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Sigfox Plans Global IoT Network

Joanne Taaffe
Prime Reading
Joanne Taaffe
11/24/2014
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France's Sigfox has big ambitions to build a global network dedicated to the Internet of Things (IoT) that runs in parallel to today's GSM/LTE networks.

But that doesn't mean Sigfox is positioning itself as a competitor to mobile operators. Instead it intends to spread its networks beyond its current markets of France, the Netherlands and Spain by developing service partnerships with mobile carriers in other parts of Europe and in Asia, and rolling out networks in cities in the US.

"We are in discussions with major carriers in a number of different countries," says Ludovic Le Moan, CEO of Sigfox.

Sigfox's hope is that operators will use its network, which runs in unlicensed narrowband frequencies in the 915MHz and 868MHz ranges and makes very low power demands on devices, as a low-cost backup or alternative to their existing networks when providing M2M connectivity.

Using existing GSM networks for M2M is not efficient, he notes. "If you're not sending much data, then the power consumption of GSM networks is not adapted." Instead, a network optimized for M2M can be used for much of the time, and when necessary, it's possible "to wake up GSM if there is a need to send large amounts of data, such as a video," says Le Moan.

International Ambitions
Sigfox CEO Ludovic Le Moan has ambitions to put Sigfox on the global IoT networking map.
Sigfox CEO Ludovic Le Moan has ambitions to put Sigfox on the global IoT networking map.

Sigfox, which launched five years ago, has built its own national network in France and charges enterprises subscription fees for connecting objects. The company estimates it can break even in France once it has connected 3-4 million objects at a cost to customers of approximately €1 or €2 per connection, per year. Contracts with Securitas Direct in Spain and the French insurance giant MAAF mean the company can expect to have connected 400,000 objects by the end of 2014, rising to between 5 and 6 million objects by the end of 2016, according to Le Moan.

However, there is not much future for a technology used in only a smattering of European countries. So it's in Sigfox's interest to beat off potential rivals and bring on board mobile operators and global equipment suppliers as quickly as it can if it's to become one of the major market players.

As a result, Sigfox is working with partners to roll out its network on their existing cell towers and antennas -- a model that "enables us to significantly reduce capex and opex costs," says Le Moan.

Typically, Sigfox seeks 40% of revenues in return for its technology and network design, leaving 60% for the partners that deploy the networks. Sigfox also provides its software protocol free of charge to modem manufacturers and makes its cloud web services APIs available to enterprise customers. Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN), Atmel Corp. (Nasdaq: ATML), Silicon Laboratories Inc. and Telit are among the companies that manufacture Sigfox-enabled modems, says Le Moan.

International expansion
Sigfox has already partnered to build networks in Spain, the Netherlands and the UK, though not with major mobile carriers. In Spain, Sigfox is working with Abertis Telecom SA, which owns tower sites and provides telecoms and audiovisual services to broadcasters and telecom operators. In the UK a similar company, Arqiva , is set to use Sigfox's technology to roll out networks in 10 major cities in 2015. (See Metal Machine Music: Dedicated M2M Networks on Horizon.)

Before the end of 2014, Sigfox expects to sign further agreements in Belgium, Portugal and Ireland, followed in early 2015 by Italy and Germany. "It will be pretty easy to cover most of Europe before mid-2015," believes the CEO, who is also hoping to raise further funds. The company, which has raised €27 million in investment so far, is seeking at least a further €50 million in a new round of funding that is set to close in early 2015.

Tests of Sigfox technology are also underway in a number of Asian countries, including India, Japan, South Korea and Thailand, says Le Moan, who expects to strike agreements in those markets before the end of 2015.

The company is looking at Africa, too, where the CEO sees a potential to use low-power, low-cost IoT networks to provide services such as healthcare. However, "Africa is a big challenge -- it is not so easy to find the right partner," admits the Frenchman.

Heading to the US
Not surprisingly, Sigfox has its eye on another large and challenging geography: the US. Sigfox, which recently received Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval for its technology, this year built a network in the Bay Area and now plans to spread coverage to the 15 or 20 largest US cities during the coming year, with a focus on technology hubs.

However, it is much harder to cover a country the size of the US than it is the Netherlands or France, and an IoT network needs to be national if it is to provide key services such as the tracking of objects. In the US, "we can't provide everything that we do in France [such as nationwide tracking] from day one," admits Le Moan.

