Sonim CEO reiterates public-safety focus, says company ‘is not for sale’
Sonim Technologies is “not for sale” and intends to continue developing rugged public-safety broadband products, including high-powered user equipment (HPUE) that take advantage of 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum to extend the effective range of devices, according to new Sonim CEO Tom Wilkinson.
“We are absolutely committed to public safety,” Wilkinson said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “In fact, we have found that many of the requirements for a successful rugged handheld solution for public safety also open up opportunities in other industries with similar needs.
“Our number-1 clientele is public safety. Our number-1 partners are the carriers. We will continue to develop solution partners that augment that in the future, so we can better serve public safety.”
Wilkinson joined Sonim in October, succeeding longtime CEO Bob Plaschke, who led Sonim’s transition to a public company that began trading on the NASDAQ market last May, when the stock price closed at 10.99 on its first trading day. After reaching a high of $17.56 per share last June, Sonim’s stock has traded below $4.00 per share since Sept. 10, when the company warned that it would miss revenue estimates for 2019.
Key issues cited in the September warning were software issues in Sonim devices and a change in the forecasted sales from a significant carrier.
Wilkinson did not address the September warning reference specifically, but he said that Verizon agreed in November to subsidize Sonim’s rugged phones for public safety—joining AT&T longstanding offer to provide public-safety subsidies for Sonim devices—after not doing so previously. In addition, Sonim is doing promotions with Sprint, he said.
In addition, the company has addressed all of the software issues, according to Wilkinson.
“We’ve restructured our software development and testing organizations to be more responsive to new requirements, provide updates, and engage our customers and technology partners,” he said. “In the past, we have encountered multiple software issues affecting our devices, and that is not acceptable to me. They have now been rectified and released, and I’m confident about our ability to deliver high-quality software going forward.”
Wilkinson also addressed concerns raised by many industry observers after Sonim issued an SEC filing that calls for significant financial incentives to be paid to Wilkinson and other key company personnel, if the company is sold. But Wilkinson said the regulatory filing should not be interpreted as a sign that Sonim is on the selling block, particularly in the near term.
“The company is not for sale,” Wilkinson said. “We are very excited about the opportunity for Sonim going forward. I stepped into this role to do a turnaround, as Sonim clearly wasn’t doing well.
“Will the company every sell? I don’t know. Who knows? But I’ll tell you this: Anyone who’s going to buy us is going to buy us for one reason, and that’s our strength in the public-safety market.”
Indeed, many companies are interested in entering the public-safety market, but the meeting first-responder requirements for reliability and adjusting to government sales cycles is not an easy transition for companies that traditionally have provided enterprise solutions, according to Wilkinson. Or public-safety companies with complementary portfolios could find Sonim attractive, he said.
“There are a lot of people who want to make products for public safety, because they can see it as a distinct, identifiable, funded group, which makes it a great customer,” Wilkinson said. “But that doesn’t mean they can just make a product and go out there and start going. It’s hard.
“Down the road, would someone else in public safety want us, because we’re [offering] different products? Probably. I think, at some point, somebody would do that, but not today.”
Wilkinson said that he believes the industry would benefit from consolidation.
“I think that this industry could use some consolidation,” Wilkinson said. “If you look across the industry, in terms of people that are trying to provide public safety with tablets, handhelds and laptops, there are a lot of people out there, and I can’t imagine that everyone is doing very well. Everyone’s trying, but they are splitting a market.”
Although the company is not for sale, Sonim will pursue partnerships that make sense for the company, according to Wilkinson.
“There are a lot of interested parties around the world that we should be talking to about our business,” he said. “We are looking at building relationships with the suppliers and partners that will help Sonim be successful, no matter where they are located. We just need to do things a little bit differently than we did in the past, and I think we’ll be successful.”
Sonim built its reputation within the public-safety community by building broadband products needed by first responders, even at times when the market opportunity was not clear. A prime example of this was Sonim’s development of rugged Band 14 LTE handsets that were utilized in numerous pilot programs and on early-builder networks prior to AT&T being named as the nationwide FirstNet contractor in March 2017.
Developing high-powered user equipment (HPUE) solutions is a high priority within Sonim, Wilkinson said. While normal cellular devices transmit signals using 0.25 watts of power or less, HPUE devices using the Band 14 spectrum operated in the FirstNet, built by AT&T, system allow devices to utilize up to 1.25 watts, which lets the signal range roughly double that of a normal cellular signal, according to industry sources.
“We’re very excited to be engaged on opportunities for Band 14 HPUE range-extending devices,” Wilkinson said. “We are looking at both a mobile rugged router format and an independently powered connection hub.
“By doing this as a mobile rugged router, you get a lot more out of this—a much broader solution. So, the individual with multiple pieces of equipment would be able to attach all of them to this and extend their ranges.”
Wilkinson also said he would like to see Sonim embed HPUE capability into its Rapid Deployable Kit (RDK) solution—integrated with an LTE router manufacturer Cradlepoint and satellite from Inmarsat—which is designed to provide LTE network connectivity in scenarios where backhaul to a typical terrestrial cellular network is unavailable.
“We also looking at embedding that [HPUE] into the RDK, which I think would enhance its value,” Wilkinson said.
While push-to-talk-over-cellular (PoC) solutions are gaining traction in the enterprise space and as an augmentation to LMR voice in the public-safety sector, one concern within the first-responder community is that the LTE devices do not have an effective way to mimic the direct-mode capabilities of LMR handsets.
Part of the LTE standard is Proximity Services (ProSe), which is designed to allow handset-to-handset communications when both devices are outside the range of the LTE network. However, ProSe has not been deployed yet in a manner that is publicly available; indeed mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) services still have not been introduced in the U.S. Moreover, even if ProSe works, the range of a 0.25-watt LTE device with an internal antenna likely will pale in comparison to direct-mode LMR with a 3-watt power output and an external antenna.
With this in mind, Sonim Technologies had announced and exhibited the Sonim LMR Enabled Detachable (SLED), an LTE accessory that is designed to transform a Sonim LTE device into one that also can communicate as an LMR portable, when needed.
Sonim officials previously said the target price of the SLED accessory and a non-subsidized Sonim XP8 as a package would be in the $1,000 range. Wilkinson said that price point for the package is not possible today, but the company is considering the possibility of integrating the LTE and LMR capabilities into a single device.
“There is strong interest in PTT over Cellular, as well as interoperability with LMR. We are investigating a number of ways of providing customers a solution for this,” Wilkinson said. “An integrated smartphone and LMR might be ideal, but there are constraints and costs involved—you can look at the prices of some of the recent LTE/LMR devices that have been introduced recently.”
Wilkinson said he also would like to see Sonim develop products that would appeal to LMR dealers but did not provide a timetable for doing so.
“We need to help them [LMR dealers] by coming up with something they can sell,” Wilkinson said. “They’re always going to struggle against the carriers, because the carriers are subsidizing. They can’t match that.
“It’s going to be awhile before we solve that for them. It would be nice to do that, because there is a lot of a good people in that business.”