Cox Communications, the nation’s third-largest cable TV and broadband company, has gotten into the internet of things in a big way with an initial deployment of 45,000 sensors for its parent company’s automotive auction business. That deployment is set to reach half a million sensors before the end of the year.
Like its rival cable providers and telco ISPs, Cox views the internet of things as a new line of revenue. And this time, it wants to provide more than just the connectivity. Through its Cox2M business (created roughly 18 months ago) it offers connectivity, sensors, software, and services.
Cox wants to be agnostic when providing connectivity, so it plans to offer both licensed and unlicensed Low-Power Wide-Area (LoRa) networks. Which means that for one client it might offer LoRa and another, Narrowband IoT. Barak Weinisman, general manager of the Cox2M business line, says the company has even spoken with Sigfox, the creator of a proprietary low power wide area network, about providing connectivity.
Cox2M puts information on both Google’s Cloud or Microsoft’s Azure Cloud. It works with hardware companies to buy the sensors it plans to use in deployments, and will even build custom software for clients. It’s essentially a services business from the broadband and pay-TV provider.
“IoT sounds sexy, but it comes down to a lot of very complex sensor options and on-the-ground deployments,” says Weinisman. He believes Cox can handle that.
Cox is not alone. AT&T has been trying to offer more than just a pipe for IoT customers for the last five years or so. In some cases it has succeeded, but in others it’s just the pipe. On the enterprise side, Comcast has been playing around with offering a LoRa-based IoT network through a subsidiary called MachineQ. All around the world, operators of data networks are gearing up to provide connectivity for cars, sensors, and the billions of random devices connected to the internet.
Unfortunately, many of these devices don’t need a lot of data. They just need cheap connectivity — connectivity that may be tough to provide. Getting a network up and running isn’t easy. And with small devices that don’t suck down many bits, operators are trying to find business models that will make their investments in IoT networks valuable. A smoke detector might generate $1 a month for an operator, for example, compared to the $150 I regularly spend on my cellphone bill.
Operators are going to need a lot of smoke detectors, efficient networks, and a way to pad out the lame annual revenue per user associated with the IoT. Services fit the bill. For example, Cox2M will provide fleet tracking for Manheim, a Cox Automotive company that auctions off vehicles. Cox is using LoRa-based connectivity and sensors that plug into each vehicle’s on-board diagnostic port. Think of it as a custom version of Verizon’s Hum.
When a vehicle comes in to be auctioned, the folks at the gate of the auction house input its VIN and other data. With the new fleet tracking, the worker who enters in the car’s info also plugs in the connected sensor to the car’s on-board diagnostics port and ties that sensor to the car. Now Manheim knows where that car is at all times. Manheim has more than 80 auction house locations and between half a million and 900,000 cars running through their auctions at any given point in time.
The goal is to track those cars inside the gates of each auction house. Tracking them while under transport is something that may come later. Weinisman has added Bluetooth radios to the sensors used in the Manheim auction deployment in the hopes of being able to track the cars in a variety of locations, but so far no one is interested in that proof of concept yet.
Weinisman claims that being able to control the entire deployment results in a lower price for customers, but he didn’t share pricing. In general, I’m more concerned about the challenges associated with scaling the business with so much hands-on consulting. But it’s not an option for these firms to sit around and do nothing.