For the world's mobile network operators to benefit from the big data explosion, they must expand their menu of services and avoid being data carriers that simply transport bits across the ether.
"Connectivity is going to become a commodity," said Ton Brand, a representative of global mobile operator trade group GSMA, in a phone interview with InformationWeek. "We think that to generate revenue in the [machine-to-machine] M2M space, it's not just the connectivity. It's about offering connectivity in combination with value-added services."
The number of mobile connected devices will nearly double to 12 billion by 2020, the GSMA predicts. In addition to consumer electronics devices such as cell phones, the GSMA forecast includes a variety of machine-to-machine (M2M) sensors, including devices for the automotive, education, healthcare, and public utility industries.
Not surprisingly, the massive volumes of data generated by billions of devices will require network management and planning, and mobile operators are in a strong position to provide those services, the GSMA believes.
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One of the operators' biggest challenges, however, is in aligning its requirements and expectations with those of its potential customers, including the automotive and healthcare sectors, said Brand, who runs the GSMA's Connected Living program.
Device and design timelines for the automotive industry, for instance, typically runs between two and four years. But for mobile operators, planning and product lifecycles are measured in months.
The GSMA isn't alone in spotting the potential of M2M services. A 2011 Cisco white paper, "Machine-to-Machine and Cloud Services: Monetize Next-Generation Communication," discussed the potential of M2M devices in several industries, including healthcare. "Mobile technology could change the way a product can be used, thus increasing its potential target market," said the paper. "For example, medical equipment with embedded mobile technology could leave its traditional territory of the hospital and move into the home, with the integrated communications capability allowing physicians to monitor the patient remotely."
The GSMA is undertaking a number of healthcare trials with monitoring sensors. One involving cardiac patients, for instance, is scheduled to launch in November in Barcelona, Spain.
"The out-of-hospital patient will get a remote system to monitor his cardiac situation," said Brand. Sensors will monitor blood pressure and other vital signs, and will transmit the information wirelessly to healthcare professionals. M2M devices can benefit patients as well. Rather spending hours in a medical facility for diagnostic tests, they can use monitoring sensors while going about their daily activities.
Said Brand, "You send data over to a hospital and let them analyze it." GSMA healthcare trials in other countries are focusing on diabetes patients, he added.
Big data might offer mobile operators several ways to bolster their wireless offerings with additional products and services.
"That could be secure authentication service, or cloud-based services," said Brand. "Or providing customer service and CRM solutions to a specific healthcare provider that needs a service desk."
LTE connectivity will play a vital role in the future of M2M communications as well. Each M2M transaction typically involves a very small amount of data, but 4G technology is essential to managing the large number of M2M devices coming online.
"In five years' time, LTE is going to be the only way that we'll be able to manage these massive amounts of devices, not just from a broadband/speed perspective, but also from a capacity perspective," said Brand.
One stumbling block to LTE's acceptance in the mobile device market is the cost of an LTE module, which wholesales for around $80. A Wi-Fi module, by comparison, costs only $10 to $15.
"You can understand why every device manufacturer will go for the Wi-Fi module, and offer the LTE either as an add-in, or not at all," said Brand. He added, "We need to drive down the cost of those modules, and the only way we can do that is through scale. That's going to take time. It took time with 3G modules, and it's going to take time with LTE modules."
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