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Sprint wants all your wireless connections, from phones to dog collars

The wireless company says it wants to act as a consultant and a one-stop shop for all mobile needs, and claims it can do this better than AT&T and Verizon.

Sprint is offering more wireless devices than what's found in its stores. Remember the original Kindle? That had a Sprint connection.
CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Sprint Nextel wants to be the king of the hill when it comes to providing a cellular connection to any device, whether it is a heart monitor or a dog collar.

Sprint plans to do this not just by offering a wireless connection, but also through a broad offering of advice, maintenance, and other services--supplied by both Sprint and a wide array of partners. It's a proposition the company believes AT&T and Verizon Wireless can't match.

Those are bold words for a company that isn't exactly viewed as a leader in the emerging devices business. But Sprint, which lags behind its larger rivals by a wide margin and is still struggling to turn a profit, needs to be aggressive in whatever new areas of growth are out there.

"This is considered a substantive piece that will help the company grow profitably," said Matt Carter, who runs Sprint's wholesale and emerging devices business, in an interview with CNET.

Sprint's focus on this area is part of a broader shift by the wireless industry to go from connecting people through to cell phones to supplying connections to consumer electronic products, infrastructure equipment, or anything that runs on power. It's a segment called the connected devices business, or machine-to-machine, and is seen as the next source of growth for the wireless carriers.

Much of the focus has been on supplying a cellular connection to different devices. The highest profile product, and one of the earliest examples of this business model, is Amazon's original Kindle e-book reader. Interestingly, Sprint was the original carrier partner, but Amazon switched to AT&T when it opted to sell a product that could go overseas.

Since then, AT&T, not Sprint, has been the aggressive pursuing of new connected devices.

Sprint the consultant
Sprint, however, believes it can provide a broader offering than its larger rivals.

Last week, Sprint unveiled a newly created unit, called New Ventures, that will focus on providing these kinds of services. The unit will partner with a number of different companies and industry experts to create a platform that customers can use to integrate mobility into their products.

Some of these services include an ability to integrate mobile advertising, or a billing service, or maintenance of the equipment. Sprint, in effect, takes on the role of consultant, or a systems integrator, providing advice and support on how mobility would fit with a company.

As part of New Ventures, Sprint unveiled white-label versions of its Sprint ID and Sprint Zone applications for Android devices, renamed Mobile ID and Mobile Zone. Sprint aims to convince more businesses to use Mobile ID and Mobile Zone to create a firmer presence in smartphones, part of a larger portfolio of services the company plans to offer.

This strategy is different than what AT&T and Verizon are offering, Carter said, adding that his competitors merely offer a connection and little else.

That's the business AT&T, and more recently, Verizon, has trumpeted as a source of growth. AT&T is serious enough about the business that it breaks out how many devices it adds in a separate category each quarter during its earnings report.

While profitable, it's a business that yields lower revenue. The monthly fee for a dog collar tracker, for instance, would be far lower than what a smartphone customer pays each month.

Carter believes that kind of business will lead to any real growth, and that the basic cellular connection will end up being a commonplace, plain vanilla service.

"It's low-hanging fruit," Carter said. "We don't believe it there's sustainable, profitable growth."

Not so fast, Sprint
Despite Carter's confidence, Sprint will face significant challenges.

AT&T, for instance, said it already offers many of the same services that Sprint is hoping to offer. The company likewise takes a holistic approach for businesses looking to manage their mobile devices, supply machine-to-machine connections, ad the creation of applications.

"We've been doing this for years across industries," said Abhi Ingle, vice president of AT&T's advanced mobility solutions unit. "We are best positioned for this complexity given how we can knit it together."

Ice Energy uses AT&T's service to remotely manage, monitor, and diagnose every cooling unit through an embedded SIM card that transmits data on its status.

Likewise, Verizon denies it is a dumb pipe, or a basic connection, in the connected devices business. For a long time, the carrier's only significant machine-to-machine deployment had been its partnership to supply a connection to OnStar's car service. But the company has since pushed forward with expanding its reach, with the added benefit of its faster 4G LTE network as a draw for customers.

Verizon offers technical support to companies looking to get on to its network. Beyond the simple connection, Verizon's service includes the use of data analytics. A connected vending machine, for example, could alert the supplier on which drink gets purchased more, allowing for more speedy and accurate restocking. Likewise, heavy construction equipment can be tagged with a cellular module that can alert its owners if it is removed from the construction site.

Verizon used the Consumer Electronics Show to show off a number of its LTE-connected products, including ATM Machines, heart monitors, and a connected car.

Partnerships will be key
Sprint's deal with Chrysler is emblematic of the company's new direction. Sprint isn't just a wireless partner; it's a strategic wireless partner for Chrysler's Uconnect program.

Sprint's willingness to work with others is an advantage over its competitors, Carter said. He noted that the company has a better reputation for playing nice with others.

"What will be different is how we go to market to monetize," he said.

Still, its rivals aren't standing still. Verizon has an innovation center in Waltham, Mass., where businesses and individuals can come in with their ideas. Likewise, AT&T has several labs around the world for the development of connected devices and apps.

It's part of the acknowledgement by the industry that the traditional cellphone customer isn't the only way to generate revenue.

"Mobility is no longer the side show, but the main show for companies," Ingle said.