Could M2M be a driver for UMTS at 900MHz?

One of the recurring questions related to M2M is technology roadmap and this is an area we're going to be looking at a lot at Machina Research over the next year. Given the 10 year+ lifetime of the terminals (electricity meters etc.) customers don't want to invest in a technology that's going to be turned off and the MNOs don't really want to keep a network going longer than its natural life span. MNOs are definitely moving in the direction of refarming their GSM spectrum for UMTS which appears to put the kybosh on selling too much M2M. A conundrum.

There's a lot of spectrum at 900MHz and particularly at 1800MHz that could be used more efficiently and the MNOs know it is likely to be economically imperative in time to migrate to UMTS. I have my own views on whether it makes sense to abandon GSM altogether, whether it's viable to maintain GSM/GPRS indefinitely to support M2M and whether in fact it would be more simple to just switch off 3G and run with GSM and LTE. But that's not what I want to explore today. The consensus (which I don't happen to agree with) seems to be that MNOs intend to switch to just running two networks (UMTS and LTE). If so, what are the implications for M2M?

The logical thing to do is to go for UMTS 900 as fast as possible. In fact if anything M2M would be a driver for migrating. The logic goes like this:
  • M2M requires 900MHz - lower frequency is generally better for coverage (particularly in-building), although for the latter it's not quite as cut-and-dried as some might have you believe.

  • Refarming of 900MHz to UMTS will happen eventually so any device requiring GSM/GPRS at 900MHz will be rendered useless.

  • No-one wants to change horses mid-stream (to borrow an election slogan from George Dubya). The technology needs to be in place before widespread distribution of units. Otherwise you alienate your clients or incur significant additional cost.

So, why wait to go to UMTS900? You might as well jump quickly and then you can start selling future-proof M2M solutions rather than ignoring the opportunity for fear of selling something that conflicts with your technology roadmap

Of course I've skirted over a number of issues here. Module costs are significantly higher for 3G than 2G which makes it naturally less attractive for low bandwidth applications. As a result there will be pressure from customers for retaining 2G. MNOs may not abandon trusty ol' GSM at all (which I tend to believe). But, if they do plan to, getting ahead in M2M might be an incentive for doing it quickly.