Businesses around the world are realizing the benefits from new era of communications; one that Canadian industry cannot afford to lag, but in which we also have a strong opportunity to lead.
Just as Canada has led in wireless innovation in the past, Canadian businesses once again have an opportunity to lead, as innovators in machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies and the ubiquitous connectivity commonly dubbed “the Internet of Things.” But this can happen only if government and industry act.
Driven in part by proliferation of cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, RFID and other wireless technologies, this hyper-connected communications landscape continues to grow at breakneck speeds and fuel economic opportunity.
Studies by ABI Research of the U.K. show that today more than 10 billion devices are wirelessly connected; a number the firm expects to triple by 2020. Meanwhile, communication equipment manufacturer Ericsson has long predicted more than 50 billion devices by the end of this decade. According to Cisco Systems Inc. president of sales and development Rob Llyod, these numbers represent a $14.4 trillion business opportunity.
A share of the multi-trillion-dollar economic opportunity is Canada’s to win or lose, says James Maynard, president and CEO of Wavefront, Canada’s Centre of Excellence for Wireless Commercialization and Research.
“Canada has a long history of leadership in communications innovation and technology, and we are well positioned to take that role again with M2M, which promises to be an aggressively competitive area,” he says. “But we must take action to leverage our strengths.”
To help Canadian businesses to capture their share of the M2M opportunities, industry and government must both team up to create a wireless ecosystem with the critical mass and the right mix of companies needed to develop M2M solutions with wide application, Maynard says. Canada’s wireless brand must be promoted both near and far to increase credibility when Canadian firms approach international prospects, he adds. Finally, both federal and provincial governments and agencies must engage with global commerce organizations to help Canadian businesses capitalize on export opportunities.
Although the industry is recently abuzz with excitement around M2M, a few Canadian companies already have decades of experience in using M2M communications to solve customer problems.
QNX Software Systems of Ottawa, acquired by BlackBerry Ltd. in 2010, has been providing “embedded computing” solutions for nearly all of its 33-year history. Its operating system software is used for everything from vehicle infotainment systems, networking equipment, medical devices, industrial automation, and security and defense. The company provides M2M solutions for major international brands, such as Audi, Cisco, General Electric, Lockheed Martin and Siemens, and developed software on which General Motors’ OnStar technology sits.
“M2M is an evolution of embedded computing based on what’s happened over the past few years in the com-munications world,” says Derek Kuhn, vice-president of sales and marketing at QNX. “Because of the saturation of personal and business mobile devices, we’ve turned our attention to asking the question: What can we do if we connect up all these machines?”
He attributes “tiny” device footprints—and the resulting mobility—as a driver for the industry to look at new ways to connect devices, and connect never-before consid-ered things. Giants like IBM Corp. and General Electric Corp. throwing their hats into the M2M ring has also re-ally heated things up, he says.
“M2M is core to what we do, and it is rare today that when a project comes in the door there isn’t a connected aspect,” Kuhn says of the important role M2M has come to play in nearly all businesses.
Canada is advantageous for this business, because of its highly-educated pool of engineering talent with experi-ence in both computing and in communications, he adds. “It’s helped us maintain the incredible engineering culture here that started with our founders.”
Still, more investment is needed to build clusters of activity around M2M, and Kuhn notes the country sometimes takes a too cautious, wait-and-see approach to technology investment.
Wayne Chester, CEO and co-founder of Sendum Wireless Corp. agrees that Canada is poised to be a leader in M2M. “Canada’s always been really strong in wireless,” he says. “It goes back to applications like forestry and mining and the great need we’ve had to communicate from the middle of nowhere.”
Chester’s Burnaby, B.C.-based company has been in the M2M business since it evolved out of a pager business more than 10 years ago. He says the industry’s evolution to M2M is a natural one.
“When the pager started to reach the point of zero new subscribers, we knew we’d have to focus on something else,” he says. “We also believed that cell phones would reach that same point, so we wanted to focus on location tracking.”
The company developed solutions that combine wireless and GPS to track not only the location but, through sensors, humidity, temperature, stability and countless other aspects of a package. Its sophisticated package-tracking solutions—used by everyone from pharma companies, to retailers, to security agencies—will typically incorporate anywhere from five to 15 different sensors based on the specific needs of the shipment.
“When lettuce is shipped from California to New York it has to maintain very particular temperature and moisture; the chemistry of a wine shipment will be destroyed if there’s a continuous low-grade shake during transport; obviously, jet engines must be closely monitored for drops,” he lists but a few examples. “Each application has a different need.”
This is one reason Chester sees nearly unlimited potential applications and different products that can be made to take advantage of M2M communications. “Moving forward there will continue to be a convergence of protocols, but a divergence of devices,” he says.
Of course, it’s not just economic gain that the era of M2M will provide Canadians.
Maynard says M2M communications will revolutionize the marketplace and change the way people live, pointing out such benefits as healthcare cost cutting, more efficient transportation, and even lower school drop-out rates and reduced CO2 emissions—all achieved by sensor-based devices communicating with each other to spur action without human intervention.
“M2M technologies will usher in a brave new empowered world,” Maynard says. “And this is just the beginning of a wave of innovation in the space. When combined with cloud computing and big data analytics, M2M solutions will help us address some of the greatest challenges we face as a society.”
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