For mobile operators, the emerging machine-to-machine (M2M) communications sector presents tremendous opportunities to create new revenue streams, expand the customer base and strengthen margins. By Ronald Cornelisse, Senior Manager, Market Development, Tekelec
For mobile operators, the emerging machine-to-machine (M2M) communications sector presents tremendous opportunities to create new revenue streams, expand the customer base and strengthen margins. However, M2M communications, with a “hyper-connected” environment characterized by huge numbers of devices and applications, unpredictable traffic patterns and the “bursty” nature of billions of connections, also presents several challenges for operators. These include network scalability; interoperability of 2G, 3G and LTE technologies; and the security of both the network and the devices attached to it.
Prior to 2005, operators built their networks to handle mostly human-to-human voice and SMS traffic and to predict statistically the demand for network resources, including peak periods. A year or two ago, operators began to optimize their networks to accommodate rising volumes of data traffic; while humans continue to be the main network subscribers, smartphones are driving the demand for data services, and operators rely increasingly on policy control to manage network resources.
Within the next few years, operators will shift the network-optimization emphasis yet again, this time to “hyper-connectivity,” meaning, most communications will occur between and among machines, rather than humans, and will be “bursty” in nature. Further, operators will be hard-pressed to predict the volume of traffic that will be generated by huge numbers of devices and applications.
SDM and M2M
Subscriber Data Management (SDM) is usually the first network area to be affected by M2M communications, primarily because of the sheer scale of devices and the need to incorporate related information within associated databases, including the home location register (HLR). There are several opportunities to optimize and improve legacy HLR platforms, which are designed for voice-centric human-to-human communications, so they can accommodate M2M communications.
Firstly, with Multiple Access Domains, operators need next-generation SDM platforms that are more than just next-generation HLRs. These M2M-optimized platforms must be able to track and manage devices across multiple access domains, from 2G and 3G to LTE, WiFi and WiMax, each of which uses its own authentication functions. Further, such platforms not must also be able to select among these domains to ensure they can terminate the message appropriately. They also must tackle all the IP-domain functions, such as dynamic/static allocation of IP addresses; and SIP-registration tracking.
If these functions co-exist in the same database and data server, within the same run time and application framework, operators can build and maintain smarter network capabilities, such as terminating SMS messages to the IP domain when the device is in, for example, the home WiFi environment, or establishing network-initiated connections. The ability to create such scenarios translates into the ability to conserve important network resources.
Another critical set of capabilities for M2M-optimized SDMs includes scalability and flexibility. The required scalability comes from appropriate resource management which allows the independent scaling of databases and applications. In addition, dynamic, i.e., intelligent, management of the memory for both active and dormant subscribers enables the system to scale to millions of devices in the most resource-efficient way possible.
The flexibility of the database and data model is extremely important for keeping critical information, such as device serial numbers and firmware information, close to information about the device’s location and network state. The proximity of these information sets enables operators to create custom fields about specific devices and via such fields for all devices, obtain an instantaneous view of what is happening in the network right now.
Management of identities in M2M communications is particularly important because of the predicted deployment of tens of billions of devices in conjunction with the coming shortage of expensive identifier resources such as phone numbers and mobile station international subscriber directory numbers (MSISDNs). SDM could tackle this challenge by pooling these identifier resources and dynamically assigning them on an as-needed basis. Another SDM approach is to make other, more plentiful types of identifiers (e.g. a SIP uniform resource identifier [URI]) equivalent to phone numbers.
Securing M2M communications is an essential aspect of next-generation SDM platforms. Device authentication must include multiple simultaneous algorithms and a single sign-on function which can follow the device across any type of network. In addition, an equipment identity register (EIR) is essential, so the operator can identify and block stolen devices immediately.
The opportunity for mobile operators in the emerging M2M communications market is enormous, no matter how one measures it
Support for Business Operations – A strategic differentiator in M2M communications services is the ability to tailor operations to individual customer needs–in other words, to provide: an application programming interface (API) that is oriented to Web services; a framework for XML event-based notifications; and provisioning capabilities based on automated templates
M2M Network Control Center – To control M2M communications devices and address the scalability and security issues across network domains operators can dynamically build a subscriber-aware point in between the two. This M2M Network Control Center (NCC) can receive copies of very specific information from the network and store these data alongside other important M2M information. In addition, the NCC can be a big help in making transitions, either by enabling 2G/3G/LTE mobility or, for authentication purposes, simply functioning as a proxy between the different domains.
Further, the NCC can play a major role when it comes to steering and protection. Operators want a means to schedule device communications from a central point, and the M2M NCC, residing between the two signalling networks, is the ideal central scheduling point.
Finally, the NCC is an effective disaster-recovery tool. Acting as an HLR backup, the NCC dynamically stores all the necessary information; if an HLR problem occurs, the operator can keep the network up and running while solving the problem.
The opportunity for mobile operators in the emerging M2M communications market is enormous, no matter how one measures it. With M2M standardization underway, leading operators that want to capitalize on the M2M opportunity are looking to vendors that understand M2M communications and its unique networking requirements to provide solutions that will help them capture market share, boost ARPU and enhance long-term profitability.