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M2M: A Mobile Uprising Is Brewing

SAN FRANCISCO -- Whether it's a cell phone downloading product information or a network of sensors reporting a problem at a remote oil field, wireless machine-to-machine communications are moving into the mainstream.

Exhibitors at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association's (CTIA) Wireless IT show being held this week are focusing on machine-to-machine (M2M) technology. Presenters at the conference here said lower hardware costs and better network coverage have made this a viable option for more businesses.

Today about one third of commercial and residential alarm systems are wireless, according to Robert Schoenfield, senior vice president of Aeris.net, a company that provides connectivity and applications for M2M communications. The industry now is moving from using wireless as a back up to using it as a primary means of communications for alarm connectivity for homes and businesses, he said; this will drive overall provision of wireless to the home.

Wireless M2M communications hooked up to sensor networks play a role in everything from retail to Homeland Security, Schoenfield said. For example, supermarket chain Albertsons Stores deployed Aeris.net to control energy use during California's energy crisis. The company could monitor cooling at stores and warehouses from a central location, remotely adjusting thermostats.

We continue to see the integration of proprietary and public networks," Schoenfield said, "for M2M to take off the way we know it can."

SensorLogic was at the show promoting M2M Portal, its hosted software for managing M2M networks. The software platform lets users create a custom portal, via which they can provision data connectivity and software for sensors and handheld devices.

" People have been doing wireline-based telemetry for years, in order to improve the operations of machinery and reduce operating costs," said SensorLogic vice president Wayne Stargardt. "That's a fairly mature industry. But device that couldn't be connected over those wires easily have been left out."

For example, remote oil and gas production sites sometimes lack electricity, let alone telephone lines. But now, the cost of wireless modems has come down, in part because of the explosion in consumer cell phones, while network operators have begun to offer inexpensive data-only connectivity plans. "There used to be whole industries that couldn't do this," Stargardt said. "Now, they want to provide same efficiencies."

Mobile and RFID Data Systems (MRDS) is a European company that hopes to make a big move into North America. George Rethy, president of the company's Toronto office, agreed that the cost of transmitting data has fallen, along with the cost of RFID tags.

Rethy said that today, the RFID story plays out two ways: retailer initiatives to track products from factory to shelf and asset management, tracking employees, vehicles and high-value goods.

"Frankly, there's not much money being made in [product tracking] right now," he said. His company provides a wireless mobile data middleware and integration platform. MRDS' applications can gather data from a wide variety of sensors and tags using many protocols, including Zigbee networks and bar codes. The middleware can integrate RFID data with a wide variety of enterprise software systems.

MRDS' installations might include arming field force employees with handheld readers, then installing tags on vehicles, in the company's physical plant and those of customers. For example, Budapest Water Utility, which has been a customer for years, uses the system to track all its heavy equipment and trucks, enable automatic water meter reading and monitor employee activity, bringing that information into its SAP back-end systems.

Rethy said MDRS is about to start a pilot with a trucking company in Canada that will use sensors connecting over the very the very short-range ZigBee wireless protocol to monitor the operation of its vehicles.

"More and more companies are sharing the vision of using sensors to monitor and control their operations," Rethy said. "This market is ripe for it."

On the consumer front, Nokia and VeriSign demonstrated RFID reader-enabled phones that could let consumers access product information from special shelves or packages equipped with tags. In the demo, placing a phone directly on the indicated spot on a shelf connected it with a wireless Web page with product information.

VeriSign Vice President of Directory Services Brian Matthews said that while tags can transmit up to three meters, the phone reader's range was deliberately limited, to make sure that consumers have to actively seek the connection, rather than being randomly bombarded by info as they walked past shelves.

"It's a way to add value to the EPCglobal Network," Matthews said. VeriSign operates this network, which is designed to let manufacturers and trading partners track goods as they move through the supply chain. Matthews said that the data consumers could access might be a mix of the current product attributes produced by manufacturers and more consumer-friendly info including, possibly, coupons.

"Some product attributes, such as expiration dates, are probably inherently interesting to consumers," he said. "We're experimenting with adding richer kinds of information to the database."

Nokia is shipping the RFID-enabled phones now, for use by field workers who might deliver or stock products. Matthews said that a consumer version may have to wait until the cost of the phone comes down.