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M2M in the Enterprise: the Complexity Conundrum

Mon, 10/15/2012 - 9:22am
Maisie Ramsay

As T-Mobile USA's preferred M2M provider, Raco Wireless has seen its share of successful deployments. But the company has also witnessed expensive slip-ups by companies that took a do-it-yourself approach to cut costs, not realizing how complicated wireless is.

"Wireless can be very simple, if you know what you're doing," President John Horn says.

That "if" is the big caveat, one that's sometimes missed by companies unfamiliar with the intricacies of cellular technology.

"People have made some huge errors on the enterprise side, as in buying a module from company 'A' and getting a contract from carrier 'B', and the module doesn't work on the carrier’s network,” Horn says.

M2M is difficult enough, and its supply chain can be just as confusing as the technology itself. But the increasing number of businesses looking to leverage M2M are not alone: help is available.

Third-party experts have become a key part of the M2M ecosystem, providing businesses with essential guidance through the development process.

Today, corporations have the option of using an outside firm to handle the complexities of M2M implementations.

One of these companies is Airbiquity, which was hired by Shell to create its European fuel management solution.

Listening to Airbiquity executive Justin Saye, it soon becomes obvious why Shell decided against doing its own development on the product. 

Airbiquity's platform allows the information being collected by vehicle-mounted wireless sensors to "talk" to back-office systems, resulting in a stream of data that provides Shell and its partners in the program with information on the performance of vehicle fleets.

This seemingly simple task is made anything but by what Saye describes as "malicious compliance" with European vehicle standards that make data difficult to collect, extract and translate.

"They'll comply in such a manner that it's virtually impossible to work with," Saye says. Saye is in charge of Airbiquity’s fleet services in Europe.

As Saye explains, Airbiquity needs to get particular pieces of data from vehicle electronics so it can then translate the information into a usable form for Shell’s program. The standards European auto makers are required to follow lay out specific protocols for that data, while at the same time making it as difficult as possible for companies like Airbiquity to use it.

"What an OEM will do is provide that data, and provide it consistent with the remainder of the standard that it has to comply with, but modulate the frequency of that data in such a manner that is highly inconsistent with the other data. Somebody plugging in won't know the data is there, even though it is there,” Saye says.

The issue has spawned a grey market of companies "who are very clever at reverse engineering this stuff,” he says. “It's a cost that really shouldn't be there."

Airbiquity has also had to find ways to install sensors in vehicles without voiding the warranty.

“The funny thing about the truck business, if you’re not the manufacturer and you plug in anything that’s not their equipment, it can void the vehicle’s warranty, which is anathema to an enterprise that relies on vehicles,” says Leo McCloskey, Airbiquity vice president of marketing.

Airbiquity’s solution: an inductive clip that can read information without actually plugging anything into the vehicle, thereby saving the warranty.

Finding go-arounds is a specialty of the companies that help bring M2M solutions from concept to implementation.

Multi-Tech, for instance, helped Physio-Contol incorporate a cellular modem and communications gateway into its portable defibrillators without running afoul of regulations governing the flow of information in healthcare environments.

"It's all about solving their problem," says Jim Cairns, vice president of business development at Multi-Tech. "Many of the companies we work with are really good at building their product, but dealing with connectivity is often times not a part of their core competency... it becomes very complex if you haven't dealt in that arena before."

Wireless Operators Aim to Simplify

Wireless operators, too, have taken steps to address the complexity involved with M2M deployments, and for good reason.

Strategy Analytics estimates cellular M2M connections will rise from 277 million this year to 2.5 billion by 2020, a compound annual growth rate of more than 30 percent. Those M2M connections could be a major source of revenue of carriers.

T-Mobile named Raco Wireless as its preferred M2M vendor last year, a move designed to bring more devices onto T-Mobile’s network by making the certification process simpler. Raco Wireless markets itself as being easier to work with than other carriers because it functions as an outside organization, instead of operating within a larger bureaucracy.

“T-Mobile was the easiest to do business with, and it was working very well,” says Raco Wireless President John Horn, who served T-Mobile’s former national M2M director before taking his present position. “I approached the executives at T-Mobile and said, ‘If we can change the model, we can make it even easier.’”

As a result, Raco Wireless is able to offer customers faster turnaround on product certification and more flexibility.

“What’s easier now? If you want to build a new rate plan for a product, before about 20 different departments had to approve it because you had so many touch points within billing, finance, accounting and taxation,” Horn says. “Instead of having to go through that process, that rate plan approval can now be done in a matter of minutes.”

Horn claims Raco Wireless could on-board a device in as little as one day.

“If someone comes to use with something that's completely out of the box, we can have it all done in under a day,” he says. “That’s how we really differentiate. The onboarding process can take weeks and months with everybody else.”

