Despite past failures, Intel continues to explore every angle to win itself a significant role in the wireless market. Its latest has uncanny echoes of its WiMAX adventure, when it invested in several operators to support their roll-outs of its preferred technology. With WiFi-first phone services proving to be a more effective disruptor of the 3GPP model than WiMAX was, Intel is taking a stake in US MVNO FreedomPop, one of the pioneers of the approach.
The funding, of undisclosed size, is mainly targeted at the development of FreedomPop’s own handset, which will run on Intel’s SoFIA system-on-chip and will be optimized for WiFi-first usage (in which the handset defaults to the WLAN, only transferring to cellular when there is no good WiFi signal, in order to reduce consumer tariffs and operator costs).
FreedomPop’s Android handset will launch next year and will be built by an unnamed manufacturer, with the MVNO’s branding. It will be WiFi-centric with “sophisticated switching” for the times when the WiFi signal is poor or absent and the user is transferred seamlessly to cellular.
The device will be the vehicle to take the company to the next level, with aims to launch the phone, and associated services, in many countries. Intel’s “global” ambitions mean the MVNO will work with a different host network for the SoFIA offerings, since its current partner, Sprint, is CDMA-based, which causes roaming problems. This may see the firm moving towards a dual-MNO strategy, with flexible network selection, reminiscent of Google Fi. It will also see it move beyond its current US and UK territories “in Europe and beyond Europe”.
CEO Stephen Sokols said in an interview with FierceWireless that his firm would take the “Xiaomi approach” and price its handset between $99 and $199 on an unsubsidized basis. SoFIA, which is being targeted heavily at China through Intel’s alliances with Spreadtrum and Rockchip, is designed for low end smartphones and in this case, will come with the capability to sense network degradation and switch connections between WiFi and cellular as required.
The connection speed can be controlled at device level too, enabling FreedomPop to offer ‘speed boosts’ to customers willing to pay extra. Stokols also said the SoFIA platform will allow it to white-list selected applications at device level, which means it could pursue sponsored data or toll-free arrangements with apps providers, without having to access the network owner’s server.
This is potentially important on several fronts. For Intel, any new category of wireless devices is a chance to steal a march on Qualcomm. WiFi-first services will be powerful tools for cablecos and telcos to launch mobile services while minimizing their fees to MNOs. Even some mobile operators are adopting them to reduce the cost of delivering some data-heavy but low-ARPU services.
It makes sense that these offerings will benefit from their own handsets, designed to make the WiFi-first experience as smooth as possible, and these could be virgin territory for SoFIA – which has come very late to the market – as well as furthering an age-old Intel goal of strengthening the open web model at the expense of the entrenched 3GPP one.
The deal also indicates how the MVNO model is expanding. These virtual operators are no longer mainly focused on undercutting the MNOs with low cost devices and tariffs. Some are focused on specific vertical markets or consumer applications, and these are becoming more interested in differentiating themselves with good quality of service and devices which are optimized for their particular services. Some are even becoming ‘fat MVNOs’ which own some of their own infrastructure, such as small cells or WiFi networks.
Republic Wireless, another early MVNO into the WiFi-first scene, recently announced that it would offer devices optimized for this approach, in partnership with Motorola.
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