Fifty billion Internet-capable devices - if that indeed is the number - capable of communicating sensor data through the networks we use today, probably won't have Ethernet plugs. And if they're mobile by nature, they won't rely on Wi-Fi routers. If soon there are more devices communicating over the Internet than there are people, states the general presumption since the 50 billion projection was first quoted last year, there simply isn't that much wireless spectrum to cover it all.

This is where this story would end if we all put our faith in presumptions instead of technology. Last January, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a report (PDF available here) that foresaw a world of intercommunicating devices as a critical component of a healthy global economy. It noted the term "Internet of Things," but settled upon the more industrial term for the concept, machine-to-machine communication (M2M). The report created use cases for M2M devices that were as simple as automotive speedometers registering relative speed, perhaps to other devices within the same car, to brake monitoring systems that communicate a car's relative ability to stop to insurance companies. But the system that could make M2M both ubiquitous and inexpensive, the report made clear, is ironically the same system that carriers like AT&T are begging to decommission: the 2G network.

Winding Down and Winding Up

2G wireless technology could be the most convenient, most efficient, and most ubiquitous communication network for M2M devices presently available, the OECD report claims. However, the world's major wireless carriers have either begun decommissioning their 2G systems, or are planning to.

As the OECD report reads, "2G networks are scheduled to be decommissioned and replaced by 4G networks in the coming five to 15 years. Building an M2M solution that only functions on 2G may not be future proof. However, there are very few or no 4G modules available and it is not expected that 3G coverage will become universal."

Mobile Network Operators (MNO), the report makes clear in multiple places, are built around service to people. The driving force in delivering service is customer satisfaction, which for people often consists of somewhat more than an ACK signal or the lack of one. So not only the technical but the financial infrastructure of wireless networks would need to change if they are to address the demands of a device-driven network. For example, one customer may operate tens of thousands of simultaneous devices, as opposed to the average three. Imagine how the billing system would have to be reconfigured. And when devices in those networks cross one another's territories, consider the roaming agreements that MNOs would need to make with one another. "For many MNOs the systems aimed at supporting service to consumers are not capable of meeting the demands of M2M users," says the report.

But even these factors will become moot points if the underlying network ceases to exist. This from Alex Brisbourne, the CEO of KORE Wireless, one of North America's major current providers of M2M technology to carriers and infrastructure support systems. As wireless carriers are busy winding down their 2G services in preparation to shut them off, says Brisbourne, the spectrum frontiers for M2M are being relocated to 3G and 4G systems that are neither ubiquitous, consistent, or relatively cheap.

"Folks have got to stand up and start thinking about how they're going to deal with 3G and beyond in M2M," Brisbourne tells ReadWriteWeb in a recent interview. "On the other hand, I think the carriers need to be more affirmative and communicative with regard to their planning horizons on 2G and 3G support. Otherwise we're going to see people, frankly, getting their fingers burned. They're going to deploy [M2M], and suddenly find people have taken their network away."

Major carriers see the remaining benefit of 2G technologies in terms of amortization - how long they can continue to offset expenditures. It will be difficult to persuade carriers to keep 2G going with the promises of revenues from M2M services alone - revenues that could be "microscopic," says Brisbourne, in comparison with what carriers reap from data plans from human beings. "Clearly the slaves that all the carriers are playing to, honestly, are smartphones and their customers who are being locked into $50 to $80-per-month contracts."

But the argument that there isn't enough spectrum anywhere to accommodate the flood of incoming M2M devices, Brisbourne believes, is something of a straw man. KORE Wireless' projections indicate, he tells us, that assuming M2M adoption grows at the high end of analysts' projections, by the year 2016, all M2M communication worldwide may still be manageable on a total of 5 MHz of spectrum - "a tiny sliver of the network."

A Little Practical Incentive

Brisbourne cautions us that he does not perceive the carriers' motives, placing people above things, as being "disingenuous" in any fashion. "I think they're driven by very, very practical business considerations, and the efficiency of the licensed spectrum is one of them," he says. But the CEO has an idea, and it starts like this: "The average Joe in the streets doesn't need to have a 2G phone."

It involves a kind of going-away present. "Some of these people have still got a Nokia brick dating back 10 years, that have got things like a dialpad on it... If I want to get rid of the last 5 million 2G phones in the world that are on my network, all I do is give them the incentive to come in and get a nice, bright, shiny new Samsung free of charge, and all those people will flock in and take it," he suggests. "It's just a matter of incentivizing people to come in and do it." In fact, he adds, it may be prudent for carriers to offer those dialpad users simple feature phones as an option instead of smartphones - because maybe they don't want smartphones anyway.

Once the phones are replaced, carriers can then act like the 2G nodes are being shut down like VHF TV channels a few years ago... only not actually do it. "What you possibly do is keep it, almost unbeknownst to many, for certain aspects of 2G." Brisbourne likens it to the maintenance of circuit-switched data in telephone systems - a half-century-old system still in use today.

Even if carriers don't go for this idea, the CEO says, carriers need to come up with some explicit plan for adopting and maintaining M2M. And if it's 3G instead of 2G, that decision needs to be made now, so MNOs, device makers, and service operators can build consistent services today.

"You can't sit there saying, 'My feet are dry, my feet are dry... oh, God, I'm up to my knees in water!' as the tide keeps on coming in," says Brisbourne, in his classic storytelling mode. "If the tide is coming in and the move is toward 3G, then people with M2M services that depend on wireless connectivity for their very viability need to plan to encompass it. And for that, they need to have a clear, publicly stated direction - not behind-the-scenes murmuring about the timeline for those services to be in play. Otherwise, we do the industry a disservice. And in my opinion, the carrier community is not doing as robust a job on this as it ought to be."