Last year at CTIA Wireless 2011 in Orlando, Fla., everyone was talking about the big news that dropped several days before the show floor opened—AT&T announcing its intentions to acquire T-Mobile USA. While I won’t attempt to predict any potentially shocking headlines that we may see before this year’s show in New Orleans, May 8-10, we certainly can expect to continue the conversation around the ever-expanding machine-to-machine (M2M) market.

We cannot really escape the talk of M2M anymore. Smart homes, connected cars, and the Internet of Things have entered our lexicon. Recently, M2M has consistently crept into carriers’ keynotes and found its way into the mainstream media conversation, signaling that the market maturation we’ve been anticipating for years may finally be about to happen. Yet questions remain. Where are we now? Also, where do we go from here?

The mobile device ecosystem will continue to expand. With the help of accelerated development programs at major carriers, both domestically and globally, the number of M2M connections will grow along with it. What applications are dominating this growth? How do we promote adoption of this technology? What do device developers need to consider before entering the M2M market?

It’s A 4G World

We’re living in a 4G world when it comes to our consumer-connected devices. M2M application developers are wondering about 4G too—should we invest in 3G or go straight to 4G? It all depends on when 4G prices come down and we get ubiquitous coverage.

While HSPA+ and Long-Term Evolution (LTE) 4G networks enable rapid data speeds for wireless devices, many mobile M2M devices don’t have these high bandwidth requirements. With the additional cost of both the hardware and data rates, it’s difficult to make the case for this technology for most applications today.

However, 4G makes sense for OEM automotive applications that have a three-year to four-year development cycle. Some companies fear the prospect of designing a mobile M2M device for use on 2G and even 3G networks, questioning their longevity. The carriers’ pledges to preserve these networks and the cost savings of the hardware, though, far outweigh the financial burden of going straight to 4G.

Coverage is central to M2M connectivity, and 2G and 3G networks provide greater coverage at a much more reasonable cost. Right now, the M2M applications driving M2M growth have two things in common—they provide status messages, such as a vehicle’s location, and have low bandwidth requirements.

Coverage is crucial for mobile applications such as commercial vehicle telematics, home alarm systems, and even mobile health devices. They need to be able to connect to the network from wherever they are, which is often in remote locations. When it comes to coverage, 4G networks pale in comparison to their 2G and 3G counterparts, and we do not expect 4G coverage to match the current level of 3G until late 2013.

While we have a long history of connecting our vehicles through aftermarket telematics applications, such as fleet management and usage-based auto insurance (UBI), we’ll be seeing 4G connectivity designed into new vehicle models over the next few years. The most compelling emerging applications for 4G connectivity are vehicle infotainment systems, as the length of the automotive design cycle and high bandwidth requirements make this technology ideal for delivering feature-rich applications in the coming years.

Using a connected cloud model, automotive OEMs will be able to offer everything from navigation and entertainment to automated diagnostics and emergency response. The path for this trend is clear in terms of building connectivity into cars, but the question of customer ownership could prove to be a battleground when it comes to value-added service delivery within the vehicle, as many different value chain participants have interest in owning the customer relationship.

Because more Fortune 500 companies are incorporating M2M in their products and services, there is interest in building single devices for worldwide use. Many mobile M2M developers are considering international deployments, and that affects their design decisions beginning with hardware selection. Choosing hardware such as a 3G cellular module with compatibility across a diverse frequency band set can avoid the unnecessary cost of multiple device designs for a single deployment.

Hitting The Mainstream

As we talk M2M tech at CTIA, we can expect to see the currently trending title for the connected device ecosystem, which seems to be the Internet of Things. The mainstream media has adopted the nomenclature to add an element of buzz to what were formerly just “smart” electronics. This coverage will begin to truly open consumers’ eyes to the millions of Internet-connected “things” around them and the inherent value of those devices.

Educating the public and large enterprises on the benefits of M2M and driving adoption has long been one of the greatest challenges for our market—elevating the conversation, as the carriers have, to promote the proliferation of M2M connections.

Especially as M2M devices find their place in the public sector at the center of “smart cities,” with applications ranging from bus schedule management to waste collection, people will begin to better understand the impact of the technology and further embrace the connected environment in which we live.

As we continue down the path to 3G and eventually 4G deployments in the M2M landscape, these feature-rich applications will further augment the influence and value of the technology on populations around the world.