AT&T has turned to an outside service provider to get consumer electronics products such as navigation devices, cameras and MIDs (mobile Internet devices) onto its network more quickly and easily.
The partner, Jasper Wireless, will handle functions such as provisioning and billing for these new devices so consumers can connect the devices and choose a billing plan right after purchase. The company will also handle these functions for M2M (machine-to-machine) uses of AT&T's network, such as wireless sensors and meters.
Critics have said AT&T, like other major U.S. carriers, has been too slow in opening up its wireless network to devices and applications it doesn't sell. Apple's iPhone and App Store, which run in the U.S. exclusively on AT&T's network, kicked off a proliferation of third-party software for phones, but access to the big carriers' networks is still mostly limited to their handsets. Meanwhile, consumers are starting to look for widespread wireless connectivity for a variety of other devices.
AT&T formed a group last November to work on getting new types of devices on its network. It's turning to Jasper to speed up that process by setting up specialized service plans and monitoring connected devices in the field.
"By doing this with them, we're going to be able to do this very, very quickly," said Glenn Lurie, president of emerging devices at AT&T Mobility. AT&T already has deals with several manufacturers, but most of them are still under wraps, he said.
When customers buy phones from AT&T or another mobile operator, typically they have to sign up for service at the carrier's store, get a credit check, receive or port a phone number, and then start getting service.
That's not a viable process for many other kinds of consumer electronics, said Jasper CEO Jahangir Mohammed. For many devices, such as digital picture frames, camcorders or wireless dog collars, consumers will want instant connectivity as soon as they open the box, he said. In other cases, they may want to pay on a per-use basis or prepay for a certain amount of data, and a manufacturer may want to provide three months of free service after consumers buy their devices. Jasper can set up any type of plan for a certain product, he said. "We can create a new model in a matter of minutes," Mohammed said.
AT&T will be Jasper's exclusive U.S. partner for several years, the companies said. Together, the companies will work with consumer and enterprise device makers to have AT&T SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards integrated into their products, allowing AT&T to sell services to users of those devices. Buyers won't be able to choose wireless service from another carrier for the devices, Mohammed said.
Jasper, based in Sunnyvale, California, is four years old. It started out as an aggregator of network access on many carriers' networks for machine-to-machine connectivity. Providing its back-end technology to carriers is a new business, in which the company has one other named customer, European service provider Sympac.
AT&T clearly wants to enable wireless connectivity on many new kinds of devices, said analyst Kitty Weldon of Current Analysis. The partnership with Jasper could give AT&T a time-to-market advantage over its rivals, she said. Jasper particularly stands out with its technology for monitoring machine-to-machine performance.
"I'm not sure who else really has that level of visibility into what's out there and not looked at for years," Weldon said.
All the major U.S. carriers are looking to get onto new devices so they can boost their data revenue, said analyst Jack Gold of J.Gold & Associates.
"AT&T had better figure out how to get it on their network instead of somebody else's," Gold said. "It's real money."
But despite carriers' eagerness to "open" their networks to new types of devices, their notion of openness may not match that of many consumers, who want to be able to use any device or application on any network, analysts said.