We're all pretty familiar with M2M, the machine-to-machine connectivity that powers the emerging Internet of Things (IoT). It's all about data transfer and the data can be as simple as an on-off signal. It can be more involved as, say, a text message. Or it can be as large as a multi-megabyte stream of continuous digital information.
The name says it all. Sensors and a gateway (the first "M") gather data and direct it over some medium. That medium—the "2" (or "to") in M2M—could be wire, cable, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, or the cellular network. And at the receiving end, the medium connects to some sort of device (the second "M") that displays, stores, or acts upon the data.
But for developers there's another, equally critical "M" to consider: the market. M2M technology is somewhere between its infancy and its early adolescence and, as kids do, is growing like crazy. The good news is that the market is gobbling up innovations as quickly as they appear, as customers recognize the competitive value of being able monitor remote systems and of being able to make decisions informed by input from remote locations. The bad news for developers is that if you've thought of it, chances are good that others have as well (or soon will), so the best way to claim your piece of the market and maximize the return on your idea is to get to market (that final "2M") as quickly and cleanly as possible.
What & How
One of the keys to speeding products to market is determining what to build and what to buy. Successful bakers don't grow or grind their own wheat; they depend on farmers and millers for their flour so they can focus their efforts on developing innovative recipes. So it is with product developers, and one of the areas in which they face make-or-buy choices is cellular connectivity for their M2M devices.
It's relatively easy to find modules for integrating connectivity via Ethernet or short-range radio, e.g. Wi-Fi. But for longer distances nothing beats cellular. It's available almost everywhere and allows direct connection to virtually any location on the planet. It's relatively inexpensive and with the appropriate modem can carry anything from the occasional text to large steady streams of data. And unlike hardwired options it cannot be cut either accidently of maliciously.
The challenge is the relative complexity of implementation of cellular as opposed to short-haul technologies like Wi-Fi. Cellular connectivity, on the other hand, can be a whole lot trickier. The FCC and cellular carriers are both very particular about what broadcasts over the cellular network, so devices that do so must be certified by both the FCC and the carrier, and that certification is a very different and separate process from that of product development. Certification testing of cellular modems is rigorous. It can take six or more months and cost as much as 50 thousand dollars. The delay can keep otherwise-market-ready products off the shelf, and the cost is hard to justify unless you can be sure of selling a whole lot of product. The logical alternative is to buy pre-certified cellular modems, saving both development and certification time and cost.
Choosing the right modem need not be difficult if you follow some simple guidelines.
- Choose the right modem technology for your application. Inexpensive ro cellular modems are suitable for applications requiring modest data flow; gr can handle heavier data streams; and 4G or LTE handles the highest volumes of data.
- Consider whether you need "fallback" and/or GPS capabilities.
- Embedded modems plug directly into a circuit board, and a standard plug-in interface simplifies integration and manufacturing.
- If compactness of the finished device is an issue, and where isn't it these days, look for the smallest modem available.
- If your current or future needs may require a different cellular technology, e.g., eventual upgrade from 3G to LTE, look for a full-line family of modems that share a common plug-in interface.
- As suggested earlier, a pre-certified modem will save both time and money in bringing your product to market.
- And finally, consider the option of bundled cellular service, which will simplify both purchase and ongoing operation for your users.
Fig. 1: Choosing the right modem need not be difficult if you follow some simple guidelines.
While all of these capabilities help simplify the integration of cellular connectivity into a product, the process still isn't quite "plug and play." It's going to take some engineering to get the hardware and software working the way you want them to, so you'll want a modem development kit you can use to mock up and test the design and work out the kinks. And finally, just in case you need additional help, you might want to see whether the provider has technical staff available to answer questions and, if appropriate, provide contract design services.
Bottom line, unless you have unlimited engineering resources you're going to have to allocate people and money to produce a competitive product as quickly as possible. In most cases the best result comes from focusing on what makes your product unique and farming out other aspects of development. There are many components that would consume engineering time if you had to develop them in-house, but adding cellular connectivity carries the addition burden of cost and delay in obtaining certification. Fortunately there's now an affordable alternative. You can buy pre-certified modems and keep your staff focused on developing your own innovative product.
About the Author
Scott Schwalbe is the CEO of Nimbelink. He has a history of building profitable businesses and successful teams, with 15 years executive leadership experience. In addition to serving in the US Navy, he has held executive-operations and business-development roles at Celestica, HDM and Logic PD. Scott holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch.