IoT Strategies

LoRa Alliance Defends Tech Against Sigfox Slur

The LoRa Alliance has rejected charges leveled at LoRa technology by rival Sigfox, which last week effectively accused LoRa of being a proprietary tool masquerading as an open system.

LoRa and Sigfox are among several low-power, wide-area (LPWA) network technologies that use unlicensed spectrum and could address the growing demand for more energy-efficient and cost-effective Internet of Things (IoT) services.

Yet while Sigfox is typically regarded as a proprietary technology developed in France, LoRa has been keen to highlight the open nature of its ecosystem as it tries to build support.

That message has recently come under attack from Sigfox, which described LoRa technology as "entirely proprietary and owned by Semtech" in an email sent to Light Reading earlier this month. (See Sigfox Slams 'Proprietary' LoRa, Costly LTE.)

A semiconductor company based in California, Semtech Corp. (Nasdaq: SMTC) is one of a number of "sponsor members" listed on the website of the LoRa Alliance , the association that represents LoRa technology.

Sigfox has also insisted that its own technology is licensed free of charge to chipmakers including Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN), Atmel Corp. (Nasdaq: ATML) -- which Microchip Technology Inc. (Nasdaq: MCHP) agreed to buy in a $3.6 billion deal earlier this year -- ON Semiconductor Corp. (Nasdaq: ONNN) (formerly Axsem AG ) and Silicon Labs, making it far more "open" than LoRa.

The Lora Alliance says it does not want to get drawn into a "mud-slinging" match with Sigfox, but denies that LoRa technology is now proprietary in any way.

"The LoRa Alliance and technology, if it is anything, is open," says Geoff Mulligan, the current chairman of the LoRa Alliance, in comments emailed to Light Reading. "The technology is available from multiple sources, the Alliance is open for anyone to join -- we have over 300 members -- and the specification is freely and openly available for download and implementation."

According to another spokesperson for the association, LoRa-based chips are available from not only Semtech but also rival semiconductor makers STMicroelectronics NV (NYSE: STM) and Microchip.

Semtech was originally the only company providing chips, the spokesperson acknowledges, but it subsequently began licensing the LoRa technology to third parties.

"In the LoRa world, I can now buy chips from three companies and basestations from 20," he tells Light Reading. "With Sigfox I can only buy basestations from Sigfox."

This is likely to explain why Sigfox basestations are believed to cost more than LoRa ones and seems bound to have prompted concern among service providers about supplier "lock-in."

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Indeed, having to deal exclusively with Sigfox could be a major deterrent for service providers weighing their LPWA options. A particular concern may be the scale of the French company's revenue-sharing demands on service-provider partners. In late 2014, Sigfox's typical cut was reported by Light Reading to be as much as 40% of service revenues. A source close to the matter reckons the cut taken by Sigfox is even higher. (See Sigfox Plans Global IoT Network.)

Sigfox insists that by acting as a kind of fulcrum, and a service provider in its own right, it can help partners to avoid the fragmentation they would risk in choosing LoRa, but Mulligan is scornful of this argument.

"There is not one business model or network model that fits all needs, and so with LoRa both service providers and network customers may choose the best option for their application," he says. "I doubt the Internet would have survived had there been only a single service provider -- in fact almost all of the companies that did try that for the Internet have long since passed and so it will be for the IoT."

The LoRa Alliance goes on to claim that its technology can support downlink communications more effectively than Sigfox, making it a better fit with certain types of IoT service. This and other technical advantages give it an addressable market that is between five and ten times as big as Sigfox's, according to the association.

All of this could explain why South Korea's SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM), which participated in a $115 million funding round for Sigfox a year ago, unveiled plans to roll out a nationwide LoRa network just last month. The move clearly raises questions about the service provider's involvement with Sigfox.

Nevertheless, both technologies are now coming under threat from standards backed by the 3GPP, the cellular specifications group, which expects to include LPWA-like capabilities in its Release 13 later this year. (See The Wolf at Sigfox's Door.)

