Why isn’t the embedded mobile market growing gangbusters? Although more and more devices, from tablet computers to cars to environmental monitors, are now being equipped with mobile connectivity, this decade-old market is still small beer in comparison to the conventional mobile handset market.

In the first half of 2010, the non-handset market, which encompasses PC data cards, navigation devices, netbooks, tablets, USB dongles and M2M modules, accounted for just 12 percent of total cellular baseband shipments, according to Strategy Analytics.

While that implies a sizeable annual market of perhaps 150 million units, at this rate it is going to take a very long time to connect the tens of billions of devices that could potentially benefit from mobile connectivity. With energy and healthcare costs rising inexorably, you can make a social-economic case for using embedded mobile connectivity to make every building and every vehicle on the planet more efficient, as well as enabling chronic diseases to be managed remotely.

But in practice, realising this vision will require several obstacles to be overcome, according to some of the participants at the latest event in GSMA Europe’s Mobile Meetings series, held in Brussels last week. While the basic technology is in place and the cost of mobile modules is falling, there is a reluctance to overhaul existing and time-honoured business processes. Furthermore, the way the telecoms market is structured and regulated, on a nation-by-nation basis, means some of these embedded solutions could be difficult to implement in some markets and the industry could struggle to scale.

For example, when a driver crosses from France into Switzerland, he or she will want their telematics system and heart monitor to keep working, so mobile operators will need to strike appropriate roaming agreements, while regulations governing these services will need to be consistent across borders.

Finally and most importantly, there is the issue of trust, both in terms of the reliability of mobile connectivity and in terms of the potential for abuse of the extraordinarily detailed data that could be captured by always-on mobile connections. The GSMA’s Embedded Mobile programme is looking to address these issues, but there is a lot of work to be done.

The barriers look particularly high in the healthcare sector, which could be the most significant embedded mobile market in terms of service revenues. According to the GSMA, in 2020 healthcare is likely to account for more than half the service revenues generated by embedded mobile connections.

Realizing the potential of embedded mobile connections to monitor chronic diseases will require healthcare professionals to adjust to fewer face-to-face consultations and consumers to feel sure that the data collected won’t be misused. Privacy concerns don’t just relate to mobile connections embedded in health monitoring devices. Data collected by mobile connections in smart meters in homes, for example, could be used to work out how physically active an individual is and then adjust health insurance premiums accordingly.

Taking the long view

Building up the necessary levels of trust both in terms of reliability and data privacy will be a long-term process, so it is a journey the mobile ecosystem, and its partners in other sectors, must embark on now. It will take time to pull together the large-scale trials, involving thousands of people, that medical practitioners are accustomed to.

Engendering trust around privacy will be harder and will have to be earned, but it can be done. For me, it relies on giving individuals total control and transparency over how their data is used, combined with awareness campaigns run by private-public sector partnerships. If the National Health Service, the Department of Health and my mobile operator, here in the UK, all told me that my personal health data won’t be shared with insurance companies and other third-parties, I would tend to believe them.

Building the embedded mobile market, and realising the potentially huge socio-economic benefits, will clearly require patience, stamina, discipline and teamwork between commercial companies and policy makers. Still, the prize should be big enough to justify the effort.


David Pringle

This article was first published on the GSMA’s Mobile World Live portal. David moderates discussion forums on the site and is a freelance media and investor relations consultant.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members