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Sprint’s secret sauce for the IoT

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When it comes to IoT network news, Sprint has been the quietest of the four nationwide carriers. Verizon Wireless and AT&T have launched LTE Category M1 IoT networks, and T-Mobile US has promised the nation’s first narrowband IoT network. Sprint is still rolling out LTE Category 1, and says it will not have Cat M1 until next year.

But Sprint has big plans for its internet of things business. Jan Geldmacher, president of Sprint Business, knows his company is behind on IoT technology, but he intends to be first in enterprise IoT relationships, and he thinks Sprint is well positioned here.

“Maybe we are a little bit less hierarchical in our thinking … maybe because we are smaller, maybe because we are more entrepreneurial,” said Geldmacher. He said Sprint wants to become a “trusted adviser” to enterprise customers as they navigate the internet of things. He said mid-sized companies are often unwilling to invest in technology that may change within a few years, and may prefer to buy “IoT as a service” from Sprint.

Geldmacher sees three distinct IoT business models for Sprint, starting with basic connectivity, which he describes as a commodity. The next level is IoT as a service, and the highest value model is “actually putting our product into the product of our customers to bring them closer to their customers.” He said the automotive industry is a perfect example, because cellular radios are actually part of the vehicle. “This is where you have to have … the consultative sales force that understands how to connect to the business of the customer, not so much only the IT department,” he said.

Sprint wants to leverage its customer relationships to deliver more services without necessarily adding more equipment. As an example, Geldmacher described a large transportation and logistics company that connected 25,000 package scanners to Sprint’s LTE network. Sprint added voice services to the devices so that employees could also use them for phone calls from the field. Now the carrier is also working to increase the value of the same customer’s in-building cellular system, by adding controls for robotic applications and drones that can survey the warehouses.

“We believe the IoT world will go more into submitting video signals more and more; higher bandwidth is required, and we play our advantage of owning more spectrum than anybody else,” Geldmacher said. “The same is happening in the autonomous environment. Autonomous is not only autonomous driving; it’s also autonomous in-building applications.”

Sprint recently hired Vodafone’s Ivo Rook to run its IoT business, starting next year. Geldmacher and Rook have worked together at three different companies, including Vodafone, where Rook currently serves as CEO of the company’s $1 billion IoT business.

“He is a very sales-focused, sales-oriented person, a deal maker,” said Geldmacher. “He will bring in the spirit that it takes to invest into the right people, the right skills, to become the trusted advisers of our customers.”

Some customers and potential customers already have relationships with SoftBank, Sprint’s Japanese parent company. The SoftBank Vision Fund is the biggest investment fund in history to be dedicated to technology, and some of its early investments focus on autonomous driving, cancer detection technology, and smart farming.

“When it comes to industry-specific applications like healthcare or agriculture, we can leverage the investments of SoftBank,” Geldmacher said. He said Sprint also benefits from SoftBank’s ownership of ARM, the semiconductor designer that wants to dominate the IoT chip market.

Sprint doesn’t get early access to ARM’s technologies, Geldmacher said, but it does get to leverage ARM’s research and development, as well as that of SoftBank Robotics.

Geldmacher also said Sprint is rethinking its IoT software strategy. Right now the company works with several different partners, and Geldmacher said that with multiple IoT platforms it is difficult to scale. “I think we need to probably consolidate that, and that’s the plan we’re working toward,” he said.

“Sprint is really investing in the IoT space, we take it seriously,” said Geldmacher. “We have to catch up a little bit and everybody knows that.” Geldmacher said that the vast majority of Sprint’s IoT devices are connected to its CDMA network rather than to LTE, but that Sprint is actively working with module makers to certify LTE modules on the Sprint network.

With 13 million IoT connections on its network, most of which are on CDMA, Sprint is behind its two largest rivals but ahead of T-Mobile US. And the carrier definitely has a unique recipe for growth. Sprint’s secret sauce appears to be a combination of sales expertise, SoftBank support, spectrum assets, and a dash of R&D from its sister companies.

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