From pets to Porsches to power, it’s getting more common every day to see remote assets that are monitored, controlled, or enhanced in some way by machine-to-machine (M2M) communication technology. The common denominator between these different types of applications is M2M’s core value proposition, which centers around reducing costs, improving efficiency, increasing supplemental revenue opportunities, and supporting industry-specific initiatives.

Defining M2M And Its Applications

No matter how you apply M2M technology, the concept is the same—enabling real-time data communication between remote machines and central management applications to enhance the value of the remote device to its user. Within the basic structure of an M2M application, there are many wired and wireless communications options. But the real growth trend lies within embedded cellular M2M, which enables rapid and secure data transfer via GSM, UMTS, or CDMA networks.

The exciting thing about M2M is that the possibilities are endless in terms of what new innovative devices and applications can be developed that leverage M2M technology. Historically, M2M has focused on vertical market applications, like fleet management, remote monitoring, and utility meter reading. However, emerging applications such as pay-as-you-drive auto insurance, Smart Grid automation, e-readers, and connected personal navigation devices (PNDs) are driving innovation and growth within M2M.

The many benefits created from M2M technology are among the reasons why independent analyst firms such as ABI Research estimate that the number of cellular M2M connections will triple by 2014 to 75 million. On the cellular service provider side, service value-adds generated an estimated $21 billion in revenue worldwide in 2006. ABI expects this to grow to $189 billion in 2012, which is an annual growth rate of 43%.1

Contributing to the expected growth of M2M is the recent embrace of the industry by major cellular carriers around the world, especially in the U.S. Facing the prospect of low growth rates in their core voice business, operators such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have recognized the vast market potential of M2M embedded cellular-based consumer electronics, such as e-readers, digital photo frames, netbooks, home security monitoring, and personal navigation devices, which can drive additional data service revenue. Working with device manufacturers and content providers, the cellular carriers have introduced new business models and pricing plans to support innovation.

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Carriers are not only driving the growth of M2M through developing new business models, but by also making it easier for embedded developers to design and launch products on carrier networks. In 2008, Verizon began its Open Development Initiative (ODI), which streamlines the process for testing and certifying embedded devices on the Verizon network. AT&T has created the Emerging Devices Organization (EDO) to foster innovation around connecting consumer electronic products and other mass-market products to the cellular network.

Today, we have reached a point where M2M technology can cost-effectively deliver the speed and quality of service that end users require in an M2M application. That’s why numerous industries, from healthcare to construction, are realizing the value of cellular and how it positively affects business models.

Designing in M2M

So, how does one integrate embedded cellular technology into a product? The integration of cellular technology is fundamentally different from the integration of other technologies because of a number of factors. The most important of these factors is the role of the cellular carrier. Unlike other wireless technologies, cellular operators require developers to earn network-specific certification before they can launch their product on the cellular network.

In addition to carrier certification, other industry certifications are potentially required such as PTCRB prior to launching an embedded cellular product. (Mobile network operators created the global PCS Type Certification Board, or PTCRB, to provide an independent evaluation process where GSM/UMTS-type certification can take place.)

Because of the extensive certification and testing required for chipset-based designs, for the vast majority of developers, the best approach is to begin with a pre-certified embedded cellular module. Although the developer’s end device still needs to be certified on carrier networks, the level of certification testing significantly pales in comparison to what is required by chipset-based designs. Embedded module suppliers perform extensive software development, lab testing, and field testing to ensure that no matter which global network provider is selected, the module will work reliably on the chosen network.

A reputable module vendor can also help guide designers through the many different certifications necessary for launching an M2M application, simplifying the design process and speeding time-to-market. Customers with no previous cellular design experience who are entering the market for the first time need proven and future-proofed technology to build around, as well as critical customer support that is both commercially and technically responsive.

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In addition to certification requirements, embedded designers must navigate through multiple other technology decisions prior to development, including the selection of cellular technology (GSM versus CDMA), frequency bands, throughput requirements (2G versus 3G), network coverage, and deciding between connectorized or ball-grid array (BGA) packaging. Developers must account for the geographic markets where they plan to launch, what time of year they plan to launch, carrier and industry certifications for different levels of the device, and much more.

