September 24, 2012

Sprint Puts its M2M Pedal to the Metal

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2012 issue of Next Gen Mobility.

The world is becoming more connected every day, with mobile technology enhancing the way we live, improving the way we work, and creating new ways for us to be entertained. Since Motorola’s (News - Alert) StarTAC first hit the streets back in 1996, the wireless industry has seen a level of innovation and evolution second to none, and one which is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Each year, new network technologies, new devices and new applications help drive a new wave of users and user experiences that extend well beyond the basic wireless telephony, connecting people, devices and systems in new ways.

The latest trends, in fact, focus less on voice conversations – and even not necessarily on person-to-person communication, and more on machine-to-machine – the automatic communications between devices without human intervention to drive new efficiencies, economics and experiences. M2M is about leveraging network infrastructure to transform the way people, devices and systems interact to deliver enhanced user experiences on the one hand, and create new revenue opportunities on the other.

Recent research from Strategy Analytics (News - Alert) predicts staggering growth in the M2M market, with cellular M2M connections increasing to 2.5 billion by 2020, from 277 million today, driven by a combination of better connectivity platforms, standardization, cloud computing, and regulatory initiatives.

Among the challenges facing the M2M market is the need to overcome technology fragmentation to achieve global M2M coverage. With a demonstrated passion for innovation and an underlying mobile network that delivers nationwide coverage in the United States – including its legacy 3G network and its next generation 4G network, on track to turn up 12,000 sites this year and 250 million POPs by the end of 2013 – and the ability to provide access to wireless data service in more than 150 countries around the world, Sprint (News - Alert) has taken a leadership role in driving the M2M market.

Sprint’s existing M2M portfolio includes solutions for a large variety of industries, including insurance (see sidebar), asset tracking, digital signage, telematics, healthcare, manufacturing and logistics, retail, public safety, remote monitoring and control, security and smart grid. It is also very quickly making inroads in the automotive industry, which is among the greatest opportunities to leverage consumer demands for ubiquitous connectivity to both enhance their experiences and create new revenue streams.

“We are all out there trying to find new growth areas and what’s interesting is that, as mobile has become an integral part of how people organize and manage their lives, it is opening up an opportunity for Sprint to look at fertile ground and to extend our innovative wireless technology into other industries,” explained Matt Carter, president of Sprint Wholesale & Emerging Solutions, which includes the carrier’s M2M solutions. “It is just a natural, organic extension of what we do.”

Sprint’s latest venture in M2M, through its partnership with Chrysler Group, is focused squarely on driving a new set of connected in-car experiences through an enhanced Uconnect platform – Uconnect is the Chrysler technology brand that represents all the communications, entertainment, navigation, and telematics experiences consumers have in vehicles.

The connected vehicle market represents a massive opportunity, as operators, automakers, and technology vendors collectively look at the new types of experiences users are starting to demand and the different ways they want to interact with devices and networks in their vehicles. It opens up a world of opportunity as the M2M ecosystem seeks to deliver on those expectations.

“The car is another device,” said Carter. “It is a very important device in people’s lives but, nonetheless, it’s another device, and it allows us the opportunity to extend what we know about devices and how to create the right customer experiences and how to bring the right ecosystems together to create those experiences and enable people to do the things to manage their lives.“

The connected vehicle market creates something of a hybrid technology, combining people-to-people and machine-to-machine, to create a machine-to-machine-to-people environment, where users have the ability to leverage M2M to connect to their communications and entertainment services from their vehicles.

“Within the M2M industry, automotive represents the largest segment – connecting things to things that communicate with each other,” noted Marios Zenios, head of Connectivity and Infotainment at Chrysler Group LLC. “The only difference here is we have a consumer sitting in the thing we are connecting, and that’s what makes it interesting.”

Chrysler has announced the RAM (News - Alert) 1500 truck and Viper as the first two new Uconnect-enabled vehicles this fall. Both will integrate connected services including emergency services and customer service via integrated communications buttons in the rearview mirror, voice recognition technology for hands-free calling, music, texting and navigation, as well as integrated Wi-Fi hotspots and remote services, which will effectively turn owners’ smartphones into remote controls for locking/unlocking/starting the vehicles, flashing lights, and activating the horn.

The underlying network connectivity will be delivered by Sprint, which will handle all data transport and management outside the vehicle, working seamlessly with onboard radios and entertainment, navigation, and telematics systems. Additional features and applications will be developed and rolled out over time, including streaming video capabilities for rear-seat entertainment systems that will leverage Sprint’s 4G network.

Sprint’s role in this relationship extends far beyond network connectivity and data transport, to the role of systems integrator to ensure seamless integration between the network, on-board hardware, applications and services, and user devices. That’s where Sprint’s experience in network management and service delivery will become critical, ensuring the Uconnect service lives up to its billing as the next generation in-vehicle experience.

Fundamentally, the in-vehicle connected experience draws from the strategies the wireless industry has developed over the years, combining it with M2M technologies, to create what amounts to a larger, faster-moving smartphone.

“Sprint has developed the capabilities we need to implement in the automotive arena to enable these systems to work seamlessly between the devices and the network, just like the wireless industry has done in the smartphone arena,” said Zenios. “That’s the primary reason we have chosen Sprint as a partner – they know how to do that.”

For Sprint, the connected vehicle space is not a venture into a completely new arena; rather, it is a logical extension of its wireless and M2M expertise and an extension of its wireless technologies to create enhanced user experiences. It is the next phase in the anywhere, anytime, always-connected mantra that has been heralded by the communications market for years.

The argument has often been made that network operators face a challenge in turning their networks into revenue opportunities and avoiding becoming merely dumb pipes. The connected vehicle market – and the M2M space as a whole – represents a very real and massive opportunity for Sprint to leverage its network investment to create a pipeline of added services, positioning itself not only as an integrator and network partner for vendors like Chrysler, but also increasing its value as a service provider to end users. It also positions Sprint well, as it, along with its ecosystem partners, looks toward the future needs and evolving demands of customers in a connected environment.

“Strategic partnerships elevate wireless enablement beyond the network alone. Sprint is delivering an expanded core competency as an end-to-end systems integrator,” said Carter. “This is critically important to us as a company.”

Through its M2M Collaboration Center in California, Sprint is building on its history of welcoming third-party vendors into its technology ecosystem to develop new applications and services and to ensure compatibility of non-Sprint devices on its networks in the interest of creating the best possible user experience for the broadest possible user base. Creating that highly desirable and highly reliable experience is critical to the success of M2M services, considering the lifespan of embedded devices and the cost and difficulty in changing them.

Figuring out the cost model is going to be critical. Operators have to be able to monetize these services that are running on their networks, but at a level that will not turn off subscribers. That means, for Sprint, creating bundled offerings that include in-vehicle services for existing subscribers and, alternatively, a price point low enough to draw new business from non-Sprint subscribers, turning them into customers, delivering a first-rate experience, creating brand loyalty and, ideally, turning them into exclusively Sprint customers.

While technology is the driver, Carter and Zenios  are keenly aware that texting while driving is already a major issue and adding additional connectivity to vehicles in motion must be done in a way that not only promotes responsible driving, but goes even further to simplify in-car technology experiences while enhancing them, to eliminate risk.

“All of this needs to be done under the delicate balance of responsible driving,” explained Carter. “At the end of the day, we are really about creating responsible driving and really addressing a problem that is out there in the marketplace in terms of driving and texting. That means focusing on what are the right experiences we need to create inside the vehicle.”

Edited by Braden Becker

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