Verizon Wireless has also moved to simplify its process for approving new devices on its network. It offers a precertification program that helps ensure applicants will be able to meet its requirements, and its Open Development Initiative is designed to give companies a clearer picture of what standards need to be met for certification.

"If you use (pre-certified components), your path onto the network is relatively straightforward," says Praveen Atreya, technology director at the Verizon Wireless LTE Innovation Center. "It significantly speeds up product readiness by validating individual component readiness."

Verizon's Innovation Centers also play key roles in helping companies get their devices cleared for use on its network.

"We demystify it and make a lot of the onboarding a lot simpler," Atreya says. "We actually work with them down in the trenches to work with their product."

Atreya says the amount of time to final certification varies considerably, but that he has seen it take as long as 18 months if a company tries to get clearance for a product independent of Verizon’s.

Tom Nelson, Sprint director of marketing for global wholesale and emerging solutions, says Sprint has also taken steps to become more M2M friendly, adjusting its processes to move at what he calls "Silicon Valley Internet speed."

"At the end of the day, they have ideas they want to bring to market, and they want to do that quickly. We have gone through and streamlined the process,” he says. One of the primary aims of Sprint's M2M Collaboration Center in Burlingame, Calif.  is to speed time-to-market for new products.

"At the end of the day, that's what enterprises are looking for: speed to market," Nelson says. If a company has already built an application, form factor and has FCC certification, "it could be as simple as getting something implemented in a week." 

AT&T has also sought to position itself at the top of the M2M market, a task made easier by its expansive domestic network and international GSM roaming. Earlier this year, AT&T announced a deal to offer Axeda’s application to its M2M customers, allowing developers to build and manage apps for a wide range of connected devices.  It also unveiled a single SIM solution at Mobile World Congress that allows companies to manage global M2M deployments.

Wireless operators give a rosy view of their progress on connected devices, but M2M companies themselves paint a different picture.

"Is it easy? No, it's fairly complex and fairly expensive...to go down the route of having it certified," says Jim Cairns, vice president of business development at Multi-Tech Systems. "They've made strides but there's still a fair amount of room to go."

Cairns understands why operators may be reticent to loosen standards. Without subjecting products to proper certification, "you could light something up that takes down a tower... you need those checks and balances to have a functional network," he says.

That’s a sentiment shared by Brian Anderson, Sierra Wireless vice president of marketing, solutions and services.

"I think the trend is operators are trying to make it easier, but it still does require a lot of steps and money to make it happen," Anderson says. "Operators are trying to streamline things, but not so much they get exposed."

M2M Delivers for UPS

Dealing with the vagaries of operators’ certification processes and M2M’s other assorted headaches is outside the expertise of most businesses looking for an M2M solution.

But when UPS decided to use wireless technology, it took a different approach.

As you might guess by the fact that UPS began its work with wireless more than 20 years ago, the company had to do a lot of the development itself in the early days. It created its own software platform and coordinated between different hardware companies to come up with the device itself, since the DIAD I was the first of its kind.

What is now a sophisticated system of in-vehicle sensors and 100,000-strong global network of handheld computers got its start in the 1990's with the development of UPS' first Delivery Information Acquisition Device. The DIAD took the place of the paper clipboards used by drivers.

Since then, UPS’ extensive use of wireless technology in its field operations is a hallmark example of the technology's ability to revolutionize businesses. It has realized huge gains in the efficiency of its operations and improved customer satisfaction.

Juan Perez was a delivery driver for UPS before it switched to digital. The paper-based system was wrought with inefficiencies, from the difficulty of recording information during inclement weather to the time-consuming process of manually entering data.

The company's first handheld computer for drivers, the DIAD I, marked a fundamental change in the way UPS did business.

"I saw an incredible change in how myself as a user was doing work day in and day out," Perez says. He has been promoted since his days as a delivery driver, and now serves as UPS vice president of information services.

From its early use of DIAD I to today's DIAD V and network of in-vehicle sensors, UPS is now using wireless technology to provide real-time information on package delivery, detect mechanical malfunctions in its fleet, improve fuel efficiency and improve the safety of its drivers.

Today, the availability of turnkey solutions means UPS no longer has to wrangle a slew of experts to meet its hardware specifications: the latest DIAD V uses an off-the-shelf device from Honeywell. Each successive DIAD generation comes with new features, and technological advancements have allowed UPS to speed up its development time.

Perez says UPS is already working on a sixth generation device after launching the fifth generation model last September.

When it comes to software, however, UPS still prefers to keep it in-house. "We have some very unique needs that are not by widely available software," Perez says. "That's why we've maintained ownership of the software over time. It's kind of like our secret sauce, what makes us effective and efficient."

As a trailblazer, UPS was on its own for much of its DIAD development. Now, the maturing M2M ecosystem provides it with turnkey hardware that can be rapidly put to use.

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