Network access decisions play a major role in the design process of any cellular-enabled M2M application and can dramatically affect the size, range, performance, and, most importantly, cost of a device. In breaking down which technology is best, it’s important to know the fundamental differences in each.

Second-generation (2G) networks are the most widely deployed in the world, allowing for broader coverage across regions and improving the mobility and reliability of applications. As a legacy standard, 2G caters to a wider selection of proven, low-cost components sized to fit the smallest device housings. 2G-enabled devices can support voice and data traffic within the 10- to 100- kbit/s range, which is ample bandwidth for most current M2M applications.

Under the 2G umbrella, OEMs have the option of designing for GSM or CDMA technologies. GSM is the global standard for cellular networks, and it has been adopted widely across geographies. And while CDMA is not as popular in Europe, it can be a good option in North America and Asia.

Within the U.S., CDMA is widely considered to have an advantage in network coverage and reliability, boasting quality-of-service benefits over GSM. This holds especially true in rural sections of the country, although GSM is quickly catching up. Developing for either technology offers unique cost advantages for OEMs. While GSM components are less expensive, pricing on CDMA M2M service plans can provide greater savings over time.

Though not as widely available as 2G, newer 3G networks and devices support faster, bandwidth-heavy data traffic, making them ideal for certain M2M verticals that rely on the distribution of large amounts of data or video, as is the case with security. On the equipment side, components generally run larger and are more expensive, increasing the size and overall cost of an application. Higher-bandwidth data plans also result in additional service costs. As WiMAX and Long-Term Evolution (LTE) 4G technologies roll out, the same type of decisions will need to be made based on the requirements of the application.

Once these technology decisions have been made, embedded designers can begin to develop their hardware and software interfaces to the embedded module. A central microprocessor controls the embedded cellular module through AT commands (see “What Are AT Commands?” below). Each embedded module supplier publishes its own AT command instruction set, which includes not only common AT commands that are supported by all manufacturers, but also AT commands that are specific to each cellular module provider to control unique feature sets.

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Once hardware designs have been completed, many module providers will offer design review services to their customers to help maximize the chances of the design completing industry and carrier certification testing quickly and successfully. Telit recommends taking advantage of pre-certified testing offered by independent labs that perform industry (such as the PTCRB) and carrier certifications.

Overall, the key to any embedded cellular design is to contact the chosen M2M module supplier and cellular carrier partner very early on in the process to be sure to follow the recommended design best practices . Good communication throughout the process will help reduce time-to-market and technical risk. Although some steps that are unique to the embedded cellular design process make it a bit more complicated than a standard embedded design, there has never been a more exciting time to be involved in M2M. The maturity of embedded cellular technology and widespread network coverage make an extremely compelling case for integrating wireless cellular communication into product designs.

What Does M2M Look Like?

Telit’s GE865 M2M module, which can be embedded into other products, is a complete quad-band (850/900 MHz and 1800/1900 MHz) GSM/GPRS cell phone (see the figure). Power out is 2 W on the low band and 1 W on the upper bands. Receive sensitivity is in the –106/–107-dBm range. Operating voltage is 3.8 V nominal.

With a form factor of only 22 by 22 by 3 mm and weighing 3.2 g, the GE865 is the smallest globally available GSM/GPRS embedded cellular module. It features a BGA design and tape and reel packaging. An integrated TCP/IP protocol stack supports UDP, FTP, and SMTP via AT commands as well.

Equipped with Premium FOTA Management, the module can receive over-the-air remote software updates. Since Telit owns and controls the firmware within its modules, changes to underlying chipsets have minimal impact on customers’ application designs. A wide range of such M2M modules includes those using 3G technologies for higher data rates and others using the cdma2000 standards with 1xRTT and EV-DO.

Now that you know about M2M, what applications are you thinking about?


1. “The Internet of Things: Worldwide M2M Market Forecast,” Beecham Research, 2008