Machine-to-machine systems resurrect a mobile rivalry

Sprint and component maker U-blox want to help machine-to-machine technology transition to CDMA

Just as the mobile world seems to be finding peace and harmony around LTE, the age-old feud between GSM and CDMA is flaring up again.

Now, the battleground is M2M (machine-to-machine) communications, the emerging use of wireless to link devices such as smart meters, medical devices and vehicles. Though many M2M applications are new, they don't all need the latest networks. The older 2G networks that were at the center of the GSM-CDMA rivalry are perfectly adequate for simple M2M data transfers, so carriers are angling for contracts to serve M2M customers.

Sprint Nextel says its CDMA 2G network is here for the long term, unlike those of some GSM carriers. That's important because M2M applications tend to remain online far longer than most other uses of mobile. On Monday, Sprint said it was expanding its collaboration with Swiss component maker U-blox to help extend the lives of existing 2G M2M products.

Sprint's piece of the pitch is that it plans to keep operating its 2G network, which runs on so-called CDMA2000-1x, through at least 2020. It will even keep investing in the 2G technology, implementing 1x-Advanced, a Qualcomm technology for carrying voice traffic more efficiently and freeing up more capacity for data, said Russell Mosburg, Sprint's director of M2M solutions engineering.

By contrast, the biggest GSM networks in the U.S. are both in the crosshairs of spectrum "refarming" initiatives, in which carriers reuse frequencies for other types of networks. AT&T said last August that it would discontinue its 2G GSM and EDGE networks by Jan. 1, 2017, and reuse the spectrum for 3G and 4G systems. T-Mobile USA is refarming a portion of its 2G spectrum for HSPA+, a fast 3G technology, in a project set to continue through this year.

U-blox's role will be helping manufacturers make the switch to CDMA and Sprint by introducing a CDMA modem, certified for use on Sprint's network, that can be easily swapped in for GSM parts, Mosburg said. The new U-blox FW75 C200 modem is pin-compatible with its MC75i GSM module and with GSM modules from other vendors, using standard industry form factors, Mosburg said.

Sprint's partnership with U-blox isn't exclusive, so in theory the company could also make CDMA modems to be certified for use on Verizon Wireless. That carrier will keep CDMA2000-1x online "through the end of this decade," Verizon spokesman Tom Pica said.

Sticking with either of the 2G technologies instead of moving up to 3G or 4G can help to keep the cost of M2M deployments lower, in terms of both equipment and monthly service cost, IDC analyst Will Stofega said. And many M2M applications don't require 3G or 4G because they deal with small bits of information, such as numbers on power use from a smart meter or location and engine condition from a vehicle.

"The modules are dirt cheap," Stofega said. "There's an order of magnitude once you start to go up" to 3G or 4G technologies, he said.

GSM components for M2M, which have been produced in the highest volume because GSM is more widely used than CDMA around the world, typically cost less than $20, Sprint's Mosburg said. CDMA parts are in the low-to-mid $20 range and have certain advantages over GSM in security and other areas, he said.

By contrast, 3G parts cost $35-$45 and those equipped for LTE may cost $100 or more, Mosburg said. In addition, service on the faster networks would cost more each month for the life of the M2M deployment, he said.

To keep these savings in perspective for enterprises, the process of going out to each site with M2M gear and swapping it out would incur a massive cost that would probably dwarf most other factors, IDC's Stofega said. Some enterprises at that point might choose 3G equipment to future-proof their investment, he said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is

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