July/Aug 2009

The saying goes “you should never forget your roots,” and in the world of technology, it’s not a difficult mistake to make, especially when it seems like the technology of today quickly becomes yesterday’s news.

Today’s M2M (machine-to-machine) industry is comprised of diverse applications, and much of the industry’s “sexy” developments have been related to applications such as fleet management, vehicle telematics, and monitoring of remote assets, all of which primarily depend on wireless connectivity.

But before a remote shipping container could inform its owner that the security of its cargo had been compromised and before consumer vehicles could automatically communicate their location information to emergency personnel after a crash, the heart of M2M communications was directly related to wired connectivity. Ask any M2M historian and they’ll tell you the roots of M2M are indeed on the manufacturing shop floor where wireline networks communicated data from industrial equipment to a central server.

It’s not to say the industry has forgotten its wired roots, but rather it has placed wireless into the limelight. Yet, a closer look at actual adoption rates shows the two connectivity methods may be closer than you think.

According to Beecham Research, www.beechamresearch.com, London, U.K., wireline-based applications will account for 41% of all M2M revenues in 2009. Moreover, in a 2007 survey of M2M adopters, Harbor Research, www.harborresearch.com, San Francisco, Calif., found fixed Ethernet to be the most commonly used method of connectivity, with Wi-Fi and cellular GSM/GPRS (global system for mobile communications/general packet radio service), ranking second and third, respectively.

The thing that wireless has that wired often does not is the ability to draw “oohs” and “ahhs” from potential adopters and M2M industry players alike.

“The wired Internet from an infrastructure standpoint is kind of boring,” says John Canosa, president and CEO, Palantiri Systems, www.palantirisystems.com, Rochester, N.Y., with a little laugh.

Paul Wacker, product manager, industrial communications, Advantech Corp., www.eautomationpro.com/us, Cincinnati, Ohio, agrees saying, “The hard thing about wired is that it’s so deeply entrenched … and lot of times (wired apps) may be more mundane tasks that aren’t as exciting as some of these wireless applications.”

Moving Forward
Even though wired connectivity, which is most commonly associated with fixed Ethernet, is a “veteran technology” it doesn’t mean the industry has stopped pushing the technological envelope when it comes to these solutions.

“People will make the argument that wireless technology is getting better, and bandwidth and data throughput is significantly better than it was. And that’s true, but wired isn’t standing still either,” says Canosa.

One of the key areas in which wired connectivity continues to move forward is capacity, or the amount of data that can be moved over a given connection. The 100-megabit Ethernet connection is commonplace in today’s wired world, and according to Canosa it’s only going to be a few more years before today’s “baseline” of 100-megabit data transfer is “going to be gigabit or higher.”

The emergence of Gigabit Ethernet, which is a version of Ethernet that transfers 1,000 megabits of data per second, is proof of just how easily wired continues to outshine wireless when it comes to capacity. Wacker says depending on the type of wireless network, wireless capacity is usually discussed in kilobits per second or megabits per second for networks that are more sophisticated.

“When you talk about wired connection,” he explains, “we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of times faster for applications that may need that (higher capacity), whether its needed for moving large amounts of data or whether it might be moving images where you have video.”

Another front in which wired connectivity is making progress is pervasiveness. Wireless technology providers often tout the growing ubiquity of wireless networks, especially those which are cellular-based, yet Ethernet connectivity is also becoming more pervasive in its own right.

Deepak Warner, president, Precidia Technologies Inc., www.precidia.com, Ottawa, Ont., emphasizes 80% of today’s businesses have Ethernet connectivity. “There are a lot of great advantages of wireless. … It’s as prevalent as ever, but it’s not as prevalent as wired,” he explains. “There are a lot of people that think wireless has succeeded wired, but it hasn’t; it’s still second.”

Spencer Cramer, president and CEO, ei3, www.ei3.com, Montvale, N.J., has also seen growth in wired connectivity and says the existence of wired networks in industrial environments is far more prevalent now than it was five years ago. He says, “The concept of a shop floor local-area network has become very pervasive. Virtually every facility where we go for an install already has an established Ethernet network at the plant floor.”

The same trend, according to Cramer, is occurring in commercial buildings, where Ethernet is readily available throughout most of the building, making it far easier to network fixed assets.

Advantage Wired
One of wireless’ most significant contributions to the development of M2M technology has been mobility. It has opened M2M to new markets, and has enabled solution providers to add shipping containers and truck fleets, among others, to the long list of assets that can now be networked with M2M. Moreover, it’s wireless that makes it possible to network remote fixed assets such as power-generating windmills or other fixed assets that are located in environments that are simply not conducive to the installation of new wiring.

Despite initial perceptions, however, wireless isn’t always M2M’s cost-effective, timesaving hero. In fact, those involved in the wired side of M2M point to three areas (in addition to capacity) where wired still trumps wireless.

One of those areas is reliability. Unlike wired networks, the strength and reliability of wireless can often ebb and flow with the environmental conditions of the area in which signals pass through. Walls of buildings, interference from other wireless devices, and even weather conditions can affect wireless networks. “If you want (a network with) no doubts about it being completely reliable, I think wired is always the obvious choice for that,” says Wacker.

Another one of wired connectivity’s strengths is security. Wireless security has certainly improved from the days when wireless networks were set up without any protection at all, but it’s the very nature of wireless networks that make them more vulnerable than wired networks.

While reliability and security are key elements to any successful M2M solution, cost is one factor that can make or break an M2M project. Even though wireless connectivity can help adopters avoid the costly expense of laying down wires (as many wireless providers point out), wired connectivity does offer its own cost advantages.

“You can talk about reducing the installation costs, and I agree wireless has a seductive sense to it that yes, we don’t have to lay down any wires,” says Cramer, who also emphasizes the importance of looking at the total cost of ownership. “When you look at the ongoing costs, you will realize you can lay down a lot of wire … for the cost you incur to maintain and service a wireless network.”

Some of these ongoing costs include checking on and replacing the batteries of wireless devices and the recurring monthly costs associated with certain methods of wireless connectivity, namely cellular. Moreover, wireless modems and wireless edge devices tend to be more costly than wired devices; costs are coming down for wireless devices, but wired devices are also dropping in price.

Not Gone or Forgotten
Wireless continues to make significant headway with each passing year. However, where there are steadfast believers in wireless’ potential to succeed wired, there are also those who assert wired isn’t going anywhere any time—or anywhere at all.

“If traditional mechanisms work really well, people don’t change them nearly as fast as you think. … And the fact is, it’s an installed technology. It has a huge installed base,” says Warner. “Wireless definitely has its place (in M2M), but it’s not the one that’s going to replace wired. Never.”

A more realistic outlook for the relationship between wired and wireless connection is one of collaboration.

Cassie del Pilar is a contributing writer for M2M magazine.

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