M2M and the role of radio

Machine to Machine communications are firmly established at the operational heart of many industries and continues to offer an array of capabilities.

The number of M2M device connections is set to grow to 2.1 billion by 2021 – primarily fuelled by the utilities, manufacturing and primary industries as well as those using in-vehicle telematics.

The beauty of M2M is that it enables the automatic monitoring of remote assets regardless of their location and environmental conditions. By automating remote monitoring, utilities can greatly reduce their maintenance and administration costs by significantly cutting down on the number of site visits by maintenance engineers – keeping disruption and inconvenience to a minimum.

The cellular solution

The majority of M2M communications are conducted using cellular GSM as there are publically available networks using this standard in over 90% of the world. To further the case for cellular as an M2M solution, mobile phone technology has been increasing its data capabilities at a dramatic rate. Developments in 2G, 3G and now 4G and LTE have also not only increased data rates but have attracted a large customer base, which rose to 6.8 billion in 2013/4.

Although the general public increasingly uses cellular technology, businesses need to ask if the same level of relevance applies to M2M. Some of the key requirements that exist for most utilities are:

  • Coverage: The ability to provide high-speed wireless communications is only useful if the service can be provided reliably at the locations where it is needed. While 100% coverage isn’t required by any organisation, it is essential that companies such as utilities have reliable wireless communications to 100% of its operational area.
  • Reliability and Resilience: M2M communications are vital in delivering data from remote assets to enable smart decision-making at times of need. It is therefore essential the communications network chosen to deliver the data is always available.
  • Contention: The public access nature of mobile phone networks mean than all users share the same level of priority, which at busy times will cause call contention. This lack of control can be crippling to any system that relies on assimilating data from hundreds of remote locations in order to make decisions.
  • Security: While wireless data communications enable companies to read and control remote equipment, the use of public networks does present certain security risks. Measures need to be taken to prevent hackers from gaining access to the system to read data from M2M devices or ultimately controlling remote assets.
  • Cost of Ownership: The initial low investment cost in cellular-based M2M solutions can seem attractive but the long-term costs are difficult to establish with rapidly changing technologies and call charges presenting uncontrollable factors into the budgeting equation.

The role of Private Mobile Radio (PMR)

Businesses might want to consider using radio to satisfy all of the requirements of an M2M solution. Since radio systems are usually owned and operated by the enterprise, they are specifically designed to fit the operational requirements of the business. This starts with coverage planning to ensure radio base sites are installed in strategic locations to achieve 100% coverage across the operational environment. This delivers wireless voice and data services where required but without black spots.

Latest generation radio systems feature a distributed architecture that enables the system to continue to operate in the event of equipment failure. It is common for designs to specify no single point of failure throughout the infrastructure design and IP/Ethernet backbones are used between radio sites to ensure a resilient mesh backhaul that will continue to deliver M2M data in the event of any issues within the network.

Contention can easily be managed at busy times using a number of different techniques. For example, different levels of priority can be assigned between voice and data calls or even down to the individual subscriber so that critical M2M data can be prioritised to always get through.

By its very definition, PMR networks are ‘private’ and therefore less open to security threats than public networks. In addition, the latest digital radio standards include high levels of protocol encryption for the ultimate levels of security demanded by our public safety services and government agencies.

Finally, radio systems provide a predictable cost of ownership. Systems can be designed to the exact requirements of customers and once installed at the budgeted cost, there are no further call charges or unexpected upgrades as new technologies are rolled out. Radio systems have typical lifespans of 10 to 15 years and equipment suppliers typically provide support and maintenance to customers over the entire lifetime of the system, while some customers opt to engage their own staff in the operational support of the network.

Fulfilling M2M

M2M networks are already vital to businesses in maximising the utilisation of assets and delivering improved customer service and solutions. The prolific availability of cellular will mean that this is the natural choice for many M2M solutions but M2M will also be delivered over multiple bearers including radio.

One of the main drivers for radio is the fact that cellular is often unable to deliver coverage everywhere that it’s required. Latest generation digital radio networks are ideally positioned to fulfil the M2M requirement for business critical enterprises and can clearly demonstrate coverage, reliability and security in a cost effective solution.

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