Spark Electron wants to make cellular connectivity easy as Wi-Fi

Spark Labs is coming back to Kickstarter with a new project and a mission to change how cellular carriers think about the internet of things. The company, which launched a popular Wi-Fi development board for the internet of things almost two years ago on Kickstarter, is back raising money for a cellular development board called the Electron.

For $39 or $59, respectively, developers can get 2G or 3G-capable board as well as the software and back end cloud service that Spark offers. Add to this $2.99 per month for the data plan and now people building connected products have a new option available that lets them take their devices outside the realm of Wi-Fi networks. Zach Supalla, the CEO of Spark, explained that after the launch of the Spark Core board and the Photon, a postage-stamp sized Wi-Fi development kit, he asked customers what they wanted. Many of them asked for Bluetooth boards, but that wasn’t technically challenging, so he pressed harder.

“We found that many of our customers were using Wi-Fi boards as kind of a hack, like trying to cover a farmer’s field in Wi-Fi to use them,” Supalla said. So he decided to try cellular reasoning that would open up the Spark ecosystem to more industrial applications. So far, the hardware hasn’t been as challenging as getting the connectivity together.

So far, Supalla said has a deal with a Tier 1 carrier for 2G and 3G GSM service in the the U.S. and Canada, and is working on signing more. He’s also working on signing European deals with the goal of offering global coverage. In some cases, it has been tough going because carriers seem more concerned with how much money each new subscription will add as opposed to embracing more flexible pricing for smaller developers to get them on board and hopefully help them grow to a larger business, he said.

While some telcos are changing their tune on this issue, it’s a slog finding the right people inside the company, although Supalla is optimistic. He pointed out that stories such as Tesla have helped make carriers see the value in helping smaller startups and innovators because when one of those hits it big, they can change an entire market in a flash. The carriers don’t want to miss out on the next Tesla.

So he’s launching the Electron, and he’s doing so on Kickstarter, despite having raised $4.9 million in venture backing. One reason for his Kickstarter campaign is to go public, not just with the product, but with the idea that carriers should open up their business models to embrace smaller developers. He’s also hoping to show developers that cellular is a viable option for them, hopefully around the world. The board won’t ship until October, so he has time ti sign up more carrier partners.

As I said last week, when covering Konekt, a Chicago startup with a similar proposition, this is an idea that needs to happen. Flexible cellular connectivity for startups is an essential element for growing the IoT market. And if carriers don’t get on board, entrepreneurs will find a way around them — much to the carriers’ chagrin.

Updated: This story was corrected at 10:40 am to note that Spark does have a carrier partner for Electron in the U.S. and Canada.

UK carriers agree to boost coverage, avoiding national roaming

The British government has gotten the country’s four big mobile operators to agree to boost their coverage, to tackle so-called not-spots in rural areas.

EE, O2, Three and Vodafone said Thursday that they would jointly invest £5 billion ($7.8 billion) in the program over the next couple of years. This will result in guaranteed voice and SMS coverage over 90 percent of the U.K. geographic area, with services from all four operators going up from 69 percent to 85 percent of the land.

According to the most recent statistics from telecoms regulator Ofcom, 99.7 percent of premises can now get outdoor 2G mobile coverage from at least one carrier, and 99.5 percent can get 3G coverage. However, geographical coverage is another story – more like 80 percent – and today’s agreement is intended to provide connectivity to those in remote areas.

The government said in a statement that the deal, which involves amendments to the operators’ licence conditions, would halve the areas “currently blighted by patchy coverage as a result of partial ‘not-spots.'”

“I am pleased to have secured a legally binding deal with the four mobile networks,” Culture Secretary Sajid Javid said in the statement. “Too many parts of the UK regularly suffer from poor mobile coverage leaving them unable to make calls or send texts.”

Javid had previously threatened to create a “national roaming” framework, through which the carriers would have been forced to let their customers lock onto whichever network was providing a signal in a given location, if their own wasn’t available.

The idea saw tremendous pushback not only from the operators, who argued it would “limit incentives for investment in future mobile network infrastructure,” but also from the Home Office, which said it would make it more difficult for authorities to spy on people.

“A partnership between government and the mobile operators is required to maximise coverage across the UK, so this agreement is a good outcome for our customers,” O2 COO Derek McManus said in the statement. “It will support investment in our network, while ensuring that strong competition remains between the different networks.”