Sprint’s new IoT strategy and network to take root in Q4

Alongside its plan to launch a 5G network early next year, Sprint is also embarking on a new IoT strategy. That effort—headed by Vodafone’s former IoT chief—involves the launch of an LTE Cat M network and an “operating system” customers can use to connect and manage devices from all kind of networks, from cellular to Wi-Fi to LoRa.

“The [IoT] network that I’m building is a truly dedicated core network that is connected directly to the radio network of Sprint, but will also be connected to Wi-Fi, LoRa and other cellular networks,” explained Ivo Rook, the SVP for IoT Sprint hired in December. “We have an ambition to connect to at least 100 networks in the rest of the world and also to multiple networks in the USA."

Rook explained his team is building an “operating system” with an unnamed partner and ARM—the chip vendor Sprint parent SoftBank acquired in 2016—that Sprint will release in the fourth quarter. Rook said the IoT operating system would allow Sprint’s IoT customers to connect and manage IoT devices from all kinds of networks, from Sprint’s own cellular networks to OneWeb’s satellite network to Wi-Fi and LoRa networks deployed by others (he clarified that Sprint isn’t planning to build a LoRa network). Rook said the operating system would even be able to manage devices connected to the networks of Sprint’s rivals like T-Mobile and Verizon.

"What we are doing is we are building, together with ARM, a security methodology that is on the chip level,” Rook said of Sprint’s forthcoming IoT operating system. “Why on the chip level? Because a SIM is a chip, but a chip is not a SIM. In every device, there is a chip. But not in every device, there is a SIM. Therefore, we chose to put our device management layer in such a way that we build end-to-end security between the operating system and the chip in the devices. And that is what we're building together with ARM."

Concurrently with that device and connection management platform, Rook said Sprint is deploying an LTE Cat M network for IoT connections. He said the rollout will start in the second half of this year and would eventually go nationwide, though he declined to provide a specific date when Sprint’s LTE Cat M network would be nationwide and completed. That buildout is likely piggybacking on Sprint’s efforts to construct a nationwide 5G network on its 2.5 GHz spectrum.

AT&T and Verizon have both already deployed nationwide LTE M networks. T-Mobile has said it too will build an LTE M network.

Interestingly, Rook said that Sprint will also deploy the ability to support NB-IoT network connections alongside its LTE Cat M work, but he said the carrier will only sell NB-IoT connections if customers ask for the service.

“We will also roll out NB-IoT,” he said, adding, though, that “today I do not see a demand for it.”

“I am not convinced yet that the USA will see massive narrowband IoT volumes,” he explained. “We don’t want to make it more complex than it has to be. … We’ll just see how it plays out.”

AT&T has taken a similar wait-and-see approach to NB-IoT, though both T-Mobile and Verizon have said they will deploy the technology.

Rook admitted that Sprint is playing catch-up in the IoT space. “We have been in IoT for a while, but we’ve actually been more in M2M than IoT,” he said, explaining that Sprint worked to connect machines and other objects to its 3G CDMA network —today he said that most of Sprint’s 14 million M2M connections rely on its CDMA network. However, he also said the global standard for IoT today is LTE, and that Sprint has fallen behind.

“Our growth started to stall,” he explained. “I’ve been brought in to basically say, bring Sprint into the new world by building a whole new IoT network that is the next-generation IoT network.”

Added Rook: “We want a full-blown IoT offering in the USA.”

More broadly, Rook said Sprint is working to create an IoT ecosystem around its efforts. Along those lines, Sprint this month announced its Sprint IoT Factory, “a game-changing online marketplace that presents businesses with a wide selection of complete, ready-made boxed solutions that leverage the power of IoT to help them do business smarter,” the company said.

“The thing that I believe the industry needs to pay more attention to is not just the ability to connect things, but more the ability to distribute things at scale,” Rooks said. “I think operators are making the mistake of always focusing on how it is unique that you can connect things. That's no longer unique. What we are putting just as much emphasis on is not the ability to connect things, but to be able to manage them at scale and give innovative companies—also the small ones—the ability to distribute their services through Sprint. Because we can distribute. We have more than 1,200 sales people in the U.S. We've got more than 4,000 stores, we have online channels. We have our own digital factory now. Too often IoT stays in technical projects. To connect things, there's not enough emphasis on how you actually distribute. That is something where you will hear much more from us."

Sprint’s IoT efforts are noteworthy considering SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son has said that connected devices like robots will play a major role in the future of the world.

Article updated May 28 to correct the number of Sprint's M2M connections.