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Summary:

Sprint’s approach to the connected car is certainly odd for a carrier. Instead of focusing on connectivity, Sprint wants to become an automotive infotainment and telematics systems integrator. To accomplish this it’s soliciting a lot of help, starting with Airbiquity, Aeris and WirelessCar.

Chrysler UConnect Connected Car
photo: Chrysler

At the LA Auto Show earlier this week Sprint revealed some big ambitions to become a major player in the automotive space. With its new Velocity initiative, Sprint doesn’t just seek to provide the radio component of the connected car. Instead, it aims to design and run every app and service used in the car from vehicle navigation to remote engine diagnostics. Those ambitions seem far beyond the capabilities of a mere carrier, but it turns out Sprint will have a lot of help.

As more details emerged this week about Velocity, it’s becoming apparent that Sprint is playing the role of a systems integrator, buying the technologies of several connected car vendors and assembling them into a complete package for its automotive customers. So far it’s tapped Airbiquity, which has developed software that bridges smartphone and vehicle apps; Aeris Communications, an M2M connectivity platform designer; and WirelessCar, a telematics company specializing in automotive applications.

But Sprint spokesman Walter Fowler said the carrier has many partners it hasn’t yet announced, each helping handle a different Velocity component, from navigation to infotainment app development. What does Sprint bring to the table then? Well, one component is connectivity. As automakers start injecting their vehicles with more remote diagnostic and command control capabilities — such as monitoring of electric vehicle battery charges, or the ability to lock and unlock your doors from across the city – they’ll need embedded radio modules.

“Not only do we want to play that part in the U.S., we have the global relationships to make it work internationally,” Fowler said. But Sprint that’s only a small part what Sprint hopes to sell with Velocity, Fowler said. Connected car services will need to be provisioned, apps distributed, customers billed and developers managed. In many ways cars are like big phones, and Sprint is accustomed to managing networks of millions of phones. That expertise is what Sprint will ultimately sell to automakers, Fowler said, even if it means sacrificing the network connectivity contract.

Network agnosticism is a bold claim for a carrier, which typically measures its success in subscriptions. But Airbiquity VP of marketing Leo McCloskey said it was an inevitable step. While many cars will eventually have some kind of embedded connectivity, they’ll be the lowest order links — simple 2G modules providing baseline data for remote command and control apps. The real money will be will in the infotainment and advanced multimedia features hosted in the dash, which will require mobile broadband connections.

Though carriers like Verizon Wireless are still hoping that automakers will embed LTE in their vehicles, Detroit automakers and many of their international counterparts have adopted a bring-your-connectivity approach to those more advanced bandwidth-intensive features. And since car makers can’t control what smartphones their customers bring to their vehicles, they can’t control which networks will eventually connect their cars.

“This is going to be the biggest psychological jump carriers must take,” McCloskey said. “You can no longer care about who provides the connectivity.”

So far Sprint’s new approach seems to appeal to at least one automaker. Chrysler has committed to using Velocity in its UConnect Access system, the connected version of its UConnect infotainment platform, in the 2013 Ram 1500 pickup and in the new STR Viper testosterone wagon. This isn’t just a bare-bones system either. Wired Autopia got to play with the new vehicles, finding everything from remote lock/unlock and engine start, 911 assist and Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities, web-connected vehicle navigation and cloud-connected voice command and control functions – all connected back to a tethered smartphone.

Car mouse image courtesy of Shutterstock user Mopic

  1. Carriers want too much money from too many things,we don’t need 50 subscriptions/person for data. As for apps,it might be difficult to have different ones than on our PCs (as in phones or Google Glass or w/e will a PC be at he time). Car makes should invest in developing apps for existing ecosystems and a bit in car hardware that is discrete or an accessory for the phone but using , well , Android at this point .
    As for carriers (and Sprint might be just the right one to see the light and get a jump on the bigger and greedier boys) they should go for 1 unlimited sub for all devices from phones,to tablets, to surveillance cams, to cars, to pet tracking, to the door lock or solar panel monitoring. How they manage that and how they can offload as much as possible to WIFI it’s for them to figure out,but that what makes the difference between winning and losing and if they don’t someone else will.
    The internet of things can boom but not when Tagg–The Pet Tracker is 8$/month or when Z-Wave monitoring service is 10$/month.
    Convenience always wins,cover all devices at a decent price and you can’t be beaten.

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    1. Agreed. Carriers like ATT and Verizon could open doors for so much more connectivity with a plan such as you’re suggesting.

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    2. John S. Wilson Friday, November 30, 2012

      You’re right, that’s why they’ll be doing shared data. You won’t have 10 diff subscriptions, you’ll have 10 diff services you enjoy that share data from one plan and are prob billed to that plan as well. This makes sense. They should have realized shared data was the future 2-3 yrs ago. And they also should be subsidizing 4G tablets without contracts. Fact is, the more ppl get used to using an always-on data connection as opposed to sniffing for Wi-Fi everywhere, the less likely it is they’ll disconnect.

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    3. Kevin Fitchard Friday, November 30, 2012

      I agree as well. We have to start thinking of access apart from the devices its connects. That doesn’t necessarily mean the services used over that access will be free, but paying a connectivity premium for every device we connect has to go the way of the dodo.

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  2. Southern Pacific communications would do well just to improve their phone services.

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