Consider mature WWAN networks for machine-to-machine applications

Machine-to-machine applications usually favor pervasive, reliable wireless networks for operation. Sticking with the last generation of WWAN networks can offer the coverage you need and better pricing than waiting for the next big thing in wireless technologies for your M2M applications.

While much of the talk about wireless wide area networks (WWANs) revolves around looking forward to the latest and greatest LTE or WiMax deployment, there is still a role for older wireless networks, including CDMA and EDGE networks from wireless carriers. While not always speedy enough for an enterprise to consider for a branch office deployment, these venerable networks are finding extended usefulness in machine-to-machine (M2M) applications.

Machine-to-machine communications, as the name suggests, refers to wireless communications between data devices. M2M communications have a number of practical applications across most enterprise vertical markets, including medical monitoring equipment, consumer devices—such as Amazon’s Kindle e-reader—automated meter reading for utilities, and industrial equipment at remote worksites. Unlike smartphones or WWAN adapters for laptops, M2M applications typically consume small bursts of data and usually do not require an always-on connection. A common use case for M2M is meter reading, with remote meters wirelessly sending data back to the head office for collection. In most cases, wireless carriers are willing to offer compelling data rates for M2M applications.

Peter Jarich, research director for wireless infrastructure for Current Analysis, notes “Without the marketing, phone subsidy and heavy usage usually associated with selling phones, wireless carriers can offer enterprises better pricing on services for machine-to-machine applications.”

The wireless carriers can also offer enterprises options not available to its consumer customers, such as building a wireless virtual private network (VPN) for the devices, allowing the wireless end-points secure connections back to the machines they are designed to communicate with.

Also unlike the bleeding edge smartphones wireless operators offer, most of the machine-to-machine solutions rely on older generations of wireless networks. Being a step or two beyond the curve actually has a number of advantages. First, the latest 4G wireless networks are currently limited to a handful of metropolitan areas, whereas the older networks have a much higher degree of ubiquity in terms of geographical coverage. There are mature, stable wireless networks in most of the places enterprises want to deploy data devices. Even if there is not existing coverage to meet the enterprise’s needs in a location, the carrier might be willing to deploy repeaters or even new towers to provide service, depending, of course, on the size and duration of the contract the enterprise customer signs.

Wireless vendors are in a nearly perpetual upgrade cycle for their wireless infrastructure in order to deliver ever-increasing wireless broadband speeds and support for even more applications on their networks. But, as Jarich points out, “The existing wireless infrastructure will certainly be around for a while, even as the wireless carriers build out the latest 4G networks. The current wireless networks are still in use by a lot of their customers, and obsolescence of these networks is still a way out.”

In the end, an enterprise needs to consider not only the fastest networks a wireless carrier offers, but factor in the type of application they are deploying. For machine-to-machine applications, falling back to older, more stable wireless options might be the right choice, and result in a lower cost in the process.

This was first published in October 2010

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