Will long-life M2M applications keep 2G around?

As telecom operators become increasingly involved in machine-to-machine (M2M) markets, major decisions are going to have to be made about the viability of 2G networks.

According to a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international economic organization focused on stimulating economic progress, 2G networks are scheduled to be decommissioned and replaced by 4G networks in the coming five to 15 years.  This may be good for smartphones and tablets, which require 3G and 4G speeds, but for M2M it is somewhat unnecessary.

According to Alex Brisbourne, long-time president and COO of KORE Telematics (Alpharetta, Ga., USA), 95% of M2M applications only require 2G capabilities.  These 2G networks are mature, providing wide coverage at cheap prices. 

What makes M2M applications running on a 2G network so important is the lifespan of these applications.  According to the report, smart meters are expected to work for 30 years, while some consumer electronics products will have a lifespan of at least 10 years.  2G devices built to have this kind of durability may not be able to function on 3G networks, and would require expensive replacement scenarios, providing a reason to keep 2G networks functioning.

“In an industry that, in many countries, is not much older than 15 years, such planning horizons are unusual for some types of communication technologies,” says the report. “This is true for both the industry as well as for the regulators as the MNO is unable to make commitments beyond the current spectrum license and governments may not be able to say what their policy will be 5 to 25 years ahead.”

According to Brisbourne, it is not the telecom operators’ lack of commitment that is leaving the future of 2G networks unknown, but the lack of forthcoming statements. “Clear, obvious statements need to be made by operators so we can plan for that,” says Brisbourne.  “There is some open dialogue, but it is quite hard to get people to walk the talk.”

Telecom operators have not explicitly stated their plans when it comes to 2G networks, says Brisbourne. According to the report, things are further complicated because it is unclear whether choosing 2G/3G modules really is the best strategy.

According to the report, Analysys Mason believes that some networks will skip 3G and go right for 4G in the 2G frequency bands.  If operators do this, 2G/3G modules will only work in areas that have 3G coverage, which compared to 2G is extremely limited.  More importantly, it is unknown if 2G/3G modules will be able to switch to 3G technologies in the frequencies used by 2G today, says the report.

“The chipsets, firmware, radio interfaces and filters may only support 3G in the current bands and not in other bands.  This has led some analysts to conclude that it is highly unlikely that 2G will be shut down completely and with every new 2G-only M2M device produced, the likelihood of it happening in the near future decreases.”

Connected M2M applications with 2G capabilities will also influence spectrum policy, according to the report.

“Flexible spectrum policies have increasingly become the norm in recent years. These policies attempt to set a minimum of requirements on the application the spectrum is used for and the type of technology that is used,” says the report.

The report predicts that M2M may rigidify spectrum use because of the long lifespan expectancy. Brisbourne believes that in regulated markets where governments are pushing for the adoption of M2M, carriers may be required to reserve spectrum for 2G.

This is particularly important because policy makers will need to take into account such things as government mandated M2M projects, which are still using 2G networks.

“If mobile operators…desire to shut down 2G networks and government (mandated) M2M devices still make use of 2G, the public purse may be faced with an expensive replacement scenario,” says the report.

According to Brisbourne, it will be interesting to see the debate on the reservation of 2G networks by policy makers, as there is no real conclusion on the topic.

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