France's SFR 'Experimenting' With NB-IoT, LTE-M

French telco Numericable-SFR says it is "experimenting" with NB-IoT and LTE-M and believes they could be used to "complement" connectivity technologies it has already rolled out, including Sigfox as well as the 2G, 3G and 4G cellular standards.

Owned by cable group Altice , the company operates France's second-biggest mobile network, behind market leader Orange. Earlier this year, SFR announced a partnership with Sigfox aimed at supporting Internet of Things (IoT) services in France and other markets. (See Altice, Sigfox Join Forces in French IoT Battle.)

Based in the French city of Toulouse, Sigfox has developed one of several low-power, wide-area (LPWA) network technologies now being used to connect devices that transmit small amounts of bandwidth at regular intervals, such as smart electricity meters. (See Sigfox Plans Global IoT Network.)

NB-IoT and LTE-M are widely seen as the cellular communications industry's answer to LPWA: Unlike Sigfox, and another LPWA technology called LoRa, they use licensed as opposed to unlicensed spectrum and have been slower to reach the market.

Mobile operators including Orange (NYSE: FTE) and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) have said they would prefer to use licensed-spectrum technologies to support IoT services. But the unavailability of NB-IoT -- which was included in the 3GPP's Release 13 as recently as June -- has created an opening for Sigfox and LoRa.

While Vodafone appears to be holding off on a major investment in LPWA until NB-IoT is commercially available, Orange has been rolling out a LoRa network in France and Altice has settled on Sigfox.

"NB-IoT and LTE-M are not available yet and SFR's strategy is to bring new IoT solutions to its B2B customers right now," said a spokesperson for Numericable-SFR in comments emailed to Light Reading. "However, SFR is … also investing and experimenting on those technologies."

The French operator has become the second customer of Sigfox to acknowledge it is examining NB-IoT and other LPWA technologies.

Earlier this week, security company Verisure Securitas Direct told Light Reading it is assessing NB-IoT and LTE-M and might add them to its "portfolio" in future. (See Sigfox Customer Verisure Eyes NB-IoT.)

Because NB-IoT is targeting many of the same opportunities as Sigfox, the news that customers are eyeing the technology would seem to be a troubling sign for the French company.

Sigfox, however, has been quick to downplay the NB-IoT threat, insisting its low-cost technology can meet a range of needs that NB-IoT would not be able to address economically.

In public, at least, Numericable-SFR is toeing the same line. "The solutions are complementary to address the bulk of the IoT with the most appropriate solution," says the operator's spokesperson. "When they will be available, NB-IoT and LTE-M will complement nicely capabilities provided by 2G/3G/4G or by Sigfox."

Want to know more about the Internet of Things? Check out our dedicated IoT content channel here on Light Reading.

Similar to Verisure, Numericable-SFR also insists it is has been "entirely satisfied with Sigfox so far" following reports of customer disaffection with the French company.

Nigiloc, a French startup developing tracking gadgets for bicycles, previously told Light Reading that Sigfox did not meet quality standards during geolocation testing and was unsuited to supporting applications requiring mobility. (See Sigfox Said to Face Customer Backlash.)

According to a source close to the matter, an advertising company called Clear Channel Outdoor and French insurance player MAAF have also experienced problems with Sigfox.

MAAF did not respond to requests for comment on the status of its relationship with Sigfox, while Clear Channel Outdoor said "we don't want to comment on Sigfox" when approached by Light Reading.

Sigfox would not deny the organizations have had problems but said all three are among its "earliest" customers and that other more important ones, including Verisure and Numericable-SFR, have had wholly positive experiences.

The question is whether NB-IoT will crowd out Sigfox in future. While Altice insists on the complementary nature of the different technologies, Orange has hinted it may ultimately ditch LoRa and move all of its IoT services over to networks based on 3GPP standards. (See LoRa May Not Be for Long Haul at Orange.)

As one of the key players in the NB-IoT Forum, Vodafone has been even more strident, arguing that NB-IoT will "crush" both LoRa and Sigfox when it eventually arrives. (See Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT.)

Vodafone is planning to roll out commercial services based on NB-IoT from next year. (See Vodafone Ups IoT Stakes With 2017 Plan for NB-IoT.)

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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