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Verizon Wireless at CES: We’re Not Just a Phone Company


Consumers check information at the Verizon booth at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada

Photograph by Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

Consumers check information at the Verizon booth at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada

When you think of Verizon Wireless as a company, do you think of products such as smart meters, car diagnostics modules, or connected recycle bins? Probably not, and it’s easy to understand why: The consumer face of Verizon Wireless is that of a cellular phone company that now covers 273 million consumers with fast LTE service on smartphones and tablets. But you’d never know that from the company’s booth at CES.

This year’s booth is very different. I toured it today, and while I didn’t measure it exactly, I’d estimate that 97 percent of the floor space wasn’t used to show off phones or tablets. Instead, Verizon is highlighting its Innovation Centers, which it opened in 2011. Since then Verizon has worked to get the building blocks in place so it could help partners with connected device ideas. And that’s what CES 2013 is all about for the company.

So what kind of partners and products—Verizon prefers to call them “solutions”—are in the spotlight? I saw a small OBD, or on-board diagnostic module, for cars, which Verizon produced in a partnership with Delphi. Plugged into a vehicle, the small device can gather heaps of data, ranging from the car’s engine settings, to tire pressures, to details about the electrical system.

There are wired readers for such OBD modules, but why not add cellular connectivity? A car rental agency could place these, without wires, in their entire fleet of cars to monitor the vehicles for safety and maintenance, for example.
As each car transmits its data, then, the information could be aggregated in a centralized dashboard at the rental agency’s headquarters. You can’t easily do that with wires unless you want to pull every module daily and dock it.

I also got a glimpse at the BigBelly Solar recycling bin—not something you’d equate with a wireless company, right? It turns out that these public recycling bins, which use solar power for energy to compress waste, benefit from a cellular connection.

Each bin has sensors to monitor the level of recycled materials that are inside. With an M2M connection, the bins each report their waste capacity levels to the central recycling collection company.

If a bin is half-full or less, for example, the company doesn’t have to waste time or fuel to empty it right away. The collection company can see all its bins on a map with green, yellow, and red indicators—each representing the fullness of each bin—and route trucks only to the bins it needs to.

Speaking of trucks, you should soon see a new Verizon commercial with firetrucks in it, if you haven’t already. One of the fireman in the piece is wearing a connected headset, similar to Google’s (GOOG) Project Glass. Because it’s connected, he can see a map or floor plan of the building on fire, presumably to help him navigate through the smoke.

This isn’t an application you’d want to use by tethering the goggles to a phone; it benefits from a dedicated wireless connection. And while it may sound far-fetched, one of Verizon’s Innovation Center partners was demonstrating a similar product meant not for consumers (darn) but for public safety and industrial workers.

I could go on and on describing what was on display: a connected athlete helmet with sensors to track hits in a football game; running shoes that upload their own data; even a smart meter that’s supersmart: It can track and report energy consumption down to the individual circuit level. Oh, there were some phones and traditional consumer products on display, too. But they were on one small circular table that saw far less foot traffic during my time there.

Does everything need a dedicated cellular connection then? Certainly not, and the smartphone is sure to be our hub of connectivity for some time to come. The Innovation Centers, however, are enabling partners to “connectify” their products. Verizon’s just there to provide the connection itself and to help with the wireless integration. It’s up to the visionaries outside Verizon to imagine how products and solutions can benefit from a robust wireless network.

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Tofel is a writer for the GigaOm Network.

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