vol 8, issue 11

Machine to machine communication: finding M2M solutions

12 November 2013
By Christine Evans-Pughe
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Provisioning M2M communications, graphic

Nascent M2M applications can’t communicate without specialised wireless networks - but now help is at hand

Suburban street at night

Each Telensa PLANet control and monitoring system basestation can serve around 5,000 streetlights

Thomas Nicholls, SigFox

End-point devices can ‘sleep’ for 20 years, then awake and transmit, and then go back to ‘sleep’

Vodafone base station

Mobile operator Vodafone is already using its standard GSM wireless network to facilitate some M2M applications

The machine-to-machine applications market needs a way to communicate, and the communications sector is busy finding different ways to help it.

Networked wireless communications: the M2M applications world is gagging for it. There are plenty of communications options in existence, of course; but are they suitable for connecting the wonderful world of cyber-physical systems?

Applications and services to vitalise the machine-to-machine (M2M) market are evidenced by the emerging range of devices prefixed with the word 'smart', but until comms networks that will enable them to connect to each other are up and running M2M's full potential remains unrealised. However, several initiatives are underway.

Many 'things' are communicating over recently-provisioned specialist wide-area wireless networks, such as SigFox's Ultra Narrow Band (UNB) network in France, On-Ramp's Total Reach Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) technology in the US, and Telensa's PLANet street lighting control system. Joining these in Q2 2014 will be the UK's Weightless air interface specification planned to run initially on TV White Space spectrum. More recently, connection company Arqiva has signed a £625m contract to provide the M2M communications for smart meters in Scotland and northern England on a bit of licensed spectrum it holds around 400MHz.

French start-up SigFox's niche is providing a low-cost network for fixed or nomadic devices that need only exchange a few bytes once in a while. Each is allowed a maximum 'send' of 140 messages per object per day, and each message is 12 bytes. A SigFox end-point device can 'sleep' for 20 years, then awake and transmit, and then go back to sleep, explains Thomas Nicholls, SigFox's business developer. Existing RF transceiver chips running at these frequencies can be turned into SigFox devices by simply flashing them with a SigFox software stack.

The company's cellular network uses the unlicensed 868MHz ISM band in Europe (915MHz in the US), and already covers 90 per cent of France, and most of Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia. A network for the Netherlands is being rolled-out now and Spain is next on the list. Pilot projects are also running in China. In America, SigFox is going through Federal Communications Commission approval.

SigFox has installed the French network itself using some 1,500 basestations. Outside France, it has set up partnerships with local network operators, such as AEREA in Netherlands, which buys, installs and maintains the network equipment, as well as selling subscriptions. "It is still one logical network," explains Nicholls, "so a start-up in Paris can, for instance, develop a security solution that would be sold to all the countries where the network is deployed."

The company's first major customer was Clear Channel, which has over 15,000 rotating electronic advertising billboards in France. It uses the SigFox network to send texts to its maintenance team every time a billboard stops working. Moscow uses SigFox's network with Worldsensing's Fastprk application (and some sensors and radios embedded in tarmac) to monitor when parking spaces become available.

SigFox-connected smoke alarms and intrusion detectors supplied by French insurance company MAAF are potentially the highest-volume application. MAAF has 12 million customers and from 2015 each French home will legally have to have at least one working smoke detector installed. MAAF customers get a text message if intrusion or smoke detector alarms go off, and also if there is an anomaly, such as low battery power. Using SigFox chips in items such as bicycles and cars as a form of theft protection is another potentially high-volume application being considered by a number of companies, according to Nicholls.

Public lighting control

UK innovation company Plextek Consulting developed a similar Ultra Narrow Band M2M network technology running on 868MHz a few years ago for a smart meter trial. Plextek's concept has since become the basis of the Telensa PLANet (Public Lighting Active Network) control and monitoring system. Each PLANet basestation can serve around 5,000 streetlights. Lights are added to the network by plugging a specially designed radio module into the socket at the top of the light that usually holds the daylight sensor.

PLANet can be used to switch lights on and off, to monitor the state of the electronics in the streetlight to save maintenance journeys, and to meter the electricity on each light. Generally these are private communications networks managed either by Telensa or the customer.

Local authorities in Birmingham, Leicester, Essex, and Suffolk already use the system. Essex, for example, has some 115,000 PLANet-controlled streetlights. Negotiations are underway for installations in Asia and America. "The great thing about working at 868MHz is that it's free," Plextek's chief marketing officer Henk Koopmans points out. "Customers are using the network first for street-lighting, but there is no reason why it cannot also be used for smart metering, parking, charging points for electric cars, and so on." It is not until a network is established that users think creatively about how else it can be used, he adds.

