What does a vineyard in northern Spain have in common with a clinic in rural Zambia? Very little, you may think. However, both offer examples of how machine-to-machine (M2M) technology is helping to enrich and even save lives.

M2M

 

The focus on technological advancement, global reach and socio-economic development all but defines the work of ITU, an United Nations led agency for ICT related issues. The M2M technology and its applications are high up the agenda at this year’s week-long ITU Telecom World 2012, which kicked off in Dubai October 14.


Hosted by the Government of the United Arab Emirates, the conference draws on the unique reach and scale of ITU to help foster a global technology environment that benefits all people. Participants will gather in Dubai to discuss a wide array of issues featuring not only M2M and smart applications, but also innovative business models, shifting industry dynamics, cybersecurity and future networks that provide reliable and equitable access to technologies for all global citizens.

Talking of the power of M2M, let us take an example in Spain. Galicia for instance, which is located in far Northwest of Spain, and the hillside terraces planted with vines are also dotted with sensors several centimetres below the earth that measure humidity. One machine ‘talks’ to another, automatically activating the irrigation system, should the soil be too dry, ensuring the wine tastes as good as possible. Thousands of miles South, in the Southern African country of Zambia, health workers are implementing another pioneering M2M technology, using SMS messages to leapfrog manual transmission of lab results, often hampered by great distances and poor roads. An action that could take weeks before is now virtually immediate, boosting the survival odds for vulnerable infants.

Similar changes are taking place all around us. In the United States, a shopper at a major retailer puts the last but one item on the shelf into his basket - and barcodes on that shelf send a signal to manufacturers to order more stock. While on the congested streets of Lebanon, smart parking meters allow drivers to locate empty parking spaces and pay by SMS in line with availability and demand. Around the globe, M2M advancements are revolutionising sectors from agriculture to energy, education to health, government services and
transport.

And, while technology usage is soaring in lesser-developed regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, the international community should do whatever it can to harness this new trend while ensuring all the world’s people have access to life-altering technologies. ITU is at the very heart of the ICT sector, brokering agreement on technologies, services and allocation of global resources like radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbital positions, to create a seamless global communications system that is robust, reliable and constantly evolving.

ITU is also working to help the development of M2M by new IoT (Internet of Things) standardisation initiatives. The new initiative will enable forms of collaboration and communication between people and things, and between things themselves, hitherto unknown and unimagined. It seems that we are standing on the brink of a new computing and communication era, one that will radically transform our corporate, community and personal spheres. With continuing developments in miniaturisation and declining costs, it is becoming not only technologically possible, but also economically feasible to make everyday objects smarter and to connect the world of people with the world of things.

Building this new environment, however, will pose a number of challenges. Technological standardisation in most areas is still in its infancy or remains fragmented. Not surprisingly, managing and fostering rapid technological innovation will be a challenge for governments and industry alike. But perhaps one of the most important challenges is convincing users to adopt emerging M2M technologies like RFID or Radio Frequency Identification tags that can connect inanimate objects through a communication network.

Concerns over privacy and data protection are widespread, particularly as sensors and smart tags can track a user’s movements, habits and preferences on a perpetual basis. Fears related to nanotechnology range from bio-medical hazards to robotic control. But whatever the concern, one thing remains clear: scientific and technological advances in these fields continue to move ahead at breakneck speed. One of ITU's mandates is to bridge the digital divide and ensure ICT technologies are accessible to all the world’s people, no matter where they live.

 

That is one of the reasons why events like ITU Telecom World 2012 are so important, bringing together Heads of State with telecom regulators, private business representatives, manufacturers and academics to discuss and exchange ideas. The event comes as ICTs are changing our world at an unprecedented rate. Some 86% of the world’s population – that’s approximately 6 million people - have a mobile phone. This means even in the world’s poorest regions, mobile technology and the opportunities that come with it, are within grasp of most people. “Today, the mobile phone is no longer a tool of luxury,” says Haruna Iddrisu, Ghana’s minister of communications. “It has now become critical.”


The newly oil-producing West African nation of Ghana is one of 10 sub-Saharan countries that will be showcasing talent, technology and investment opportunities, along with delegations from many other parts of the world. Though Africa is the world’s poorest region, it has vast potential for development and investment through ICT advances. Similarly, Gabon will showcase the country’s three-year ‘Digital Plan’ for ICT development, which includes broadband infrastructure, featuring the development of high-speed services such as e-Learning, e-Health, m-Health, Video-conferencing, Telemedicine, Tele-
education, e-Government and m-Government services.

Blaise Judja-Sato is executive manager at ITU Telecom