Sprint luring hotels, supermarkets into the 4G modem business

Sprint(s s) already has a reputation for being the friendliest operator when it comes to helping out virtual mobile carriers. But on Monday it put its recruiting efforts into overdrive, inviting anyone in the hospitality or retail industry to become a part-time mobile data carrier.

In short, Sprint thinks that hotels, rental car agencies, airlines, supermarkets and big box retail stores – pretty much any business with a loyalty card – would make excellent resellers of its 3G and WiMAX data service. Hotels could rent or lend 4G data modems to their out-of-town guests; grocery stores could sell prepaid 3G hotspots right next to the batteries and the international dialing cards. Those data services could be linked directly to any loyalty program – for instance, for every megabyte you consume earn a frequent flyer mile or get 10 cents off your next purchase of frogurt.

Sprint is inviting these companies to become mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) on its data networks, offering a compelling proposition to companies that normally wouldn’t have a clue how to run a wireless business:  Sprint will deploy all of the infrastructure and manage the service, while its partners focus on their customers.

Photo by Tomás Fano

Such MVNOs could work much the way the hotel, airport and airline Wi-Fi services function: access to a key set of company Website functions might be free, but customers would buy access to the Internet at large by the hour, day, week or bucket. Companies would also have the opportunity to toy with those business models, for instance subsidizing access fees with advertising and sponsorship revenues or allowing customers who accrue a certain number of flight miles, hotel stays or grocery to tap into free buckets of megabytes.

The new program is part of the “MVNO in a box” platform Sprint launched in July. Traditionally MVNOs have pretty much supplied all of the components necessary to run a mobile operator – devices, back office and billing, customer service, etc. – save the actually mobile network. That means MVNOs have commonly been the purview of companies with the experience and infrastructure necessary to run a carrier or companies like Best Buy(s bby) willing to invest in those resources.

Sprint’s new single source platform, however, is geared at anyone with a customer base and a Website. Sprint is contracting with Telespree to handle the activation and management of potentially millions of subscriptions spread over dozens of different brands through its cloud-based wireless data enablement platform.

So far Sprint is making its WiMAX and CDMA networks available through the program, so its biggest impact may be regional. Sprint is an MVNO of sorts itself, reselling Clearwire’s WiMAX service, which is available in about one-third of the US. Its CDMA EV-DO network, however, probably doesn’t have the oomph to stand in as a primary mobile broadband service. Once Sprint completes the rollout of its LTE network, though, it will probably start offering it up to its MVNO partners. Many operators are keeping their newest networks close to their vests, but Sprint has already allowed MVNOs like Ting to tap into its nascent LTE systems.

 Hotel sign image courtesy of Flickr user Tomas Fano