Oil pipelines and energy

San Diego-based start-up On-Ramp Wireless has installations of its Total Reach Network in North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America, most of which are private customer-run networks. Based on its Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) technology, and operating in the unlicensed 2.4GHz band, the technology is claimed by On-Ramp to have performance advantages over other M2M network approaches because of its high receive sensitivity of -142dBm. It is aimed at fixed and nomadic use applications.

"Our core [value proposition] is our ability to operate at very low transmit power, and we can also hear 40dB below the noise floor. We are not defying the laws of physics, but relative to other radio technologies they are going to be deaf, dumb and blind while we are still working," says Jake Rasweiler, On-Ramp Wireless's chief strategy officer. The company has designed its own custom chip for the radio modules.

The network uses a simple star topology that gives up to 400 square miles of coverage with a single basestation if placed in a suitable vantage point. Capacity can be tens of thousands of devices per basestation. "We can intermingle battery-powered devices, which are infrequently transmitting and devices with a more regular updating schedule, with devices that require larger message sizes and two-way control," says Rasweiler. There are five security guarantees: encryption, anonymity, mutual and message authentication, and no over-the-air security key exchange.

On-Ramp Wireless specialises in critical infrastructure monitoring in the electricity, gas, and oil industries, which includes smart metering provision. GE, for example, uses the technology for its Grid-IQ advanced metering infrastructure system, which it sells to utility companies. Koncar INEM in Croatia uses On-Ramp technology in its wireless integrity monitoring systems for oil pipelines, while Shell is already using this technology for pipeline integrity monitoring in Nigeria. WellAware in Texas, meanwhile, is basing its communication services for the oil and gas industry on On-Ramp Wireless technology.

On-Ramp Wireless is the founding member of the IEEE 802.15.4K task group through which it hopes to develop an open standard for low-energy critical infrastructure monitoring, says the company's Rasweiler.

Designed for multi-year battery life, good in-building penetration, low-cost end-points and mobility, Weightless is being developed as a royalty-free 'open standard', although at its current stage of development it might more conservatively be designated as a 'specification' (see E&T Vol 7 Issue 6 and Vol 8 Issue 5). According to Professor William Webb, CEO of the Weightless Special Interest Group (SIG), successful wireless technologies tend to be based on open standards: "There is more innovation around them." The concept has certainly attracted much interest from ICT industry big-hitters; ARM, CSR, Cable & Wireless, and Accenture are on the Weightless SIG board (at last count there were over 1,000 members).

Neul, the concept's founder company, is using the engineering team behind CSR's first single-chip Bluetooth device to design the low-cost transceiver chips for Weightless endpoint devices. Version 1.0 of Weightless was published in April 2013 and since then the SIG has been working on the test and certification process to ensure that chips and equipment from a mix of suppliers will interoperate – a key prerequisite for a nascent networking technology.

Weightless has a cellular architecture for its networks and a range of several kilometres per basestation. In other respects it is rather like On-Ramp's technology with multiple levels of security, and the flexibility to mix endpoint data rates (from 1kbit/s to 10Mbit/s). Data packet sizes start from 10 bytes, and theoretically there is no upper limit. What is unusual about Weightless is that it is a, M2M network technology using TV White Space as its launch medium.

Q2 2014, when Ofcom opens up White Space spectrum in the UK, is arguably the starting pistol for the Weightless industry by which time a catalogue of chips, modules, basestations and applications should be ready for commercial deployment by network operators and other solutions providers. Prior to that Neul will be setting up incubator networks in the UK (Cambridge and London), the US (the Bay area, most likely), and possibly Singapore, in partnership with local network operators.

According to one Neul VP, Ben Peters, these networks will cover five-to-ten square kilometres and will allow local software developers to start writing Weightless applications. While Weightless is generally discussed in relation to TV White Space, those driving the standard are willing to describe it as 'frequency agnostic'.

Spectrum flexibility is intrinsic to Neul's endpoint chip (called ICENI), because it must tune across 470 to 790MHz to make use of TV White Space. New versions of ICENI due out in volume in November 2013 will apparently extend the operational range to higher frequencies, giving scope to use other areas of spectrum.

"Successful technologies often end up in lots of different frequency bands," argues William Webb at the Weightless SIG. "So the idea of using other frequencies will be part of Version 2 of the standard in perhaps a year's time."

Smart meters

As previously mentioned, at the end of September 2013 Arqiva announced it had signed a £625m contract to provide the communications service for smart meters in Scotland and northern England.

