Dual-mode 3G M2M asset tracking can span regions

Sprint and a partner have introduced a tracking device with both CDMA and GSM capability for international shipping

Enterprises can track assets all over the world using one M2M (machine-to-machine) device with both CDMA and GSM radios, announced on Thursday by Sprint and partner OnAsset Intelligence.

The Sentry, built by M2M vendor OnAsset Intelligence, is a box slightly larger than a smartphone that can be attached to objects ranging in size from small packages to shipping containers, said Nikki Cuban, OnAsset's vice president of sales and marketing. The device can monitor temperature, humidity, light, motion, shock, vibration and pressure as well as location.

OnAsset will sell asset-tracking services with the Sentry outside the U.S., while Sprint will offer the same capabilities domestically, said Steve Myers, a Sprint product manager. The device and services are available now. The hardware costs about as much as a smartphone, OnAsset's Cuban said.

While Sprint and Verizon use CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) for their 3G networks in the U.S., most carriers outside North America use 3G technologies based on the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) family. Sprint and OnAsset claim the Sentry is the first M2M asset tracking device that can switch between the two network types and keep sending data as the asset is moved across borders.

Though Sprint offers faster 4G service over the Clearwire WiMax network and is planning to deploy LTE (Long-Term Evolution), a large part of its domestic coverage area is still only served by CDMA. In any case, 4G speeds don't help with asset-tracking services, which transfer very little information, Myers said.

The CDMA capability and the deal with Sprint allow the Sentry to tap into what the companies called a superior location-tracking system offered by Sprint. Unlike other carriers, Sprint uses information about individual sectors of its cells to provide more precise location data, Myers said. It also has a platform to help devices lock onto GPS satellites more quickly and in more situations, he said.

Most international tracking of shipped items currently is carried out using satellite, both for broad coverage and to avoid shifting from one network to another, according to ABI Research analyst Sam Lucero. However, cellular services typically cost much less than satellite. The OnAsset Sentry is likely to come in at the top end of the fledgling cellular asset-tracking market in terms of both cost and capability, Lucero said.

ABI expects the overall market for cellular remote monitoring and maintenance, including monitoring of stationary assets as well as items in transit, to grow rapidly over the next few years. There were about 21 million connections in 2011, a number that should rise to 49 million by 2016, ABI predicts.

Having both CDMA and GSM in one tracking device can be useful even in countries like the U.S. that have both kinds of networks. For instance, in areas where no CDMA carrier operates, the device could pick up GSM signals.

"Even within the U.S., dual coverage can provide for a more robust coverage footprint," Lucero 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 stephen_lawson@idg.com

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