How cellular connectivity is enabling the sharing economy
For those of you who haven't read the thinkpieces or heard the publicoutcry about electronic gadgets littering the streets of large cities: electric scooters have arrived.More to the point, centrally networked, cellular enabled, rentable electric scooters have arrived. Brands like Bird, Lime, Skip, and Spin have all been deploying these devices to metro areas, hoping to tempt commuters to rent a scooter. These companies want your walk to work to be a scoot (?) to work. More are on the way.Whether these are a good idea is not my concern. I haven't ridden one and I haven't seen any around my native Chicago (though I wouldn't be opposed to trying it). Instead, I want to talk about the underlying technology that enables this sharing economy media darling.These startups are a confluence of 3 pieces of technology:
- Low-cost electric scooters (including low-cost lithium batteries and low-cost hub motors)
- Ubiquitous smartphones (which provide a screen-less solution to transportation)
- Cellular connectivity
If you look at the scooter, there isn't much more to them. Bearings, a platform to stand on, a throttle...not much at all. But the only part I really care about is the cellular connectivity. How do I know they're cellular connected? Make Magazine reported on vandals popping the top on a Bird scooter and finding a Particle Electron board inside.The business model is simple. Pay a fixed fee to get on the scooter and then pay a small charge on a distance basis. For a nice write up of the business model check out the Bolt Blog about financial levers in a business. They are generally talking about startups, but their specific example includes the fixed costs and variable revenue of the scooter business.With the seemingly simple combination of factors that go into a networked, low-cost scooter, why should you care? Isn't it just a silly fad? Scooters companies are built on “disposable” hardware front ends and are truly software companies. Everything comes down to the networking. Each of these devices needs to talk back to the centralized network and enable/track each asset throughout the city. This includes critical billing updates and maintenance of the device. Even when the scooters are not being rented, the centralized service needs to know where the device is for charging at the end of the day. Scooter companies cannot depend only on WiFi or Bluetooth and need more ubiquitous coverage that cellular provides in cities.
Using cellular connectivity for a sharing economy business model is not new. Dock-less bike share is not a separate industry. Two of the four scooter sharing companies come from that world (Lime, Spin). That industry has a laundry list of complaints against the owners, including piles of discarded bikes around China.Since networking is done over cellular, it falls into the domain of Hologram. We enable connectivity on 500 carriers in over 180 countries. The basic premise is a cellular modem onboard, with an embedded control solution to unlock the scooter. This takes the form of enabling and disabling the power to the hub motors.Connectivity allows devices to transmit back even when not being ridden. In the case of “Bird hunters”, it notifies the nightly brigade of people collecting scooters to charge in their homes. For companies more worried about public image and working towards a permitted model of scooter share, it can mean understanding the status of scooters that might impede walkways. Darren Weingard, general counsel at Skip, says as much about their offering:
"Skip’s scooters are built with advanced assisted GPS technology (AGPS) and LTE [...] to more accurately report and track where our scooters are being used. Our technology allows us to be the first to tackle hard problems, such as our “tip over” detection which sends a signal to our systems when a scooter is parked and tipped over and allows us to make good on commitments to actually help policymakers solve problems residents and visitors care about like scooters littered on sidewalks."
Future sharing economy opportunities
I was joking with a friend that if entrepreneurs thought they could make money renting out exploding hoverboards to denizens of cities, they'd do it in a heartbeat. Readily accessible, low-cost transportation devices will surely continue to crowd the streets. But the conditions are right for this trend to move outside of transit based opportunities.
The rise of LTE-M hardware
Unlike more data-intensive operations such as car tracking or drone mapping, the connectivity piece of connected scooters does not require a consistent stream of data coming back to central servers. Updating once per minute is sufficient, though each company working on scooters implements it differently. The key thing to note is that the low amount of data needed to track an individual asset like a scooter.We are on the cusp of LTE Cat M1 hardware entering the market. This and its counterpart NB-IoT hardware will enable low bandwidth, low cost, low footprint and—most importantly—low power tracking. A scooter has a large battery involved, most of which goes towards the motor and translating electricity into motion. Even with existing 2G/3G modems, tracking requires minimal power relative to the overall power needs of the scooter. But as LTE-M hardware enters the market, new applications that don't necessarily have a large battery built in are possible. Batteries dedicated to the tracking only can be small and still expect a decent battery life given the new low power numbers of LTE-M hardware.I think the combination of low-cost hardware and ubiquitous connectivity will enable businesses that we couldn't have dreamed of years ago. A silly example I was thinking of was “cabin share”. You could put a cellular connected, battery-powered lock onto your cabin and when neighbors want to enter the cabin, they unlock the house via cellular. There are surely better ideas out there. It's up to you to decide what might be a good fit for this upcoming hardware.If you’re planning a hardware deployment and interested in Cat-M1 connectivity our team can help. Schedule a call with our sale engineers today.
Deploying across the globe
You might build your business locally, but what happens when you're ready to move to that next city?Maybe you're only moving within the US but you realize NYC has different patches of cellular coverage than San Francisco and don't want to have to switch in a SIM card for the more reliable carrier, even if your device works across a wide range of cellular bands.Once you've conquered the domestic scooter market, your company will start looking at other parts of the world. If you want to expand quickly, you want to have low overhead and high reliability. Instead of having a wide range of part numbers for the hardware you create or having local shops swap out the hardware, using a Global SIM card will solve this problem.The Hologram Global SIM allows you to insert one SIM card at the manufacturing facility, get the device online and then automatically switch carriers when the bike or scooter or hoverboard gets shipped to your next target market. A device with a global modem will pick from the best signal in a local market, out of that 500 carriers we enable worldwide (most countries have 2 to 3 carriers available).
Looking to get started?
The sharing economy has a lot of room to run. Though many startups are still getting a grasp of how hardware can enable their business, more business models are on the way. If you want to get started, here are some of our resources that might be of use to you:
- Our list of Hologram Compatible Hardware
- This includes devices you can buy and start using today, as well as development platforms that you can integrate more deeply into your product.
- Our Global SIM, available for free with our Pilot Program The Hologram Global SIM allows you to connect your device anywhere in the world. What's more, we give the first SIM and the first slice of data away for free so it's no hassle to try out.