Carriers disagree over definition, metrics for embedded wireless

ORLANDO, Fla.--The cost of embedding wireless into electronic gizmos is rapidly falling, but don't expect wireless carriers to come to a consensus anytime soon on how they report the metrics of their resulting machine-to-machine businesses.

That was the message from executives at the FierceWireless Making Money from M2M & Embedded Wireless breakfast here at the CTIA Wireless 2011 trade show. Representatives from Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), T-Mobile, nPhase and Synchronoss generally agreed that the embedded and M2M market has officially taken off, but that the tumultuous nature of the business makes analyzing and comparing metrics difficult--if not impossible.

"All the metrics that we have taught people to judge us on," such as average revenue per user, churn and net adds, now "go away" in the embedded business, said Wayne Ward, vice president of emerging solutions at Sprint.

Ward offered the example of a connected bus: Such a vehicle could have a GPS tracking module, a Wi-Fi hotspot with cellular backhaul for passengers, and digital signage that can be remotely updated. "What is churn" in this scenario? Ward asked rhetorically.

"This is a new way of doing business," agreed AT&T's Glenn Lurie, president of the carrier's emerging devices division.

Lurie noted that AT&T defines the embedded market differently than its competitors. Virtually everything that's not a smart or feature phone falls into AT&T's "connected devices" business, whereas T-Mobile's John Horn said the nation's No. 4 carrier reports consumer-facing embedded devices, such as digital picture frames, in its core wireless results, leaving business-to-business applications like telemetry to its M2M segment.

(Horn, national director of T-Mobile's M2M business, subsequently earned the session's biggest laughs with a nod to AT&T's proposed $39 billion purchase of T-Mobile. After AT&T's Lurie said the growth in the M2M space represented excellent job security, Horn--who is essentially Lurie's counterpart at T-Mobile--jokingly said his job didn't appear all that secure. He then assured the audience that he does, in fact, feel very secure in his position. Horn was one of the few T-Mobile executives to make a public appearance at the CTIA trade show.)

Though carriers remain in disagreement over how to define and quantify the embedded market, they touted the market's advancements. Lurie said the cost of a "worldband" W-CDMA embedded wireless module now costs around $30, a dramatic fall from the $70-$80 it cost a year ago. However, he said AT&T hopes the cost of such devices will continue to fall to around $20 per device.

Lurie and Horn also noted how diverse the embedded and M2M market has become: Carriers hoping to cash in on the scene must have expertise in disparate segments ranging from healthcare to automotive to smart grid.

But the market's opportunity is drawing a range of new players.

"What you're seeing is all kinds of people moving into this space and trying to grab the growth curve," Ward said.

For more:
- see this AT&T connected car release and wireless home release
- see this T-Mobile international M2M release and connected car release
- see this Sprint Nextel M2M release

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Editor's note:  Article was updated to include additional context regarding John Horn's remarks.