M2M Networks Are Ready to Monitor You (and Make Millions)

Sprint (s s) already provides the data network for many smartphones and tablets, and now it wants to offer its network to help track your health and exercise. On Monday, the mobile operator announced a new partnership with BodyMedia, a company that sells wearable monitors for tracking calories and sleeping habits. As part of the deal, future BodyMedia armbands will connect to Sprint’s national data network via an embedded 3G radio.

Current BodyMedia FIT armbands can already connect to nearby handsets, providing real-time data of calories burned while exercising, for example. But these devices use a short-range Bluetooth wireless connection to send data to a nearby smartphone. That may not be a problem when working out in a gym, but it becomes an issue with mobile exercise such as running or biking. By using a national 3G network, the range of the BodyMedia monitor increases dramatically and removes the need to carry a smartphone: health data can be sent over a long-range 3G connection to the cloud and is then available online or in an app for logging.

I’ve run with a smartphone for nearly two years to track my pace, distance, and elevation by using an app and my phone’s integrated GPS radio. I use a $10 app called RunKeeper Pro (and show you why in this video review), which is now free on Android (s goog) or iOS (s aapl) phones through January. As soon as I finish my run, I use Wi-Fi or 3G to shoot the data into an online running log. Although it’s nice to see my current pace during a run, or hear it through audio cues, I’m mainly interested in seeing the data after my run is complete. A solution like the BodyMedia armband would probably suffice, and allow me to leave the handset at home.

My personal training aside, the larger story here is about the growing uses for M2M or machine-to-machine connectivity, which is a network solution few consumers are aware of. Network operators really got their foot in the consumer M2M door with Amazon’s Kindle (s amzn), which originally offered 3G data connectivity with Sprint’s M2M network while the current Kindle uses AT&T’s (s T) data network.

This “Internet of Things” is a trend poised for growth, as consumers will connect devices such automobiles, smart electric meters and even thermostats and home lighting to the web. All those devices will need a network connection, which is why network operators have entire business teams devoted to M2M opportunities. AT&T (s t), for example, is expected to hit 10 million M2M subscriber accounts this quarter, while the global number of M2M subscriptions could reach 294.1 million connections by 2015. That works out to a scant four percent of the expected total smartphone data subscriptions, but it’s a recurring — and growing — revenue stream for network providers.

Consumers may balk at monthly data bills for their newest handset, but smarter machines don’t seem to mind, especially when the cost for such connections can be built into the price of a device or a service. The Whispernet service to get your Kindle books over 3G doesn’t come free: Amazon may pay for it, but rest assured that the network cost is built into the Kindle price, the long-term cost of Kindle books, or both. And we are likely to see more offerings like that and the BodyMedia deal in the future.

Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub req’d):