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Do machine communication technologies have a branding problem?

What is the history behind the terms used for cellular technologies built for machine/device communications and how were they coined?

Are you familiar with any of these machine communication terms such as GSM, M2M, GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, LTE, LTE-M, MTC, CATM1, CAT-NB1, NB-IoT, 5GNR, 5G IoT, or MIMO? These are all specialized cellular technology terms created for machines and devices. In contrast, you might be more familiar with 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G, which are also terms used to refer to cellular communication technologies, but more specifically designed for exchanging information between mobile devices (like smartphones, tablets, and wearables) and the cellular network infrastructure.

Machine communication technologies have a branding problem - the terms used are certainly not as simple, easy to remember or recognisable as the terms used for mobile communication technologies.

How did we end up with such a peculiar assortment of terms for machine communication? The word "bizarre" is fitting, as some of these terms are truly odd. Consider, for instance, "LTE-M," which stands for "Long Term Evolution of Machines." Meanwhile, "GPRS" denotes "General Packet Radio Service," and "CAT-M1" refers to "Category Machines 1." Although the latter seems reasonable enough, it's perplexing that the first category for machine communications would be released in 2016, given that there were already many other terms used for machines. Is this truly the first category, or the nineth? It's difficult to discern any logic behind it.

The first term for machine cellular technology "Machine-to-Machine" (M2M) was coined in the 1990s to describe the concept of machines communicating with each other over wireless networks and was popularized by industry analysts and researchers. However, when a new organization called 3GPP was formed in 1998 to develop standards for cellular networks, they starting came up with perplexing terms such as ‘Universal Mobile Telecommunications Systems’ (UMTS) which did not catch on, and ‘Long-Term Evolution(LTE).

Later, 3GPP coined the terms LTE-A (Advanced) and LTE-M (Machines), as well as Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT), each of which was more advanced and had more features than the previous versions. However, these terms also soon became known as CAT-M1 and CAT-NB1 because 3GPP began liking the idea of ‘categorising’ technologies.’

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread conspiracy theories claiming a link between 5G technology and the pandemic, leading to a negative perception of the term '5G', and suddenly it was hardly mentioned by any telecommunication company.

After the COVID-19 pandemic subsided, the GSMA, a trade organization representing mobile network operators and related companies worldwide, used their annual conference and exhibition known as Mobile World Congress to introduce the term 5G IoT. This term referred to the previous two machine communication technologies, LTE-M and NB-IoT, even though they were not actually part of the 5G mobile equipment. However, both technologies represented a 5th generation of machine technology and were designed for Internet of Things devices.

Among the various machine cellular communication terms, my personal favourite is CAT-M1. However, for the sake of brevity, we could simply use M1, which stands for Machine 1. This seems like a good starting point for simplifying the branding of machine cellular technologies. It is not difficult to imagine IoT devices displaying a small M1 (just like 4G) on their LED screens to indicate that they are connected to the first "new generation" of machine networks.


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