With no current universal standard for cellular network certification, M2M device manufacturers and MVNOs cannot accurately predict development costs or time-to-market.

There is currently no universal standard for cellular network certification and provisioning in North America. Instead, the North American cellular carriers and standards bodies like CTIA/PTCRB force mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) and M2M device manufacturers to navigate a labyrinth of different certification processes and requirements. It can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 to get a new product certified and provisioned, and, it can take 40 weeks or more to get this done. M2M device manufacturers and MVNOs have no way to accurately predict development costs or time-to-market (Figure 1). Just making minor, non-functional changes to an existing and previously certified device is difficult. The whole process has to start over again, even if the change only involves model numbers or configuration options. Any change, however minor, currently requires a waiver and a reapplication, creating additional costs and new delays.

Figure 1Even after a device has been certified, provisioning it with working data connections often entails wading through proprietary systems and manuals. Like the certification process, there are no universal standards in place. Getting a cellular M2M data networking device up and running could — and should — be easier.

Some Possible Solutions

Wireless cellular routers, such as B&B Electronics' Spectre (pictured), must currently go through complex cellular certification processes for the various US carriers. A central, industry-supported collaboration center with one certification process for all carriers would simplify matters for manufacturers. Industrial users also need simplification. In contrast to activating a consumer cellphone which has many voice and data plan options, it's harder to find data plans specifically for industrial M2M devices whose sole purpose is to transfer data. B&B has partnered with MVNOs like Raco Wireless and KORE to provide cellular router starter kits which bundle prepaid data plans with the routers. Photo Courtesy: B&B ElectronicsToday, carriers provide and manage connectivity, hardware vendors build hardware and get it certified, and developers and integrators make sure the software works. Everyone has their own way of doing things, and it’s an unnecessarily clumsy arrangement. As M2M networking continues to expand, we’ll need to develop systems that are far more efficient.

The first order of business is interoperability. As a member of oneM2M, a consortium of standards development organizations that have come together to promote efficient deployment of M2M communications, I’ve been helping to address the need for a standardized approach to M2M connectivity and interoperability. Standards that can work in any industry and on any network are needed, and some progress is being made. The development of the OMA-DM client for remote device management looks very promising, as do the TIA’s TR-50 M2M protocol standards. Together, they make it easier for manufacturers to interface with the service layer and implement connectivity in their devices. OMA-DM also helps mobile network operators (MNOs) leverage the management platforms they already have in place for mobile devices by adapting those platforms for M2M devices with minimal additional investment.

We need to keep pushing for standards. For example, there are numerous industrial M2M devices located in remote or hazardous locations. Users will have an increasing need for functions like automated firmware updates for any and all of the devices they have installed in the field. A global service layer language that lets users communicate with multiple devices from multiple manufacturers, wherever those devices happen to be, needs to be implemented.

M2M devices should be carrier agnostic. It should be possible to purchase any cellular M2M device, select any local carrier, turn the device on, and get connected. When an MVNO bundles data plans, SIM cards, and M2M cellular routers to offer their customers’ services like pre-paid data plans, data billing, roaming, and virtual private networking (VPN), they should also offer a choice of carriers.

Simplifying Certification

Finally, a central, industry-supported collaboration center with one certification process for all carriers needs to be established. Manufacturers could design to a single standard, pass preliminary and final tests, and get to market in a matter of weeks, rather than months (Figure 2). A collaborative database and web portal could make it easier to submit waivers for previously certified products when manufacturers re-configure or rebrand them for third-party companies. Funding for the center could potentially come from requiring users to join one of the North American standards bodies, such as the TIA, if they wish to access the service.

Figure 2Our current proprietary systems are an anachronism and an impediment to progress. Everyone involved stands to benefit from standards and interoperability. Talk time has flattened out, so carriers can only grow their businesses through data plans. It’s to their advantage to encourage that growth. Manufacturers will benefit from lower development costs and quicker time-to-market, and MVNOs will benefit from the ability to offer customers more services.

Cellular M2M networking will play an increasingly important role in industrial networking. It’s time to make it easier.

About the Author:

Bill Conley is the M2M Systems Development Engineering Manager at B&B Electronics. He has over 30 years of experience in the wireless field as an embedded design engineer, specializing in the digital, microcontroller, and microprocessor arenas. Conley has designed SCADA and telemetry solutions for remote monitoring and control for 20 years, earning the "Most Innovative Product" for one of the first wireless mobile MDT's (Land Mobile EXPO) and "Best of Wireless Telemetry" (2002 Sensors Expo). Conley is a frequent author and speaker, and holds several patents in the industrial wireless field. He is a TIA delegate to oneM2M, a standards body focused on global interoperability of M2M.

This article originally appeared in the January/February print issue. Click here to read the full issue.