While the flashy aspects of LTE grab most of the headlines these days, there's still evidence that a host of M2M solutions will keep those lowly 2G networks in business for years to come.
According to Cisco's annual mobile data forecast, fully 64 percent of global mobile M2M connections were connected via 2G connectivity, while 35 percent were connected via 3G and only 1 percent via 4G. By 2017, Cisco still sees 32 percent of M2M modules operating on a 2G connection, with a significant amount of that traffic having migrated to 3G (59 percent). By 2017, only 9 percent of total M2M traffic will be over LTE.
Larry Zibrick, vice president of market development for Sierra Wireless, which makes M2M modules, says his company will continue to support 2G.
"We recognize that a lot of M2M customers may have very low data requirements," Zibrick says, adding that the question becomes which network operator they want to work with.
He adds, however, that people get too hung up on hardware costs, noting that some carriers might incentivize their M2M customers to migrate to 3G or 4G networks with cheaper data rates.
"Hardware costs are only one factor in the equation," Zibrick said.
According to Zibrick, the main challenge for operators right now is figuring out how to price and manage these solutions on networks that were built for phones, tablets and laptops.
"You're seeing the network operators change their approach on how they tarrif these solutions, and how they fit them on the networks," Zibirck said.
John Horn is president of Raco Wireless, which currently has partnerships with Sprint and T-Mobile, the only major U.S. carriers that have committed to 2G for the long haul.
Horn stressed choice as key in offering end-to-end M2M connectivity, which Raco's recently announced addition of Sprint's CDMA and 4G networks allows its customers.
"There are some people that are just more comfortable with CDMA," Horn said.
Horn said that AT&T and Verizon really don't have any choice but to refarm the spectrum currently being used by their 2G networks. Still, he expects there to be a market for both low- and high-data solutions going forward.
Raco currently provides for everything from fleet tracking solutions that use minimal amounts of data and requires ubiquitous connectivity to providing connectivity for Audi's high-bandwidth in-car systems.
Horn said that's the kind of choice the market needs and it's what Raco will continue to try and offer as long as it can.
Alex Brisbourne, CEO of Kore Telematics, is bullish on 3G. He contends that AT&T's commitment to decommissioning its 2G network by 2017 could have significant roaming implications for 2G M2M solutions.
"The fact is that significant swaths of the North American marketplace are going to start to have limited coverage by the second half of this decade, in the world of 2G," Brisbourne said.
Brisbourne says that the cost delta between 2G and 3G M2M devices has driven down to fairly insignificant small numbers--below $10 between the 2G and 3G devices--adding yet another impetus for his the migration to 3G.
As for a significant uptick in LTE-based M2M solutions, Brisbourne is skeptical.
"Bluntly, the uncertainties relating to many aspects of LTE, notably interoperability of the frequencies that are going to be supported; the cost of devices; and inter-carrier roaming are still frankly, unresolved. Understand that there are 43 different bands on which LTE is currently licensed around the world. Contrast that with the 4 that we've got in the world of GSM 2 or 3G today," Brisbourne said.
For now, Brisbourne says 2G fits the bill for a number of use cases, including modules with a lifecycle of around 18 months. However, he thinks that those companies looking for a longer-term solution might be best served by 3G. Kore is in the process of launching a pair of programs that will help its customers in planning for the migration to 3G.
"Essentially, it's a way of generating interest in migrating to a standard which is going to keep them whole for the next 10 years," he said.
In the end, Brisbourne echoes Horn and Zibrick by asserting that the industry should continue to provide for what is needed, but he goes a step further and says that certain verticals will continue to drive scale for 4G modules and the networks that power them.
“If I talk to the auto manufacturers, there’s not a single one that is not already designing in LTE with 3G fallback into their designs because they recognize that more traffic will be less expensive on the more efficient networks into the future,” Brisbourne said. “And they have to have longevity, because they’re in the business of supporting customers in five-, seven-, and in some cases 10-year life cycles.”