M2M and the case of the disappearing SIM Cards

M2M and the case of the disappearing SIM Cards
I’ve previously written in Evolve about Machine-to-Machine (M2M) services as being one of the great hopes for growth in the telecoms industry, but a recent story in particular caught my eye – No stopping Johannesburg's traffic light thieves. Not obviously an M2M story until you read the details, the gist of which are as follows…
Rather like the smart trash cans of Somerville, Massachusetts, which SMS the local authorities when they are full and require emptying; the Johannesburg Roads Agency installed around 600 “smart” traffic lights with embedded SIM cards that use GPRS to report faults back to a central office.
However, the local thieves in South Africa have been rather quick to cotton on to the potential these SIM cards have for making free telephone calls, and within just two months more than two-thirds of the smart traffic lights have been vandalised and robbed of their SIM cards. Not only has this resulted in chaos on the roads and a traffic light repair bill approaching £1m, but you may call this something of a revenue assurance disaster with all the free calls that have been made.
What struck me about this story, apart from the ingenuity of some of the locals in Johannesburg, was the issue of how M2M services should be deployed. In particular, should M2M be managed on the same core BSS/OSS platforms as the more traditional retail services?
It’s not clear if these traffic-light SIMs were managed on the host operator’s core infrastructure or on separate systems. However it would seem that the change in usage pattern should have been picked up and addressed much sooner than it was. In an integrated BSS/OSS environment you would expect a fraud system to identify that these SIMs were being used in other devices and to make calls from other locations. Similarly, it should have been possible to activate the SIMs for a restricted set of basic services that would have made it impossible to make voice calls in the first place; or to automatically apply barring when credit limits were reached.
As discussed in my original Evolve article, there are a number of significant differences in the way M2M services need to be managed compared with ordinary retail services, and the impact of this will be depend hugely on the M2M business model that the operator chooses. However, it is clear that no matter which business model is followed, the same good business practices are required in order to avoid unnecessary risks and ensure smooth service delivery:

•  Whether it’s a consumer valued added service, or an M2M service, the same levels of planning and testing are required; and the fulfilment, assurance and billing processes remain critical to overall success.
•  Though M2M services will often need to be managed in bulk, this is not a reason to run the risk of having large numbers of pre-activated SIM cards on your network. The activation process needs to be carefully thought out for each type of M2M service to gain the right balance between operator control and the end- customer experience.
•  Whilst M2M services may have relatively simple pricing models with each CDR having a small individual value, high transaction volumes means that apparently small pricing errors will multiply rapidly, causing potentially huge revenue assurance implications.
•  Remember that each M2M service may also require a different level of performance and resilience, corresponding with the industry in which it is deployed. For example, healthcare or automotive safety applications are likely to require a much higher level of service than a luxury appliance such as a ‘smart refrigerator’ that automatically re-orders provisions that are running low.
•  And finally, expect the unexpected. In hindsight it is easy to say that the smart traffic lights were an easy target for thieves, but who would’ve predicted it? By moving into other industries such as the healthcare, security, automotive and utility sectors, telcos are moving out of their comfort zone and would be well advised to form partnerships with industry specialists.

2011 may well be the year when M2M services make the leap into the mainstream. However, if operators don’t consider all the infrastructure implications and make appropriate use of their existing BSS/OSS assets then I suspect this won’t be the last time that M2M services hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.