How Sigfox plans to spread its low-power IoT network across the U.S.

French low-power networking company has big plans for the U.S. in 2016.

Sigfox, a French networking company whose technology is already supporting large Internet of Things (IoT) deployments in several countries in Europe, has its sights set on the U.S. market.

The company hasn't been shy about its plans for U.S. expansion in 2016. By the end of the first quarter, Sigfox claims its networks will be up and running in 10 U.S. cities: San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Austin, Texas.

So, how does the company plan to accomplish this? And how can it succeed in establishing a nationwide network for the IoT?

What is Sigfox?

Sigfox deploys Low-Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) that work in concert with hardware that manufacturers can integrate into their products. In terms of compatibility, the network takes a similar approach to traditional GSM networks. Any device with integrated Sigfox hardware can connect to the internet – in regions where a Sigfox network has been deployed – without any external hardware, like a Wi-Fi or Zigbee router. But, in another sense, the Sigfox network is entirely different than traditional GSM networks, in that it can only transmit small amounts of data, at just 100 bits per second.

This is what Sigfox says makes it ideal for IoT devices. Relying on unlicensed spectrum, particularly the 900 MHz band in the U.S., the Sigfox network "whispers" data rather than "shouts" it, according to Sigfox president of North America Allen Proithis. This enables the devices using the network to conserve and extend battery life. Thomas Nicholls, executive vice president of communications for Sigfox, says its technology makes for sensors that can "go to sleep" when not transmitting data, consuming energy only when they need to. As one example, Sigfox claims a car theft warning system that uses its technology lasts five years on just two AA batteries, according to a CNET article from last March.

How do they build the network?

The focus on low-power, low-bandwidth communications also makes the Sigfox network relatively easy to deploy. Nicholls says the company completed its nationwide deployment in Spain in about 10 months, for example.

With a base station the size of a briefcase, Proithis claims the company can do multiple site installs in one day, sometimes on rooftops in major cities but also in less conventional places, like billboards. And because the network sends such low amounts of data, it can reach farther distances with fewer base stations. Nicholls added that Sigfox's network is designed as a collaborative network, which prevents base stations from recognizing each other after they've been deployed. This eliminates the need to reconfigure the network when deploying a new base station.

"When you put up a new Sigfox cell, you just basically plug it in and it's part of the network," Nicholls says. "So you just extend the capacity and the reach of the network by installing a new node, but there's no reconfiguration to do on the others. One base station doesn't know the other one."

Sigfox is already live in San Francisco, where the company partnered with city officials looking to launch smart city applications on the network. Proithis says that San Francisco was a "unique situation," due to the city's cooperation. Going forward, the company is likely to deploy in multiple cities at the same time, Proithis says.

What kinds of 'things' is it connecting?

Nicholls says Sigfox considers its market split into three categories. The first involves existing use cases, such as utilities, that could become more efficient or less expensive by integrating its low-power connectivity. The second is the kinds of devices that haven't been connected before. A good example of this is Sigfox's recent collaboration with French postal service La Poste, which involves attaching a small, internet-connected button to mailboxes that customers can press to alert La Poste when they have a package to send.

The third market segment that Nicholls laid out is when Sigfox's technology can be complementary, in a sense. As an example, Nicholls cited a security camera company that used 3G to send its video feeds to security personnel, which became concerned over the availability of GSM signal jammers that could disrupt the video feed. By integrating Sigfox's technology alongside the 3G networking technology, the device could fall back on the Sigfox network to send a low-power message to alert personnel in the event that the 3G signal was jammed.

Will it succeed in the U.S.?

Sigfox has had some success in Europe, with live coverage throughout France, Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, and parts of Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and Ireland. In addition to its U.S. plans, Sigfox is still in the process of rolling out its networks in Italy, Czech Republic, Denmark, and further throughout the UK and Ireland.

It'll surely face competition from networks based on technology from the LoRa Alliance, although at least one company has developed a chip that integrates both technologies. And though some experts claim the forthcoming 5G networking standard will be designed to accommodate the Internet of Things, Sigfox doesn't seem too concerned about it. While some early discussion may suggest 5G will accommodate the IoT, the network's first priority will be high-bandwidth applications, Proithis says.

"When you have a hammer, everything works like a nail," Proithis says. "And so, I think there's some great spectrum efficiencies, some peer-to-peer stuff, some of the things they're doing with 5G that will be very valuable. But to say that one thing is going to provide a premium service and at the same time provide the lowest-battery service, it's like saying Nordstrom is going to start opening dollar stores. You sort of have to say 'which one do you want to be?'"

"No one person or company can be all things to all people," Proithis added.

Proithis points to Sigfox's investors, such as Telefonica and NTT Docomo, that will be intimately involved with the development of the 5G standard. Their support in itself is a sign that Sigfox's market will exist even as 5G becomes a reality.

Above all else, the IoT represents an opportunity for an entirely new approach to connecting devices. That's the need Sigfox is aiming to fill.

"The IoT is very, very different from mobile phones," Nicholls says. "This is a volume market. It's not about national deployments, it's about worldwide markets. So it's a very, very different place. It's a place where you need a much more agile approach to the connectivity."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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