And in the US, operators may have their own ideas about which networks they use to connect objects. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), for example, already have in place sizeable M2M businesses, points out Keith Robinson, senior strategist and consultant, and head of M2M/IoT at Compass Intelligence. And Sigfox has more than just the major carriers to contend with: IoT managed services provider KORE Wireless is acquiring IoT MVNO RacoWireless to create a major M2M specialist network operator in North America, although unlike Sigfox, Kore uses GSM, CDMA and satellite technologies. (See KORE, RacoWireless Become IoT Powerhouse.)

"We will have to see how we finalize US coverage. Maybe it will be through partnerships and deals with city halls and companies," says Le Moan.

Aside from low power consumption, one of Sigfox's selling points may be the price it charges for M2M access to its network. At approximately $1 per year, Sigfox's connection price per device will be much lower than those of US mobile operators, which "typically charge around $1 per month," says Robinson.

— Joanne Taaffe, special to Light Reading

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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/22/2014 | 7:24:57 AM
Re: Sounds like a possible winner compared to wireless mesh
@emeryray: No need to apologize; this is fantastic information and insight!  Much appreciated.

Alas, your user profile is blank and contains no contact information, but I'd really like to follow up with you about your insights here at some point.  Feel free to find me on Twitter or LinkedIn and connect.

Joe Stanganelli
emeryray02
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emeryray02,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/15/2014 | 5:44:49 AM
Re: Sounds like a possible winner compared to wireless mesh
Sorry for the long post, you've hit on the one thing I'm on expert one...

Link Labs is using a point-to-multipoint architecture, much like Sigfox. All of this is possible because of the increase in receiver sensitivity on the end node side. Link Labs' receivers are about 100 times (20 dB) more sensitive than similar chipscale receivers. Nothing really magical, just that you can cram a lot more DSP (digital signal processing) into a tiny chip these days, and get more coding gain. 

They have a large multi-channel receiver/basestation that achieves good sensitivity to a bunch of these narrow BPSK channels. The issue they have run into in the US is that the maximum dwell time under FCC part 15 in any channel <500 kHz is 400 ms. This is not enough time for Sigfox to transmit even their little 12 byte packet. They are in the process of reworking their protocol to support FCC frequency hopping requirements. 

I'm of the opinion that they will run into FCC problems eventually since there is a part 15 requirement that transmitters and receivers "hop together." If they are just monitoring a bunch of channels and reassembling hopped messages, the FCC may not say they are fufilling the requirement that the transmitter and the receiver have matched output/input bandwidths and "hop together." 

In my opinion the weaknesses of Sigfox are:

1) No message acknowledgements. So even for the subset of IOT applications which are "uplink only," (and 12 bytes at that), they will have to employ a send-it-three-times-and-pray method of making sure messages get through. The reason they can't acknowledge is that their link is asymetric (assuming they use their downlink, which they do not right now). More below on how LL solves that problem.

2) One class of service only. 12 bytes, random access, period. If they do impliment a downlink/acknowledgement the receiver won't be listening when it is transmitting the acknowledgement. Pure "aloha" protocols like this don't have great capacity. 12 bytes is enough for *some* little sensors, but it's pretty limiting.

3) No method for command/control. If you have this big network investment, customers are going to want applications that involve sending messages down, like demand response, security, valve control, etc. etc. Sigfox has no method for this.

LL has been focusing on achieving a symetrical link at the endpoint, so it can implement a synchronous protocol, which has a much higher capacity. LL also has a pretty cool way of acknowledging an arbitrary number of endpoints in every frame. At the lowest datarate, they achieve more than -140 dBm sensitivity on the endpoint. Cha-ching.

Finally, Link Labs has a business model where users can implement this technology now in smaller networks themselves, with the hope that one day enough wide-area coverage will exist to transition over to. 

