Sprint Shifts to LTE for 4G – the Impact on M2M

Sprint announced on 25 October 2011 that it would deploy LTE-Advanced on its 800 MHz spectrum by the second half of 2013. This follows on its previous announcement earlier in the month that LTE – not WiMax – would feature as its main 4G technology going forward as part of the company’s “Network Vision” infrastructure deployment. The announcements represent a “sea change” in the 4G market, as Sprint had been one of the few major MNOs in the world previously to espouse a WiMax-based 4G strategy. Clearly, this also has in impact on 4G M2M, and it is now clear that WiMax will play an increasingly niche role in the M2M market going forward.

M2M applications are not typically associated with high-bandwidth 3G and 4G cellular technologies. For many M2M application developers and customers, 2G technologies are “good enough” for exception-based, or otherwise intermittent or low data transmitters. Nevertheless, it’s clear that for some applications – particularly automotive telematics, smart grid distribution automation, video surveillance, and digital signage – higher bandwidth is more optimal.
Also, there is increasing concern that M2M assets deployed in the field for 7 – 10 years, or more, could “out-live” the current network infrastructure. That is, if a remote device is deployed on a GPRS network, and the MNO shuts-down the GPRS network, the remote device will have to be replaced/upgraded in the field. This “future-proofing” concern has also sparked an interest in embedding 3G technologies even in applications where 2G speed may be perfectly adequate.
Sprint had for several years touted the benefits of WiMax for M2M. These mainly revolve around lower costs relative to LTE, and even to CDMA technologies. WiMax modules are currently priced in the mid-$30s, about the same costs as the lowest-priced 3G WCDMA modules. WiMax and LTE face dramatically different in cost considerations; WiMax has benefitted from fewer RF chains, and no backward compatibility requirements with 3G.
Cost a significant consideration for M2M, but so is coverage. With the Sprint announcements, it now appears that WiMax will be a niche connectivity technology for M2M. WiMax for M2M applications will be mostly relegated to some utility networks and other closed, private industrial applications.