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Jasper Wireless, a company that runs the embedded device management systems for some of the world’s largest mobile carriers, is buying policy servers from telecom equipment maker Telekec. Let me translate that into English: Jasper supplies some of the key enabling technology for the internet of things, and it is installing some of the same equipment that operators use to shape traffic on their networks.

It may sound like another arcane bit of telco gear, but you’re likely much more familiar with policy engines than you might think. The policy server or manager is what throttles back your mobile broadband speeds when you exceed your monthly data quota, it tells your operator when you’ve been using your phone as a mobile hotspot on the sly, and it charges fees for services that some operators restrict like VoIP.

internetofthingsSo what does a machine-to-machine (M2M) communications specialist like Jasper need with a high-powered policy engine? I put that question to Tekelec when we discussed the Jasper deal, and it turns out that policy plays much more crucial to M2M and running vast networks of connected appliances and gadgets than I thought.

What it comes down to is that not all “things” in the Internet of things are created equal, Tekelec Director of Strategic Marketing Joanne Steinberg said in an email interview. In the world of consumer applications, we chafe at the thought of one service or app being prioritized over another. But when we start talking about prioritizing devices, that all changes.

“For example, if I have a smartphone, a diabetes monitor, an alarm system, and my child’s gaming device on a shared data plan, I may want my smartphone to have priority at certain times, and I would want my diabetes monitor and alarm system to always have a higher priority,” Steinberg said. “If I am an enterprise customer tracking multiple machines around the world, I may want my security cameras, safety and inventory tracking devices to have a higher priority than my vending machines.”

You don’t want your medical alert device to wait for a soda machine to finish uploading its inventory data before it transmits its emergency alert. Policy servers will assume the role of traffic cop not just over these millions of different connections, but the applications riding over them. A device like a security camera might normally have a low priority when it uploads its daily feeds to a video server, but when a crime is in progress the authorities need to see those video packets in real time.

What’s more, policy will pay a key role in billing for those different kinds of connections. In a world where millions of devices are always connected but only transmit intermittently, the concept of the monthly data plan goes out the window.

GE: The Greatest Barrier to the Smart Grid Is PerceptionAn individual customer could have millions of devices – for instance Amazon and its Kindles – sharing the same “quota pool,” Steinberg said, but in the case of M2M the value of a megabyte of data can vary greatly depending on the application. The amount of data an entire grid of smart utility meters could consume might be miniscule compared to the data a single tablet could eat up each month, but the utility would wind up paying far more due to the sheer number of connections supported.

“You can think of policy as the brain of the ‘Internet of Things’ because it intelligently defines the rules for all the ‘things’ that are and will be connected to the Internet based on network conditions, application and device priority, speed and bandwidth requirements, time of day and so on,” Steinberg said. “It will determine, when different devices and applications will have priority, what bandwidth and speed will be assigned, when to send alerts or new service and software updates – the list is endless!”

We’re going to see these kind of policy rules set not just in the internet of things, but in the plain old internet of phones and phones. Carriers are already weighing a new type of tiered plan, in which the tiers aren’t determined by monthly data allowances, but by service quality. It might not be much longer before we have the option to pay higher rates each month to ensure our traffic is sent via network fast lanes. Of course, if we opt not to play those higher rates, we might just get stuck in the on-ramp.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Lightspring

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