory in the United States.

But consumer services, such as satellite navigation, use M2M to communicate with the service provider’s base for updates and live information. In Europe, TomTom navigators do this using an M2M service from Vodafone. The next step might be to use M2M to stream music and films to cars.

And M2M services are moving into even smaller and more portable devices. The Amazon Kindle is a good example: the e-reader automatically downloads books from the Amazon store, without the machine’s owner needing to configure access to the mobile data network.

But even greater growth is likely to come in areas such as medicine, where relatively cheap and portable monitoring devices can improve patient care and cut rising healthcare bills, by monitoring heart rates or blood pressure, or whether patients have taken their medication.

The next generation of M2M devices may well be even smarter. By using the new generation, 4G networks, they will be able to stream audio and video, or high volumes of high-frequency data, such as information from financial markets, or from company logistics and supply chains, in what Milan Sallaba, a partner in KPMG’s telecoms, media and technology team, calls “the provision of real-time intelligence”.