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BLOG: How to ruin the Internet of things: Tie up with a carrier

Galen Gruman | Jan. 29, 2014
It's bad enough that a smartphone is tied to a specific network. Imagine what happens if your car, fridge, alarm, or other long-lived equipment is

Another example: My local farmer's market is on a main shopping street, and some of the purveyors use a Square reader to process credit and debit transactions. But a butcher whose iPhones are on the Sprint network can't get a reliable signal at or near his stall, so his farmer's market staff have taken to walking customers to the street with the butcher's iPhone and Square reader to process the transactions. Lucky for him, chances are small the phone will get ripped off, and the phone and its reader can be moved to where the signal is. If you're driving down a highway or wiring in an alarm system, you don't have those options.

We of course have long put up with this nonsense on our smartphones, which in the United States can be legally locked to a specific carrier, although the feds have begun rethinking that issue. Cellullar tablets, hotpots, and cellular PCs have the same tie-ups, which may explain why they sell poorly. For businesses with employees in multiple locations, the carrier tie-up can be a huge problem, and it's one advantage of the BYOD phenomenon, since employees tend to buy devices they know will work where they live, travel, and work. But many companies -- delivery firms and field support, for example -- that use specialized equipment don't have such flexibility.

Yes, service providers such as DataXoom offer multicarrier service to businesses, so you can have a mix of devices under one data plan, but the smartphones themselves are tied to a specific carrier. For iPads, it's unclear: DataXoom tells me Apple says the devices are "configured" for a specific network, but won't commit to them working with a different carrier's SIM. Some bloggers say they've been able to swap SIMs in iPads without incident, though I should note that the Sprint model uses different radio frequencies than the other models because Sprint works with unique LTE frequencies. The carriers' use of different frequencies can in effect lock a device to that carrier as well, because the device's radio supports only that carrier's spectrum range. (Making multicarrier radios is hard, so the practice is limited to pricier devices.)

Other devices supported by DataXoom, such as some Lenovo laptops that use Qualcomm's Gobi radio chips, aren't tied to a specifi carrier, and need just a SIM swap to change the cellular network they work on. That's how it should work for all devices and certainly for all embedded systems (that is, Internet of things devices): The SIM and/or radio module should be field-replaceable.

But such freedom to swap networks works against each carrier's own self-interest, so we'll continue to see tie-ups such as that between Audi and AT&T. The only way to stop that unworkable fragmentation is to not buy anything tied to a specific carrier. We may have lost that battle for smartphones, but let's not lose it for everything else. If carriers manage to tie the Internet of things to their networks, the Internet of things simply won't work, and it will go the way of other badly executed ideas like the Web TV and Wi-Fi telephony.

Source: InfoWorld


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