Using Arqiva-owned frequencies in the 400MHz band the network will be based on a technology called FlexNet from US company Sensus, which has been tested in a number of UK trials. Sensus will provide the radio modules for the smart meters and the basestations, which will be mounted on Arqiva-owned communications towers. FlexNet works in a star topology with smart meters talking to a centrally located tower. Japanese firm EDMI will deliver the communications hubs needed to connect smart meters and In-Home Displays (IHDs) in each home so people can monitor and manage their domestic energy use.

M2M on the move

As these dedicated M2M networks are taking shape, mobile phone operators are growing the numbers of M2M devices communicating on existing GSM/GPRS networks. Smart meters in central and southern regions of the UK, for instance, will be using Telefonica's GPRS/GSM cellular network (plus some mesh technology in hard to reach areas). The Spanish telecommunications operator already connects some 400,000 British smart meters in this way, and has been a major player in supporting M2M applications in the northern Spanish city of Santander.

To be sure, some European telcos have been approaching the M2M market with some alacrity. Deutsche Telekom, meanwhile, has recently launched its M2M Marketplace, a showcase for manufacturers and dealers to offer tGPRS/GSM hardware, software, and apps for M2M communication. Earlier this year, Vodafone announced its M2M Remote Monitoring package, which gives end-equipment makers an off-the shelf, device and data management system to get M2M applications running in weeks.

"We see applications getting closer to the consumer with more people having everyday stuff connected to the Internet," says Jari Saliminen, business development leader of M2M at Vodafone. Vodafone has around 11 million 'thing' subscriptions worldwide mainly in smart metering, cars, fleet management, and asset tracking.

One of its big customers is the vehicle tracking firm Isotrak used by Asda, Tesco, Skanska, Allied Bakeries, and others. Vodafone is also in discussions with SigFox and Weightless, says Saliminen: "Mobile and GSM are not suitable for all applications, but you might have a good use case in certain geographical areas to combine technologies. Customers do not care about the technology they just want something that works."

Further information

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White Space = white heat?

White Space radio is a way of using spectrum gaps, which exist between UHF frequency bands 470-790MHz used for TV broadcasting, to transmit and receive wireless signals. Long range Wi-Fi, rural broadband and M2M communications are the main applications proposed.

Europe's first consumer White Space devices are due to be deployed in Q2 2014 when telecoms regulator Ofcom finalises its rules for using the technology license free in the UK. Leading up to this, 20 companies including Neul, BT, and Microsoft will be taking part in pilot projects.

* Neul, for example, will be partnering with BT and the Department of Transport to fit cars with Weightless M2M transceivers to gather live data on congestion on the A14 between Cambridge and Felixstowe.

* In Glasgow, Microsoft, Mediatek, and Harmonics will conduct the world's first network trial of a White Space Wi-Fi standard (IEEE 802.11af) to provide mobile and fixed broadband services.

* Microsoft will also use White Space to link a network of sensors around Glasgow to create a 'smart city', working with University of Strathclyde.

* Click4internet (an ISP) will work with KTS Wireless and Sinecom to use White Space to test the provision of rural broadband in hard to reach places.

* Love Hz and MLL Telecom will build a trial White Space network in Oxford so that local organisations can use it for Machine-to-Machine applications such as managing the efficiency of buildings, taking environmental measurements and developing private network infrastructures.

* White Space has already been offered license-free for two years in America. Carlson Wireless, for example, offers White Space'based rural broadband. Singapore and Canada are on a similar schedule to the UK for opening up White Space.

* A number of White Space broadband trials have taken place in Africa organised by Microsoft in its 4Afrika initiative, Google, and other parties.

* At present attitudes toward using White Space elsewhere in Europe are mixed; but according to Cesar Gutierrez, senior policy advisor at regulator Ofcom, unfolding White Space events in the UK are being watched with great interest by European telcos and network operators.

Why do we now need dedicated M2M networks?

Dedicated networks such as SigFox and Weightless target low-cost, low-energy M2M applications with short message sizes. Many of these are new uses (smoke alarms, parking sensors, maintenance alerts, environmental monitoring, and so on) that have not been viable with GPRS/GSM's higher silicon costs, subscription prices, and power consumption.

Cell phone operators' existing GPRS/GSM networks are generally being used for less-energy-critical fully mobile and higher-value M2M applications (asset tracking, fleet management, smart metering, and so on) that require data-rates rather higher than a few tens of kbytes.

Where the different M2M provisioning communications technologies may start to compete with each other is on the road. European Union legislation, for example, mandates that by 2015 all new cars be fitted with eCall devices to alert rescue services automatically to road crashes.

A GPRS/GSM SIMchip in every new vehicle has been the only solution. The arrival of Weightless (to date, the only emerging M2M technology shown to work in fast-moving vehicles) may challenge this position because of reduced silicon and subscription costs.

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