Whistle (the dog GPS company) really screwed up when they "trusted" SIGFOX to deploy their network fast enough to support their new product. Now Whistle has taken thousands of pre-orders, and the SIGFOX network is still in vaporware phase. 
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/14/2014 | 11:39:25 PM
Re: Sounds like a possible winner compared to wireless mesh
@emeryray02: Thanks for this info/link!  I've been checking out their website.  Very informative.  Quick question, though, which I haven't been able to figure out yet: How does Link Labs's technology differ from a standard wireless mesh network?  (Or is it a wireless mesh network?  So far, the website seems to be reading that way.)
emeryray02
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emeryray02,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/13/2014 | 7:59:22 AM
Re: Sounds like a possible winner compared to wireless mesh
Joe and Dan- Link Labs (http://www.link-labs.com) is building a similar "IOT-only" network in the US, but is using a much better technology. Sigfox's "legacy" PHY technology means that in the ISM band they will never be able to establish a symetrical link, so it will be uplink only.  Link Labs also has a network up throughout metro DC and Virginia. I think Sigfox is just noise at this point. 
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/3/2014 | 12:47:32 AM
Re: sigfox is not the answer
Actually, I remember Lotus 1-2-3!

I favored Lotus solutions actually.  I sure miss Lotus Notes...but nowadays Outlook is the big thing.
memven
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memven,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/2/2014 | 7:14:11 AM
Re: sigfox is not the answer
Joe, You nailed it.  Who remembers Aston Tate, or even Lotus 1-2-3 anymore when it comes to spread sheets.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/2/2014 | 5:45:17 AM
Re: sigfox is not the answer
Sigfox is making a big bet -- a necessary business model in today's environment of technological innovation.

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) wrote way back in the '90s in his book The Dilbert Future (the only business book I have ever read that got its predictions right on the money) that the way new technologies like this work is that one company (he calls this company a "poor bastard") shoots itself in the foot trying to make the new tech work but failing miserably -- and then another company comes along and eventually champions it.

Once in a great while, the company can be both the "poor bastard" and the eventual champion.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/2/2014 | 5:41:42 AM
Re: Sounds like a possible winner compared to wireless mesh
Thanks, Dan!  Fascinating stuff.

I'm especially compelled/intrigued because it seems like a better bet than mesh -- plus the fact that it's "purer" IoT-wise than mobile-enabled IoT.  And, of course, mobile has exponentially higher energy demands than traditional M2M.
memven
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memven,
User Rank: Light Beer
11/30/2014 | 5:39:36 PM
sigfox is not the answer
Wow, what a sugar coating of Sigfox.  In my opinon Sigfox is the next Minitel, the Pre Internet Franco experiment, that rose to cover allo France with text messaging phones that faded quickly post Internet.  

 

Sigfox is a one way network with many other limitations.  We had a similar network in the US is the 1980 called AlarmNet (acquired by Aeris). It too eventually went away with cheap Internet connectivity and pervasive cellular.

 

So what really going on with Sigfox?  They have burned through 27 million Euros to get 500,000 device installed, generating revenues of around less than 1 million Euros.  This is not a sustainable model.

 

Sigfox is right in some ways:

·      The current TCP/IP protocols that drive the Internet and with LTE, much of the cellular traffic of the future, are very inefficient in moving small bits of data.

·      Most of the IoT applications of the future are going to be sensor based and these application usually send less that 100 Bytes a day.  Moving this traffic through current cellular based M2M networks is like moving a shovel of dirt in a dump truck.

·      Many applications are mostly one-way and don't need a return path.

·      Most of these applications want long range, low power radios that can operate for 7 or more years on small batteries.

 

But they miss the boat in other ways:

·      Even the application is mostly one way the ability to control a device is important.  If the device gets stuck in transmit mode, you need the ability to turn it off, which you can only do with a duplex system.  The other thing I have learned in 30 years of building remote monitoring applications is that things change and when they do, you need the ability to change firmware or application functionality at the end point, again something you can only do with a two way system.

 

·      The success of unlicensed ISM band applications will be their downfall.  ISM band applications must accept interference from other transmitters which means the more applications that operate in these bands, the more interference they must accept, which ultimately limits the number of devices that can be monitored by these new networks.  Check out new services from Nextnav and Progeny providing M-LMS E911 services.

 

·      Sigfox's focus on providing all the infrastructure has the potential to limit innovation by not allowing other device manufacturers to contribute to new features

 

So what's the answer?

The answer is evolving.  There are several companies now in stealth mode with products that have the same the same long range, lower power radios with great battery life, but operate duplex networks.  Stay tune for in 2015 both of these will announce, with some fanfare.

 

 

 

 

 
Edu@Brazil
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[email protected],
User Rank: Light Beer
11/29/2014 | 6:52:13 AM
Re: Sounds like a possible winner compared to wireless mesh
Carries can focus on LPWA technology...
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