Vodafone in Consumer IoT Push

Vodafone has launched four devices under a new IoT brand, V by Vodafone. The devices cover a number of different areas: V-Auto, a dongle that plugs directly to the car’s OBD port; V-Camera, a surveillance camera; V-Pet, a pet tracker, and V-Bag, a bag tracker. All require a dedicated V by Vodafone SIM from Vodafone and a monthly fee of GBP £3 or £4 (~USD$ 4 or $5.25) depending on the device. Each device also has an upfront cost ranging from £50 up to £339 ($65 to $445). These are the first four devices and service areas, with more expected in 2018, and more countries addressed than the starting markets of Germany, Italy, Spain and UK.

A curious mix

At first glance the range of devices and services seem like a slightly odd assortment. However, all key into users’ common security anxieties. Although we think it strange (or maybe not) to offer a pet tracker before a child tracker. This is perhaps especially odd as the tracker Vodafone has selected for its V-Bag comes in a variety of forms, one of which is a child tracker. The devices themselves are sourced from a range of suppliers and, as a result, do not look particularly cohesive when viewed side-by-side.

Advanced Driving

V-Auto is a 3G/4G dongle made by Vodafone Automotive, a company formed following Vodafone’s 2014 acquisition of Cobra Automotive. Cobra had been in the car alarm business and, more recently, telematics business, for more than 40 years. The V-Auto device plugs into the On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) port that most European cars have had since at least 2003 and that conform to the EOBD standard.

The device supports a few use cases:

  • Monitoring and scoring the performance of the driver – this being shown in an accompanying smartphone application; the device itself is likely to be positioned out of sight. The driving performance is derived primarily from accelerometer readings from the device, though it may also obtain engine data through the OBD port.
  • Emergency support. In the event of a serious accident – again likely inferred from violent accelerometer readings, the device will alert a backend service. The service will then try to call the registered user to check if they’re safe. If the user is unreachable, the service operative may alert emergency services with the location and make and model of the vehicle.
  • A ‘find-my-car’ feature, by which users can locate a vehicle – either parked or in motion. The service can also offer car tracking, for example to check on the location of a family member.

The device is priced at £80 (~US$105) and the monthly service fee is £4 pounds.

Devices that track how well a driver drives are not new – there are many available and even smartphone apps that offer this facility. These devices are often the basis of pay-as-you drive pricing for auto insurance that will likely gradually replace the current flat rate fee based on a notional risk rating. There is no indication that the V-Auto device and service are in any way linked to or will compete with, auto insurance – though this would seem to be a logical step for Vodafone in this case.

Most drivers don’t think they’re going to be involved in a serious accident. And driving quality can be assessed from smartphone apps – as can finding a parked car. The utility of V-Auto may therefore be limited in many potential purchasers’ eyes. The one use case I can see there being value in, is installing the device to a young driver’s car to track their driving and, privacy permitting, their location. In the event of an accident the call would go to the registered user rather than the young driver.

Smile, you’re on camera

The surveillance camera is an Arlo Go that can be purchased through other channels than Vodafone. It is available in the US through both AT&T and Verizon. It has an LTE modem with fall back to 3G if there’s no 4G coverage. It offers HD recording – only at 720p though – and has night vision capability. It has motion and audio detection to trigger filming. Images can be stored locally or in the cloud. It is battery powered – boasting up to a week’s autonomy, though not when continuously recording. It’s unclear if it can be powered from a permanent AC source.

It’s pricey at £339 (US$ 445) plus £4 per month for the service.

The use cases are straightforwardly security orientated. However, the market is already quite crowded with connected security cameras – mostly WiFi-based though. The difference here is the 4G connectivity that means the device can be used anywhere there’s mobile coverage. Nevertheless, there are not that many use cases I can think of where this is a significant issue for many potential users. Minding a field of horses is one that springs to mind.

Cats and Dogs

The V-Pet device is a GPS tracker sold under the Kippy Vita brand. As far as I can tell, it is based on GSM technology for communicating location information. If no GPS signal is available, the tracker relies on cellular signal triangulation.

The Kippy Vita device has been on sale for over a year. A cursory glance at consumer reviews on the web reveals almost universally bad feedback on the device, app and customer service. We assume that Vodafone was aware of the issues when it made the deal with Kippy and that it has taken steps to ensure that the performance and service it provides to its customers is vastly improved from the standalone Kippy device and service. We remain to be convinced. At £50 ($65) for the device plus £4 per month for the service, there’s a good chance of upsetting new customers, who might feel they’re not getting good value for their money if the device does not work as advertised.

Useful for MWC, perhaps

The bag tracker is an Alcatel-branded MoveTrack device. It’s sold for £59 ($77) plus, a slightly lower, £3 per month for the service. After having a bag stolen from a restaurant during MWC in Barcelona earlier this year, I can see the appeal of being able to keep tabs on a bag. However, I suspect most thieves will quickly take out anything of value from a bag and then toss the bag away. Or, if the tracker is evident, pull it off and stamp on it. To realistically track a bag, with pinpoint accuracy, would require detailed GPS tracking. As soon as the bag is inside a building, or even a car, the chance of finding it becomes remote. Cellular triangulation can narrow the field of search down to a few city blocks, but unlikely anything more accurate than that. It’s also not clear from the marketing blurb, where the device will work? If you’re travelling to a market that doesn’t have a Vodafone roaming partner network, will you still be able to find your bag should it go missing?

It’s a start – if an unconvincing one

If it sounds like I am unconvinced by the value of the V by Vodafone devices and service, you’d be right. However, trying to find out about them from the Vodafone website is also quite difficult, so it looks like Vodafone itself may be unconvinced. None of the devices or use cases they offer seem particularly compelling. The one where there is a strong and proven use case from other countries, a child tracker, is notably absent from Vodafone’s initial line-up. We expect it will be among the next set of products to be launched.

Mobile operators should be natural channels for consumer IoT devices. They are, after all, skilled in selling connected devices through multi-channel distribution. And connectivity, of all types, is in their very DNA. However, few operators seem to have taken on this role with anything approaching the conviction we would expect. Vodafone has a more robust package of services for the business sector, but this has not, yet, translated into the consumer sector.