M2M Is Surfacing as Target For New Cable Tech Initiative

Daniel Howard, CTO, SCTE

Daniel Howard, CTO, SCTE

June 15, 2012 – Intensifying agendas around energy management, bandwidth efficiency and use of the cloud are leading the cable industry into what could become a major technology initiative focused on machine-to-machine communications management and services.
Initial ideas of how to put some best-practice and even standards-based parameters around this nascent but rapidly growing field are under study within various committees at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers, according to SCTE CTO Daniel Howard. “Machine-to-machine is just breaking the surface at SCTE,” Howard said in a recent interview. “We have a couple of ideas that have been proposed within our internal committees.”

These concepts tie directly into efforts already underway in energy efficiency and, by extension, cloud-based operations. “Anything cloud based is going to have a strong machine-to-machine component,” Howard noted.

As previously reported (November, p. 16), SCTE has been heavily focused on setting an energy efficiency agenda for the industry, which not only focuses on traditional headend and hub operations but also bears on every aspect of how operators are utilizing these and other facilities as data centers to better effect for both internally and externally directed cloud applications. “We have 17 to 18 new initiatives underway in the Sustainability Management Subcommittee – things like density, form factors, predictive alarming, 3D visualization of models, APSIS (Adaptive Power System Interface Specifications), facility best practices, equipment and environmental requirements,” he said. “Our goal is to develop a sequence of standards that make up the foundation for better facilities management and lower energy consumption.”

The subcommittee issued drafts of the first two standards developed in the SCTE’s Smart Energy Management Initiative (SEMI) in September, which set specifications for energy efficiency practices at network facilities and for environmental requirements to be met by different types of equipment. APSIS, a major new initiative that kicked off in April, aims to create a common control protocol that enables an orchestrated reaction to a variety of external and internal influences on energy availability, such as incrementally throttling down energy usage to ensure priority needs are met during a brownout rather than shutting off altogether.

As such developments pull the industry into dealing with machine-to-machine (M2M) communications the ramifications for operators’ ability to translate their capabilities into new services are likely to lead to a service-focused M2M agenda that stands on its own. The market potential is huge, judging by recent research projections. For example, Machina Research reports the global M2M connection count will jump from 135 million in 2011 to 2.3 billion by 2020. A report issued by Amdocs says the global revenue from M2M services for service providers will hit $4 billion by 2014.

“The industry has caught the wave with our energy agenda,” Howard said. “Now the next big thing is M2M.”

Mark Coblitz, senior vice president for strategic planning at Comcast Corp., hinted at what might be in store during a speech at SCTE’s SEMI Forum in February, where he called for a strategic approach to energy management and power availability that would support anticipated growth in new services for the industry. “[T]he next great wave of demand [for bandwidth] is likely to be driven by machine-to-machine uses – and in many cases by machine-to-no-one uses, such as security and home monitoring cameras that transmit data day and night with no human being actually watching,” Coblitz said.

His main point was that as bandwidth usage continues to surge, network-related energy consumption will surge as well, raising the prospect that, at some point, there may not be enough energy available if the industry doesn’t proactively prepare not just to save energy but to factor energy requirements into every aspect of ongoing design. For example, Comcast has witnessed Internet usage on its networks rising at about 40 percent per year for the past decade, resulting in installation of ever more energy-consuming equipment.

“We are constantly installing new CMTSs and blades, splitting nodes and taking other measures to stay ahead of demand,” Coblitz said. Last year alone the company installed “over 3,000 physical servers in our more than a dozen data centers.”

Nonetheless, he added, “we think the demand we’ve seen to date is the tip of the iceberg.”

Comcast and other MSOs are taking independent action to cut energy consumption as well as working with SCTE to foster the new protocols developed under SEMI. “This industry has made some enormous strides in energy savings,” Coblitz said, citing improvements in processing power to watts expended and more efficient cooling methods. “We are applying virtual machine technology to more efficiently use servers and software, so we can shut down whole areas that are not needed at particular load levels,” he said.

At the end user level “we have made great strides in the area of home energy consumption of our services,” he added. But all of this isn’t enough.

“We are already seeing growing instances where available local energy is not reliably keeping up with the demands of our growing networks,” Coblitz said, citing one instance where local power conditions “resulted in significant delays in the planned deployment of a data center and required us to place hundreds of physical and virtual servers in suboptimal locations.” Preventing such occurrences requires taking the long view on energy, he asserted.

“It is no longer enough for our industry to specify a new design or set of functionalities without factoring in energy requirements, on the assumption that when the time comes to purchase and to deploy, we will be able to obtain enough energy to power what we have designed,” he said. “Energy utilization must become an up-front consideration.”

Shifting energy consumption from customer premises to the network is a big motivation behind cloud-based operations. Happily this coincides with role of the cloud in enabling “more flexible delivery of new products and services that we need to compete,” he noted. “In other words, we’re going there anyway.”

Adding to the momentum behind the emerging M2M focus is a device-related concern as well. “Every time there’s a new software update on devices – there are three or four types of Android devices alone – the network is flooded, which impacts network efficiency and the management of network use,” Howard said. “We’re very concerned about this.”

Coblitz, citing recent commentary from executives at NetForecast, quoted them as saying, “To the surprise of many, app-centric activity consumes more bandwidth than browser-centric activity…[and] much of the bandwidth is consumed by content that the user will ever look at, as well as advertising that the user has not requested and has no say in receiving, as well as background and stealth traffic that the user probably doesn’t even know exists.”

How efforts to deal with M2M communications for internal management purposes translate into preparing the industry to take a leading role in M2M services remains to be seen. But it’s clear the commercial potential won’t be left out of planning for what’s shaping up to be a significant new tech agenda.