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.

Devicescape offers a Wi-Fi fallback service to mobile carriers

Devicescape has long offered a crowdsourced network of hotspots to carriers that have adopted a “Wi-Fi first” attitude, which aims to move as much traffic as possible of the expensive cellular network onto cheap public Wi-Fi. But Devicescape is now going after a different kind of carrier — one that wants to keep its customers on its 3G and 4G networks as much as possible and use Wi-Fi only as a last resort.

You can think of it as a “Wi-Fi second” attitude, and Devicescape is supporting that strategy with a new service called Coverage Continuity that acts as kind of traffic cop on a customer’s mobile phone. It detects when mobile coverage is poor or the network is overloaded and only then shifts customers over to nearby Wi-Fi hotspots if they’re available.

Coverage Continuity will work anywhere Wi-Fi and cellular are both present, but it’s an ideal indoor solution. The mobile network often has trouble punching through multiple walls, while Wi-Fi is readily available indoors. Once a strong cellular signal is detected, Devicescape then moves the device back onto the 3G or 4G network.

So why not just keep customers on the Wi-Fi network as often as possible, like the Wi-Fi–first guys? Well, Wi-Fi can be a fickle technology, as anyone who has tried to connect to a crowded coffee shop or airport hotspot can attest.

Devicescape’s network isn’t a private network where it can guarantee capacity to a carrier partner. Instead, Devicescape has aggregated millions of free amenity hotspots at stores, offices, restaurants and government networks in its global database and provides a device client that automatically connects to them. There’s a chance that any given hotspot might be more congested than the actual cellular network, so Coverage Continuity gives carriers much more control over when and how their customers connect to public Wi-Fi.

Sony seeks budget buyers with Xperia E4, a curvy-looking Z3

Sony introduced a new phone on Tuesday, but it’s not the flagship you might have been waiting for. Instead, the company debuted the Xperia E4 with round edges for folks seeking a low-cost Android experience.

Although the official cost of the Xperia E4 hasn’t been revealed yet, I’d guess the price to be around or even under $150 off-contract, based on the specifications. That would put the E4 into competitive territory with the Motorola Moto G and other budget-friendly phones although it won’t be selling the phone in the U.S.

Sony E4

The 5-inch IPS screen has a 960 x 540 resolution display, for example, and instead of the 20.7-megapixel sensor found in [company]Sony[/company]’s flagship, the E4 uses a 5MP rear camera. The handset runs [company]Google[/company] Android 5.0 on a 1.3GHz quad core processor paired with 1GB of memory and 8GB of flash storage, which can be expanded with 32GB of additional space through the microSD card slot. Connectivity comes in the form of 2G and 3G networks; no LTE here. You do get Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, GPS and an FM tuner in the phone.

With those internals and a 2300mAh battery, I’d expect solid battery life that could last well into a second day on a charge. And if Sony keeps the price point down, it could move some of these smartphones. Sure, the company’s Xperia Z4 is likely to be a star at next month’s Mobile World Congress event, but flagship Android phones alone won’t grow a mobile business.

Update: This post was updated at 6:53am to reflect no availability in the U.S.

Qualcomm to pay $975M to China in antitrust settlement

Qualcomm chips and intellectual property are increasingly found in smartphones around the world, but there’s been a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the San Diego silicon firm for the past 14 months: Namely, the chance that China would boot the company out of the country or severely hamper it because of issues with a 2008 Chinese anti-trust law.

Qualcomm announced Monday that it had reached an agreement with China’s National Development and Reform Commission. As Reuters reported earlier, citing China’s state-run securities trade paper, the deal includes a 6 billion RMB fine (approximately $975 million) and Qualcomm has agreed to change its licensing practices, including a promise that it will license its “essential” 3G and 4G patents separately from its other intellectual property, at what looks like a lower rate than before. Qualcomm’s summary of the key terms is below:

  • Qualcomm will offer licenses to its current 3G and 4G essential Chinese patents separately from licenses to its other patents and it will provide patent lists during the negotiation process. If Qualcomm seeks a cross license from a Chinese licensee as part of such offer, it will negotiate with the licensee in good faith and provide fair consideration for such rights.

  • For licenses of Qualcomm’s 3G and 4G essential Chinese patents for branded devices sold for use in China, Qualcomm will charge royalties of 5% for 3G devices (including multimode 3G/4G devices) and 3.5% for 4G devices (including 3-mode LTE-TDD devices) that do not implement CDMA or WCDMA, in each case using a royalty base of 65% of the net selling price of the device.

  • Qualcomm will give its existing licensees an opportunity to elect to take the new terms for sales of branded devices for use in China as of January 1, 2015.

  • Qualcomm will not condition the sale of baseband chips on the chip customer signing a license agreement with terms that the NDRC found to be unreasonable or on the chip customer not challenging unreasonable terms in its license agreement. However, this does not require Qualcomm to sell chips to any entity that is not a Qualcomm licensee, and does not apply to a chip customer that refuses to report its sales of licensed devices as required by its patent license agreement.

China is a key market for Qualcomm — nearly half of its profits come from the country, thanks to its large smartphone manufacturing industry as well as its huge smartphone market. Given that Qualcomm’s revenue last year was nearly $27 billion, the fine won’t cripple the company, but CEO Steve Mollenkopf has warned that the settlement would have a tempering effect on the company’s fiscal 2015 outlook.

The NDRC’s main allegation was that Qualcomm had a “monopoly” on modems for cell phones, particularly those using the CDMA standard, and had “abused its dominant position,” presumably by overcharging on licensing fees. Qualcomm, in defense, has alleged that Chinese licensees selling devices with Qualcomm chips have not accurately reported sales figures — meaning that it’s hard to accurately collect licensing fees.

It’s important for Qualcomm to continue to strengthen its business ties with Shenzen’s smartphone industry, or manufacturers could turn to improving 3G and 4G chips from companies like MediaTek and Samsung.

In December, President Barack Obama discussed the 2008 anti-trust law with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. A national security spokesman said that Obama had “concerns” about China’s use of its anti-trust policy to limit royalty fees from foreign countries, turning this business issue into a matter of foreign policy.

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.”

Straight Talk bumps high speed service to 3 GB on its $45 monthly plan

Although Straight Talk has long advertised its mobile broadband service as “unlimited”, the company acknowledged in September that it only offered 2.5 GB per month. After hitting that limit, the provider slows down speeds on its $45 monthly plan. That speed bump is now good for 3 GB of speedy service, Straight Talk said on Wednesday. Straight Talk doesn’t have networks of its own but instead buys wholesale service from traditional carriers and resells it. Essentially, you get the same service and coverage provided by AT&T(s t), T-Mobile(s tmus) or Verizon(s vz), for example, at a discount on your iPhone, Android handset or other smartphone.