A number of operators appear to be eyeing Sigfox and LoRa as potential stopgaps until a standardized technology like NB-IoT, using licensed spectrum, finally takes shape. But others are optimistic that NB-IoT will appear sooner rather than later, obviating the need for short-term LPWA alternatives. (See Vodafone to 'Crush' LoRa, Sigfox With NB-IoT and LoRa May Not Be for Long Haul at Orange.)

Whether Sigfox and LoRa ultimately survive could depend on how much headway they can make while NB-IoT is still in the lab.

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

ProductL31226 4/29/2016 | 9:37:29 PM
Re: Petty Fighting Petty Fighting is a very appropriate title! LoRa should wear this as a badge of honour that SigFox is prepared to start this kind of banter, and also that Vodafone et all want us all to believe that the 3GPP standards are just around a corner.

All technologies have to be invented somewhere, and LoRa did originally come from chez Semtech (aka Cycleo acquirer). But Semtech is doing all the right things to make it open. The LoRa Alliance is now driven by a long list of contributors of which Semtech is just one. 

Don't forget that the design cycle for a silicon chip is around 2 years. Although LoRaWAN has a very wide acceptance now, the Alliance was formed just over 12 months ago. Other vendors will arrive before too long.

Director06404 4/29/2016 | 2:20:17 AM
From the horse's mouth... http://www.semtech.com/images/datasheet/sx1276_77_78_79.pdf

Page 24, Section 3.1:

"The LoRa modem uses a proprietary spread spectrum modulation technique. This modulation, in contrast to legacy modulation techniques ..."

OK, then, settled.

Despite the Semtech representative's claims of licensing to two other parties, all I can find are modules (from Microchip and HopeRF) which bear the Semtech silicon.

Now, LoRa is really just a particular code of Chirp-Spread-Spectrum, and CSS has been done for decades now, but Semtech goes to great lengths to let us know that they have patented LoRa, and if you reverse engineer a CSS transceiver of their spec, they will pursue you, and there's no language informing us that they have any RAND obligations whatsoever.  So they could just C&D you or float impractical license terms.

Moreover, the language of LoRaWAN explicitly states that it is royalty-free WHEN USED WITH LORA MODEMS.  So LoRaWAN is tied to LoRa, and LoRa is proprietary with unknown licensing terms.

So, for all intents and purposes, LoRa is proprietary.  So is SigFox.  Pot, Kettle, Black.
iainmorris 4/28/2016 | 11:46:43 PM
Re: Petty Fighting Very interesting points. Yes, licensing your technology to other players might introduce an element of competition where there was none previously but it does not mean your system is necessarily "open," and one wonders how lucrative these arrangements may be for Semtech. Sigfox, clearly, has highiighted the fact its own technology is licensed free of charge to chipmakers, even if other parts of its ecosystem are more closed. I think the whole debate just shows how wary we need to be about claims that certain technologies are non-proprietary -- there are evidently degrees of openness and many technology ecosystems are not as open as their proponents would like the industry to think. In the long run, I agree that it's hard to see how these various LPWA rivals will avoid being swept aside by standards such as NB-IoT.   
FabienPG12 4/28/2016 | 6:08:35 PM
Petty Fighting This primary school bickering is exactly why the MNOs are going to crush both camps with LTE-M1/2. LoRa is 100% a Semtech product. They hold all the IP, and while they have put out press releases about licensing chips, there are no 3rd party chips on the market. Open up the Microchip module, and you will find a Semtech part inside. Sure, two years from now, there may be an ST or MC product. Either way, Semtech will not license the basestation chip (SX1301), and thus can retain a firm grasp on this important part of the "ecosystem." Semtech created the LoRa Alliance specifically to remove the propriatary look of LoRa, but the truth remains. LoRa is great technology, and it's fine that its propriatary. Same for Sigfox. Only a small group of competitors really care anyways. Customers don't care how things are connects, so long as it works, and it's cost effective.

LoRaWAN has a growing list of warts that are coming to light, and I'm guessing that the Alliance will be slow to address. I've heard from an Alliance member that they will always maintain backwards compatibility, which will prevent much innovation for LoRaWAN. See this article which shows high packet loss in LoRaWAN networks that are being used at a medium rate. 
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