Controlling the machine network

Activating and deactivating SIM cards is not enough, argues Jörg Palm, CTO, M2M Competence Center, Deutsche Telekom. He says manufacturers and end customers expect more value from the management of connected machines, so mobile network operators must respond and expand their M2M platforms

Controlling  the machine network

With hundreds of traffic lights out of action, repairs totalling £860,000 and a horrendous mobile phone bill,

at the end of 2010 every road traffic department’s nightmare became a reality in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thieves were systematically stealing SIM cards from the traffic lights and using them to make phone calls. 

One card alone ran up a £2,976 phone bill. This use of force to interfere with a system intended
to ensure better control and to improve the flow of traffic led to traffic jams and accidents and brought parts of the city to a standstill.

What can be done to prevent situations of this kind? The more connected machines there are in use in all areas of life and business, be it in urban infrastructure in the public sector or in the private sector, the more lucrative their abuse is for fraudsters and the higher the security requirements that institutions, companies and private users will expect M2M solutions to fulfil.- Without safeguards they run a risk of outages and high costs. 

To prevent catastrophic damage as in Johannesburg, the latest connectivity platforms such as Deutsche Telekom’s M2M Service Portal provide definable limits and abuse control. These platforms are aimed primarily at M2M solution manufacturers, but their range of functions is also of interest for mobile phone users. After all, these functions decide whether a defective or stolen device presents users with a massive mobile phone bill.

No M2M without a connectivity platform

Back in 1991, Mark Weiser outlined in his essay The Computer for the 21st Century, the vision of connected machines and objects becoming omnipresent and a normal part of our daily lives. That could be true for the users of current M2M solutions. They benefit from the added value of being connected by means of mobile commu-nications while being unaware of the IT in the background, be it in day-to-day logistics to track vehicles or to trace the progress of mail order packages. 

For M2M solution providers, in contrast, connected machines are anything but an invisible technology. Quite the opposite in that, for them, it is crucially important to know exactly where all devices are and to keep track of the connections between them. That is precisely what M2M connectivity platforms do.

Connectivity platforms have not been a part of mobile network operators’ infrastructure for long. They were originally set up for M2M business partners to enable them to manage SIM cards directly. Previously, in the days of the big four business models – post pay, prepay, wholesale and roaming – there was simply no provision for an IT partner to be supplied with large numbers of SIM cards to incorporate in his hardware and activate independently. 

In those days, the mobile network operators’ IT systems would not have been able to handle the use case for M2M. The MNOs would have booked the SIM cards as stolen and placed them in quarantine, while in reality, the cards were inserted into an on-board unit produced in Asia, for instance.

Today it is different. Over the last five years, mobile network operators have consistently supported the M2M ecosystem. Infrastructure is now tailored to enable every provider to supply its partners with SIM cards – and a connectivity platform on which to manage them. That may not sound very spectacular, but it is an indispensable pre-condition for M2M business. 

Were it not for the platforms’ functionalities M2M would, to this day, have failed to make its breakthrough. There would be no wristwatches with an emergency alarm function, no fleet management solutions that communicate via mobile wireless and no connected light systems.

M2M connectivity platforms cope with a central challenge that faces machine-to-machine communication: that of managing the connected devices and their connections regardless of which devices are involved. And further horizontal middleware layers may be superimposed, such as an application layer that converts sensor data from different sources into a common format.

Defining limits

Classic functions of connectivity platforms include controlling M2M SIM cards. Customers can order and activate SIM cards, book data options or deactivate cards via a Web portal, and the latest platforms provide more than just these basic functionalities. 

Deutsche Telekom’s M2M service portal, for example, not only shows all connections and statuses, data volumes and card costs, but also provides card abuse and cost control functions. Enabling the portal to block unauthorised data traffic effectively curbs risks of malfunction and theft.

A way to accomplish this is to set limits that can be defined for each individual SIM card. These limits enable the portal to recognise when an M2M device is establishing too many connections or transferring excessive amounts of data. For each SIM card, several threshold values can be set that trigger different actions. An initial threshold may trigger an e-mail or text warning when the limit has almost been reached. 

The M2M device continues to be operational and users can check why connections are set up so frequently or why the amount of data transferred is so high. If a second threshold is crossed, the portal blocks the SIM card automatically. That would rule out cases such as what happened in Johannesburg along with unexpectedly high mobile phone bills.

Abuse control

Further safeguards register device and site abuse. To establish device abuse the portal stores the M2M device’s IMEI, or International Mobile Station Equipment Identity. The IMEI is a 15-digit serial number with the aid of which GSM or UMTS devices can be identified. 

A mobile phone reveals its IMEI when you dial *#06#. On the M2M service portal, the IMEI can either be assigned manually or recorded automatically when making the initial data connection. As soon
as anyone removes the SIM card from the original M2M device, be it a tracking box or connected traffic lights, and tries to set up a data connection, the portal sounds an alarm.

Protection from site abuse functions in a similar fashion. Site abuse is, for example, if an M2M device is used in an unauthorised country in breach of the manufacturer’s specifications. That is mainly a problem when the mobile wireless contract for a SIM card is limited to specific regions. As a safeguard, manufacturers can define a list of authorised countries on the M2M service portal. If the portal identifies a connection from other countries it denies access.

In some M2M scenarios the loss of a data connection can have disastrous consequences. If a patient’s vital data is transmitted via a medical application, there must be no outages because the patient’s critical state might otherwise go unnoticed. 

That is why the latest connectivity platforms provide an option of monitoring the consistency of data connections. If a connection is lost the platforms trigger an action immediately, alerting the medical and nursing staff by text message, for example.

Templates and programming interfaces

To fulfil the growing requirements of IT partners and customers, mobile network operators must do more than take just security considerations into account on their platforms. Ease of use must not be neglected. Recurring administrative tasks must, above all, be as easy as possible to perform. 

Modular templates to activate SIMs are one way of achieving this. They can save parameters for tariff, voice, limit, abuse and data access profiles to the M2M service portal, bundling them in an activation template. Instead of having to input again with every reactivation, selecting the template is all that is required.

An especially important feature of connectivity platforms is programming interfaces that are easy to use. Solution providers can use them to integrate platform functions seamlessly into their own processes. A SIM card can be activated automatically, for example, when a new customer is registered on the solution provider’s website. 

The provider incurs no charges for pre-activated SIM cards and saves the cost of manual booking. M2M solution manufacturers can also integrate selected platform solutions into applications. For a connected surveillance camera, for example, control over limits could be passed on to the end users.

Connectivity platforms are an important M2M business building block, but they are not the only way to take the Internet of Things forward via the mobile network operator. Industry-specific all-inclusive M2M solutions are currently being developed that range from cargo monitoring via fleet management to solutions that control the flow of traffic in our smart cities of the future. 

Customers thereby receive everything from a single supplier – hardware, software and SIM cards and all of the tools they need to manage connected devices and protect them from abuse.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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