Vancouver M2M conference to spread the gospel

Machines are quietly talking to each other around the world.

Through wired and wireless networks they send drilling data from oil pumps in the Middle East to an energy company’s headquarters. In Canada, they send electric use data from homes to a power utility. In the U.S. they send a hospital patient’s vital signs to a nursing station. In Europe they send engine data from cars to rental agencies. In Japan they send data about empty vending machine slots to a soft drink supplier.

The world of machine to machine computing is growing, an M2M conference in Vancouver will be told Tuesday, and there’s still lot of room for Canadian electronics manufacturers and software developers to tap the market — and for enterprises to use the technology to advantage.

“The market is there,” industry analyst Robin Duke-Woolley, one of the speakers, said in a pre-conference interview.

But both hardware and software vendors, system integrators and businesses could be doing more, he and others say.

Duke-Woolley is CEO of Beecham Research, which specializes in the M2M market and estimates that this year application and services revenue for the sector in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico will hit US$3.5 billion. World-wide, M2M applications and services will pull in US$14 billion this year. On top of that, carriers and service providers will earn $3 billion in network revenue.Overall, Beecham estimates, the M2M market will be worth US$20 billion this year.

The Canadian market is small, but growing, says IDC Canada. According to research group vice-president Tony Olvet, network access revenues alone hit $143 million last year but will jump to $408 million by 2015.

“It’s early days in Canada,” he said.

Canadian companies like Richmond, B.C., modem manufacturer Sierra Wireless, with its AirVantage platform, and Victoria’s Vecima Networks, with its WaveRider radios, are among those taking advantage of the opportunities. So are the country’s major wireless carriers. For example, Telus Communications Corp. is working with Sierra to create an M2M management platform that will allow customers to oversee their wireless devices. Gary McDonald, senior product manager for M2M at Telus, said the solution will be available soon. Rogers Communications Inc. has a vice-president for M2M who is speaking at the conference.

Still, Robert Forget, Vecima’s vice-president of product marketing who is a conference panellist, describes Canada’s position in the M2M world as middling. “I wouldn’t say we’re at the bottom, but I wouldn’t say we’re at the top.”

Some Canadian utilities are “well ahead of the world” in using M2M technologies such as wireless smart meters for homes, he said, in part because Industry Canada set aside spectrum in the 1.8 GHz range for these companies.

On the other hand, he added, we’re behind Europe in using M2M in the trucking industry, where EU legislators have mandated the use of digital record-keeping for long-haul trucks. The energy industry’s use of M2M here is “hit and miss,” he added.

The challenge, said Olvet, is that M2M is not just one industry, but covers a wide range of manufactures and integrators who need to come together to create a solution. The players who create a solution for security are unlikely to be the same ones who have an M2M solution for business process automation.

That fragmented market means there are tremendous opportunities, says Duke-Woolley. Not only that, he added, it’s an international market, although one that demands solutions that are easy to install and operate anywhere.

One advantage of M2M solutions appears to be that many are almost essential to the organizations that use them, and as a result help cut operational costs.

“Nothing is recession-proof,” says Duke-Woolley, but what we’re finding in the current difficult times is machine-to-machine is one of those areas less likely to be hit (but cutbacks) than most.”

In 2008, global sales of M2M fleet management solutions declined, he said, but that was balanced by an uptake in sales of applications like smart meters. And sales of fleet management equipment bounced back in 2010.

According to IDC Canada, a survey of Canadian organizations found the greatest interest in automating communications is in security, business processes and asset management.

But there is still some holding back. What will make Canadian developers and businesses more interested in M2M technologies?

Awareness that M2M solutions can change a company’s competitiveness, says Duke-Woolley.

“It’s a matter of education more than anything,” adds Forget. “It’s really a matter of the (service) provider or systems integrator educating the end user customer on exactly what the technology can do for them, and then proving it.”

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