With the rise of smartphones, tablets, Internet-connected and 3G-ready netbooks and notebooks, and MiFis and USB modems taking up space at Sprint and other carrier retail stores, it’s hard to not become myopic on the potential and possibility of mobile broadband data beyond computing, phones, and tablets. Fortunately for us, Sprint and its partners have the foresight to look ahead at a time when other carriers are trying to control or curb mobile broadband data use. For Sprint, who is opening its networks to a range of business-to-business and business-to-business-to-consumer devices, the network is the promise for the future beyond hyper-connected Facebook posts and tweets where it can potentially solve some of society’s pressing problems.
That future is now a working reality at Sprint’s M2M (machine-to-machine) Collaboration Center, a newly appointed facility in Burlingame, California just minutes away from San Francisco and the International Airport, where Sprint is providing its services, expertise, and resources gratis to entrepreneurs, developers, and technologists to evaluate products that can tap into the Now Network.
In addition to phones and tablets, Sprint’s Wayne Ward, who is head of the carrier’s emerging solutions group, quotes that there will be an estimated 1 trillion Internet-connected devices by 2013, and of those devices, 412 million of them will be wirelessly-enabled M2M solutions globally.
M2M, otherwise known as machine-to-machine, is the process of bringing wireless connectivity to devices and instruments that normally would not be considered a data device by today’s measure. Those efforts include smart meters, where utility meters are connected to a a network, health care tools that wirelessly transmit data readings for use in-home, wirelessly-connected security cameras, and others.
The possibility for the future of M2M is there, and at the Collaboration Center, Caroline Semerdjian, who is the PR manager for Northern California, along with Mary Kunkel and Samantha Jordan, demoed some of the technologies and solutions that Sprint and its partners are working on that are helping to change the world from the worlds of cars and automobiles, to fleet management and security tracking, to retail and medicine.
One solution, which affects the automobile industry, and was also highlighted in Freescale president Rich Beyer’s keynote at the Freescale Technology Forum in San Antonio, Texas that I recently attended, focuses on helping to monitor driving habits. The particular Sprint-partnered solution is developed by Trimble and is called the Driver Safety box. Developed for commercial fleets, the box sits on top of the dash and monitors hard brakes, rough turns, potential swerves, and other patterns of potentially unsafe or distracted driving. When it detects bad driving, it flashes a light at the driver to let the driver know to correct his driving behavior, and the data can also be transmitted back to the office. If you’re managing a logistics fleet, for example like a UPS fleet of delivery trucks, you’d want your drivers to be alert, safe, and cognizant of traffic laws. With the Trimble Solution, if you’re the boss, you could potentially be riding shotgun alongside every driver you manage.
The automobile solution extends beyond just monitoring and big brother behaviors for businesses, however. It can empower businesses to be more environmentally friendly by helping them map out best routes for drivers to take to avoid traffic congestion and take the fastest and shortest route to their destination while ensuring that their drivers follow those routes. Sprint says that a waste management company that they had partnered with was able to save money on replacing garbage trucks by reducing the miles driven on current trucks while at the same time reducing gas consumption and also removing a number of trucks from service as they can manage the current garbage pick-up schedule with fewer trucks due to being more efficient.
In the consumer space, Sprint is also working with insurance companies to help establish car insurance premium pricing based on driving patterns. The B2B solution can be implemented in the consumer landscape in the same way by monitoring driving behaviors and if drivers drive less aggressively and more attentively, their premiums can drop, reducing risks and saving customers money.
While this example highlights the automotive industry, Sprint has partners in the healthcare industry, utilities and power, security, and transportation.
Another example would be digital signage and advanced billboards in retail. In a mall, for instance, users may come across a kiosk or monitor with ads. With Sprint’s solution–embedding 2G, 3G, or 4G WiMax network technologies–the maker of the kiosk can not only push out new ads to the kiosk without even having to visit the kiosk to program it, but they can also track how effective ad campaigns are. Rather than saying that the particular location of the kiosk in the mall gets so much foot traffic, Sprint can empower malls and advertisers to know who is watching their ads, how long they were looking at those ads, and potentially deliver coupons based on the customer’s demographics, interests, and other factors. These kiosks are coupled with intelligent head tracking technology, which can detect how many people are looking at the displays in a crowded mall. Coupled with software, which can estimate the user’s gender, what age group the user belongs to, and other demographic information, ads can now be targeted and more useful to people.
With healthcare, Sprint can make it easier for users to monitor and maintain their medical care while at home. For example, with embedded mobile broadband access, blood pressure monitoring cuffs and scales can send measurements and readings to a doctor’s office so that if there are any abrupt changes, patients can get immediate follow-up without having to worry or needing to go to an emergency room or schedule an office visit every time there is a sudden spike. With 4G, users can also video conference experts and specialists, for example, for remote diagnosis. There is also a location-based sensor which can be used with elder care or for patients with dementia or Alzheimer. Care-givers can set up a location-based fence, and if the user crosses the fence, an alert and tracking can be sent out. Also, with an accelerometer embedded, the system can detect if a user has fallen and send out a message for help, which can be useful in an elder care facility.
In retail, where some of these solutions will get interfaced with and interact directly with users to deliver value, Sprint has partnered with some tech leaders in creating smart kiosks. In larger retail and wholesale operations, like a Sam’s Club, Costco, or Home Depot, where there may be certain specialized merchandise, it would be helpful to have a product expert available. However, having a dedicated product expert at each store may not be efficient, and stores can implement smart kiosks where users can interact with the touchscreen display and video conference in an expert if they need help with making a purchasing decision, for instance an X branded HDTV. That way, one product expert can potentially be in multiple stores at the same time to help reduce cost while still delivering the same level of customer service and interaction.
These solutions are just the tipping point on what M2M technologies can help to bring, shape, and deliver in a world where everything is connected. So why not use WiFi and why rely on more costly mobile data? Simply because WiFi systems may not be reliable and security may be a concern with IT departments. It may not be feasible to drill holes through walls to run T1 cables, and IT departments may have a hard time approving giving out secured wireless passwords to others for digital signage. Having mobile broadband access would allow true mobility where kiosks can be re-positioned at will and their low costs would make these solutions great for indoors, outdoors, permanent, or temporary use.
The best part is that in order to get all these devices onto the network, the M2M Collaboration Center believes in a truly open network. To accomplish this goal–and not jeopardize the reliability of its network–Sprint is working with several partners to give M2M customers access to modems, antennas, and chips that they can use in their own solutions and products. This helps customers save costs in trying to develop these solutions while at the same time expedite their time to market in delivering these solutions; it also helps make it faster for customers to get their solutions certified for the network.
To be fair, though, Sprint’s rival carriers are also invested in the M2M space. However, in watching the space, Sprint is definitely showing its leadership in not only in its willingness to work with developers in creating technologies and solutions, but the carrier is also leading on thought leadership to imagine an ultra-connected world where everything can sense, feel, see, and talk to each other, and at the other end of all that sensing may be a tablet or computer where you can gather all that information and live smarter, more environmentally friendly, safer, and healthier. The space is definitely an interesting arena to keep an eye on, and as Sprint evolves its Now Network over the next decade, it’ll be fascinating to see not just the evolution in mobile broadband as we’ve seen with the migration from 2G, 3G, and 4G technologies, but how these advances in wireless data can help build a smarter world for all. As humans connect to Facebook and social networks, M2M will allow all the tools and machines in our lives to live in their own network, powered by the Now Network.